Main Page  | The Language Teacher  | JALT Journal  | Other Publications  | JALT National |

Language Teacher

The Language Teacher

JALT98 Special Guest Speakers

Learner Autonomy: What and Why?

David Little

Leni Dam

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 is important.

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).

The Textbook

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. Oxford: Pergamon.

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.

Article copyright © 1998 by the author.
Document URL:
Last modified: September 4, 1998
Site maintained by TLT Online Editor