Saturday, 29 May 2010

Learner Autonomy

Dear All

I went through very insightful and comprehensive articles What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered? and Learner Autonomy: Bird-in-the-hand or Bird-in-the-bush? by Thanasoulas (2000) and Sheu (n.d.) respectively. The former defines learner autonomy, discusses theories underpinning learner autonomy and provides some practical activities for fostering learner autonomy. Learner autonomy is defined as a learning process in which learners learn independently. It is learners' ability to cope with process of learning utilising their own learning styles. Thanasoulas (2000) argues that an autonomous learner is an active agent in the learning process. Likewise, Little (1991:4) defines it as "a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision making, and independent action." In learner autonomy, learning is considered as a constructive process in which learners actively participate in exploring meanings which fit in their world views. Learners are not passive recipients of knowledge but an important source of constructing new knowledge. In this sense, in the autonomous learning process, the bottom-up process in which learners are put at the centre is adopted rather than the top-down in which teachers seek to transmit what they have in their head to the students.

Thanasoulas further says that "Learner autonomy consists in becoming aware of, and identifying, one's strategies, needs, and goals as a learner, and having the opportunity to reconsider and refashion approaches and procedures for optimal learning." This clearly tells us that learners must be aware of their own learning styles or strategies. I agree with the idea that without identifying the needs and goals of learners, teachers cannot facilitate them towards being an autonomous. With an extensive review of the literature on learner autonomy, Thanasoulas argues that the objective of language teaching should be to produce an autonomous learner. Without promoting autonomy, we can of course question or doubt on sustainability of any language teaching program and effectiveness of teaching.

He has also discussed activities that promote learners autonomy. First, he talk about self-reports in which learners are asked to report how they will be learning (introspective self-report) and how they learned (retrospective self-report). I agree that self-reporting promotes learner autonomy in general. However, it is very difficult for learners to self-report their own learning. Especially, young learners cannot self-report their learning. Moreover, this process does not seem to foster any kind of cooperation among learners. Diaries are better than self-report, I think. On the one hand, they help us to keep record of learning styles and on the other hand, they help students reflect on their own learning. Importantly, diaries represent learners' voices.

However, learners' beliefs and attitudes towards learning, teachers and themselves are very important factors to determine learner autonomy. For example, in my contexts, learners expect notes through dictation from teachers and they consider teachers' idea final. Even the master's level students do not go through the books prescribed in the course. They ask teachers to give notes. They never ask questions in the classroom. This is the continuity of how children are taught in schools in Nepal. When I was in school, I was never asked to read the passages and discuss with friends to answer questions based on the text. Teachers used to give us answers. Moreover, I was never asked to write a paragraph or essay myself. Teachers used to dictate us all essays on discipline, value of time, river in Nepal etc. for example and we should parrot them line-by-line. The same learning style gets continuity upto higher level. One of the lacunas in Thanasoulas's article is that he does not discuss anything about the role of academic culture and socio-cultural factors which shape the whole teaching and learning process. In this regard, Samuel P-H Sheu opines that the degree of learner autonomy is not only an individual process but it is determined by the whole teaching system. I agree with him. For example, my students are not motivated to learn themselves independently. There are two reasons behind this. First, the whole evaluation system of university is so limited that students' performance is evaluated on the basis of a 4-hour written examination in which they have to answer the structured questions asked from the syllabus. They cannot put their views and critiques. They have to write what the teachers say but not their own judgement and opinions. Second, teachers have to finish the whole course within a limited time frame. So they focus mainly on finishing the course by delivering lectures and giving notes rather than involving students in independent works. Moreover, as the students are evaluated on the basis only what they score in the examinations, they do not see any relevance of reading more books, articles and judging them from their own perspectives.

Richard Smith, as cited by Sheu, is right to argue that learner autonomy is correlated with teacher autonomy. If he/she does not believe in the exploratory learning, does not involve students in classroom interaction, does not try bringing changes within the teaching system where he/she works and does not have his/her own idiosyncratic way of teaching and learning, there is no point of discussing the value of learner autonomy. At the same time, teachers can an agent of change by giving students active role in the learning process. In my opinion, teacher autonomy is equally important for learner autonomy.

Thanasoulas (2000) argues that persuasive communication changes learners' beliefs and attitudes. But I argue that teachers' autonomy reflected in the classroom teaching is more important to change the beliefs and attitudes of learners. Until, teachers are able to leave positive impact in the classroom through their teaching, students are not motivated to become autonomous learners.

From the above discussion, some issues of contentious have emerged. First, is learner autonomy an inborn capacity (as Thanasoulas, referring to Benson & Voller 1997, puts) which is suppressed by institutional education? In my opinion, learner autonomy is neither inborn nor it can be suppressed by institutional education. I think it is more socio-cultural which is shaped by different socio-cultural factors including institutional education. Thus, as a teacher we need to consider the socio-cultural things which shape the beliefs and attitudes of learners towards the way of learning, teachers and themselves.

Second, is learner autonomy only an individual or social? This question is related to aanother question: Is it process or product? I think learner autonomy is not only individual but also social. And it is not only a product but also a process. I think that we cannot produce a 100% autonomous leaner. Autonomy always remains in degree and process. In order to enhance autonomy, learners need to be engaged in interaction in which they get chance to negotiate their views. At some point, I find that the concept of learner autonomy contradictory with the concept of learning through interaction and collaboration. This tension is intense if we take learner autonomy as an individual. Thanasoulas (ibid.) also does not address this tension as he does not focus on the social strategies of learning (Cook, 2008) – learners collaborate with friends to learn – rather focuses only on metacognitive and cognitive strategies.

To sum, the theory behind learner autonomy has to integrate social-cultural factors. A discussion on process vs. product of learner autonomy has to be backed up by some empirical studies. I argue that learner autonomy is closely related to teacher autonomy. The way teacher presents himself in the classroom through his/her way of teaching determines the degree of learner autonomy. One of the important tools in this regard will be technology which empowers the ability of both teachers and students as we have discussed in previous weeks. Moreover, technology provides a motivating space for collaboration and sharing among friends which gradually promote learner autonomy.

I will be happy to read you comments on this post.

Benson, P. & Voller, P. (1997). Autonomy and independence in language learning. London: Longman.
Cook, V. (2008). Second language learning and language teaching. UK: Hodder Education.
Sheu, S. P-H. (n.d.) Learner Autonomy: Bird-in-the-hand or Bird-in-the-bush? Available at
Thanasoulas, D. (2000).'What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered?' The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 11. Available at
Little, D. (1991). Learner autonomy 1: Definitions, issues and problems. Dublin: Authentik.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Prem,

    the examples you provide here about teaching in Nepal remind me of myself as a student, especially during my years in primary school: we were not allowed to express our ideas. The explanation is a very simple one: Romania was a communist country as the leaders were maybe afraid of allowin people express themselves. In high school things changed as Romania became a democratic country. Of course the teaching style changed too, but especially with young teachers. In my school there are still teachers, especially senior teachers, who dictate and ask students to learn by heart what they say.

    I am against this method, I am for developping our students' autonomy. In life, they have to express themselves, as school is the best "tool" which can train them for real life.

    Good article!

    All the best,