JALT98 Special Guest Speakers
Learner Autonomy: What and Why?
Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
Royal Danish Institute of Educational Studies, Copenhagen
In our plenary talk at JALT98 we shall illustrate, interpret, and theorize
some of the things that happen in a foreign language classroom where the
teacher is intent on fostering the development of learner autonomy. In our
other contributions to the conference we shall explore specific issues related
to learner autonomy in greater depth. Here, by way of introduction, we briefly
explain what we understand to mean learner autonomy and why we think it
What is Learner Autonomy?
There is broad agreement in the theoretical literature that learner autonomy
grows out of the individual learner's acceptance of responsibility for his
or her own learning (e.g., Holec, 1981; Little, 1991). This means that learner
autonomy is a matter of explicit or conscious intention: we cannot accept
responsibility for our own learning unless we have some idea of what, why,
and how we are trying to learn. The learner must take at least some of the
initiatives that give shape and direction to the learning process, and must
share in monitoring progress and evaluating the extent to which learning
targets are achieved. The pedagogical justification for wanting to foster
the development of learner autonomy rests on the claim that in formal educational
contexts, reflectivity and self-awareness produce better learning.
The ideas that cluster around the concept of learner autonomy have also
been promoted under banners such as, "humanistic language teaching,"
"collaborative learning," "experiential learning," and
"the learning-centred classroom." We prefer the term "learner
autonomy" because it implies a holistic view of the learner as an individual.
This seems to us important for two reasons. First, it reminds us that learners
bring to the classroom a personal history and personal needs that may have
little in common with the assumed background and implied needs on which
the curriculum is based. Second, it reminds us that the ultimate measure
of success in second or foreign language learning is the extent to which
the target language becomes a fully integrated part of the learner's identity.
Learner Autonomy and Freedom
The term, "autonomy" is semantically complex. Among other things
it carries a strong implication of freedom. The question is, of course,
freedom from what? Learner autonomy has been interpreted as freedom from
the control of the teacher, freedom from the constraints of the curriculum,
even freedom to choose not to learn. Each of these freedoms must be confronted
and discussed in any serious consideration of learner autonomy, but for
us the most important freedom that autonomy implies is the learner's freedom
from self, by which we mean his or her capacity to transcend the limitations
of personal heritage (cf. Berofsky, 1997). In our view this is the most
important sense, educationally and linguistically, in which the development
of autonomy empowers the individual learner.
Autonomy in Developmental and Experiential Learning
It is a mistake to suppose that learner autonomy rests on capacities
that come into play only in contexts of formal learning. After all, autonomy
in a general behavioural sense is one of the obligatory outcomes of developmental
and experiential learning. For example, first language acquisition succeeds
only to the extent that the child becomes an autonomous user of her mother
tongue. Similarly, the learning through experience that helps to define
what it is to be human serves the purpose of enlarging the capacity for
autonomous behaviour. In this sense, even the most teacher-dependent learners
practice a wide range of autonomous behaviour outside the classroom, which
implies that in principle all learners should be capable of autonomous behaviour
in the classroom.
The continuity between autonomy in developmental and experiential learning
on the one hand and learner autonomy in formal educational contexts on the
other is by no means straightforward. Whereas developmental and experiential
learning proceed for the most part without an explicit agenda, formal learning
is by definition a matter of conscious intention. In the world outside the
classroom we may achieve a high degree of general behavioural autonomy without
being explicitly aware of the fact. But when the development of learner
autonomy is central to our pedagogical agenda, we cannot help but make it
a matter of conscious intention, as we noted in our introductory definition.
Of course, individual learners will always differ in the degree to which
they develop the capacity for reflective thinking that is central to the
concept of learner autonomy. But this is only to acknowledge that some learners
are more successful than others.
Learner Autonomy Does Not Mean Learner Isolation
Because the term autonomy focuses attention on individuality and independence,
it is sometimes assumed that learners make the best and fastest progress
when they work on their own. According to this view, classrooms are a matter
of administrative convenience, a necessary evil. This, however, is a mistake.
We are social creatures, and as such we depend on one another in an infinity
of ways. Without the stimulus and comfort of social interaction, for example,
child development is disastrously impaired: it is our condition that we
learn from one another. Thus, the independence that we exercise through
our developed capacity for autonomous behaviour is always conditioned and
constrained by our inescapable interdependence. In contexts of formal learning
as elsewhere, we necessarily depend on others even as we exercise our independence.
This implies a positive view of classrooms as places where teachers and
learners can collaborate to construct knowledge (cf. Mercer, 1995). More
precisely, classrooms are physical environments where teachers and learners
have the opportunity to become a learning community. When the focus of learning
is a second or foreign language, the target language itself is one of the
principal tools with which that collaborative process is shaped (see Dam,
1995 for a practical account of such a process).
Most language classrooms, including most so-called communicative classrooms,
take a textbook as their starting point. The textbook serves as the script
of the learning process that teachers seek to enact with their learners.
However, much the textbook may try to take account of learners' likely needs
and interests, it is essentially external to them. In most cases it rests
on the assumption that learning will take place as the teacher guides her
learners through each successive unit. This implies a view of learning as
a unidirectional process: knowledge, skills, and expertise are gradually
transferred from the textbook to the learners.
Individual interests and needs, affective factors, and motivation are
all important issues that this view of learning does little to accommodate,
except by accident. Some learners nevertheless succeed in developing a high
degree of proficiency in the target language, and in doing so they also
develop a high degree of autonomy, but again by accident.
The Autonomous Language Classroom
In the autonomous classroom our starting point is not the textbook but
the learners. We recognize that each member of the class has a history,
interests, and emotional as well as educational and communicative needs.
We also recognize that learning is not a simple matter of the unidirectional
transmission of knowledge, skills, and expertise. On the contrary, it is
a bidirectional process, for we can only learn anything in terms of what
we already know. Learning is also a messy and indeterminate process, impossible
to control except in rather superficial ways. Learner autonomy comes into
play as learners begin to accept responsibility for their own learning.
But they can do this only within the limits imposed by what they already
know and what they have already become. What we have called the textbook
approach to language teaching involves learning "from the outside in";
the textbook author's meanings are first learnt and then gradually adapted
to the learners' own purposes. The autonomous approach, by contrast, insists
that language is learnt partly "from the inside out," as learners
attempt to express their own meanings for their own learning purposes (Dam,
1995 ). In the autonomous approach, learning is anchored in the achieved
identity of the individual learner and the interactive processes by which
learners collaboratively construct their shared learning space.
Learner Autonomy and Cultural Differences
Discussion of learner autonomy has not been entirely positive. Some critics
have claimed that the very idea of autonomy is part of the Western cultural
tradition and thus by definition alien to non-Western learners (e.g., Jones,
1995). An extension of this argument claims that the methods used to foster
the development of learner autonomy are likewise alien to non-Western pedagogical
traditions. It is true, of course, that none of us can escape entirely from
the cultural assumptions and practices that have shaped us. To that extent
what we write here is conditioned by the cultural and educational traditions
of Denmark, the United Kingdom and Ireland; and the same will be true of
what we say at JALT98.
But we believe in the existence of human universals, and in particular
we believe that human beings have a tendency to strive after autonomy within
the limits imposed by their inescapable interdependence. We believe that
in seeking to foster the development of learner autonomy in second and foreign
language classrooms, we are merely responding to one of the defining characteristics
of humanity. We also believe, however, that the development of learner autonomy
in Japanese classrooms will require the elaboration of pedagogical approaches
that are sensitive to specifically Japanese cultural traditions both inside
and outside the classroom. What most excites us about coming to Japan is
the opportunity it will give us to discuss our theory and practice in an
educational environment with which neither of us is familiar. We expect
the experience to be challenging and enriching, and are confident that we
shall return home with an enlarged understanding of our own theoretical
principles and their implications for pedagogical practice.
Berofsky, B. (1997). Liberation from self: A theory
of personal autonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dam, L. (1995). Learner autonomy 3: From theory to classroom
practice. Dublin: Authentik.
Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and foreign language learning.
Jones, J. (1995). Self-access and culture: Retreating from
autonomy. ELT Journal, 49(3), 228-234.
Little, D. (1991). Learner autonomy 1: Definitions,
issues and problems. Dublin: Authentik.
Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
copyright © 1998 by the author.
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Last modified: September 4, 1998
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