An exploration of the theoretical aspect of learning or learner autonomy must include a fundamental examination of the underlying theoretical aspects of autonomy generally. This will be evaluated in light of the expected outcomes of teaching and the particular advantages of this strategy towards teaching. Through this examination, it will be analyzed concluding that with proper guidance and the provision of a strong framework in which to learn, the internal and external aspects of learning autonomy can be achieved. Despite there being a large emphasis or reliance on the students to be responsible for their own autonomy, it is shown that this still can be achieved in the absence of conscious learner involvement with the process through carefully selected teaching approaches and methods.
The idea of autonomy in teaching language is an import from other non-linguistic disciplines such as psychology and education, and is not a traditional theory of teaching (Benson, 2009). It represents a shift away from traditional teaching and learning methods and in a way is more focused on learner output and the value of skills over knowledge. The concept of autonomy is inextricably linked to other advances in the learning environment such as technology and a new move towards adult education and training. It is important to distinguish between learner autonomy in a second language learning environment and autonomy in a native language learning environment. The development of learner autonomy in this sense does not include native language speakers that are autonomous in the sense that they have a solid foundation for the language making it easier to develop their skills, because they know how to do this. It is also important to note that this development will be examined in the context of institutions and not in terms of ‘self-help’ methods. There is a strong interdependence between learners and teachers for the development of learning autonomy, as to this end institutional context is highly relevant as there is a mutual co-operation necessary for the success of these learning strategies. The role of the teacher in learner autonomy is absolutely vital as they represent a motivating factor, making the learner willing to assume more responsibility for their studies, however simultaneous providing them with the capacity to do so. The central thesis of this paper will examine the concept of learning autonomy and the role that both educators and learners play in this development. Furthermore, the potential advantages and pitfalls will be considered in relation to these with recommendations as to the development and implementation of these strategies in a learning environment. It is important to bear in mind the goals or expected educational outcomes in this evaluative process as it is necessary to understand what one is trying to achieve before determining the most effective ways of doing so.
The Concept of Learning Autonomy
The concept of learner autonomy is interrelated to the concepts of personal autonomies and freedoms (Lamb, 2008). The concept of personal autonomy is a general idea that one should have freedom to direct the course of one’s own life. This has internal and external aspects which require a certain freedom from constraint. The internal aspect requires the development of certain psychological characteristics to allow the flow of autonomy, whilst the external refers to the provision of an environment that allows a meaningful opportunity for autonomy. Lamb considers this idea of personal autonomy to be the fundamental basis on which learner autonomy exists (2008; 18). There are two different perspectives on autonomy in teaching, namely the teachers perspective and the learners perspective. The teacher’s perspective embodies the idea of a situational freedom in the learning environment. One could argue that this is the external aspect of personal autonomy, in other words being given the freedom to direct one’s own learning. The learner perspective on the other hand is more focused on the capacity of learners of direct their learning. Therefore, learner autonomy encompasses both empowering learners through knowledge to be able to give them the independence to further their own language skills and allowing them to do so by providing the correct institutional support and guidance. This is the philosophical basis for learner autonomy and through understanding this aims of learner autonomy, one can evaluate it in a broader context based on educational outcome goals.
Learner autonomy seems to lack a specific and uniform definition however has been variously described as being processes which the learner determines through which they acquire knowledge and skills of value (Chene, 1983) or a psychological process whereby learners are able to direct their own studies in a meaningful way (Ponton, 1999). It is clear that there is a general vibe about what constitutes learner autonomy, despite the lack of uniform definition. This encompasses quite clearly the ideas of personal autonomies and freedoms described above. The psychological aspect of learner autonomy seems to be a very relevant consideration as it is emphasized in various literature sources (Macaskill & Taylor, 2010). This psychological aspect of “autonomous learning involves the application of personal initiative in engaging with learning and finding resources and opportunities for learning, persistence in learning and resourcefulness” (2010; 351). This psychological aspect is essential and sufficient to explain self-direct or autonomous learning (Long, 1998). Macaskill & Taylor point out that the majority of literature on the subject has been examining the teacher’s perspective, i.e. the process by which one can provide an autonomous learning environment, rather than the type of learner or learner characteristics required for learner autonomy to be successful (2008; 352). It is clear therefore that the teacher and learner perspective divide is a relevant consideration in the success of any autonomous learning and the presence of both perspectives is necessary for this success. It is also necessary for there to be a healthy balance between both and not let these freedoms be entirely unrestrained, as this will also undermine teaching objectives. The importance of technological advance must also be emphasized as it provides an accessible platform for this kind of autonomous learning. Importantly it provides a usual supply of authentic materials for teaching purposes which has proven benefits relating to learner autonomy and motivation. However, one can also see the disadvantage of this unrestricted access to information as it may confuse learners more than it helps therefore inhibiting autonomy. One can see through this example that there is a strong interdependence between learner and teacher perspectives, this internal and external factoring, in the development of successful learner autonomy. Some authors attribute the successful growth of learner autonomy as a dominant ideology in language teaching to technology innovation generally (Reinders & White, 2011). “Opportunities for interaction, situated learning, and support for learning outside formal contexts, have greatly improved because of technology” (2011; 1).
The Significance of Framework
Providing a useful and relevant framework provides the essential tools for learning autonomy development. Without this framework students are likely to become confused because they lack experiences to build upon. Providing this strong framework, particularly at the very beginning of the learning process is absolutely vital. Lamb et al suggest that this framework must support raising awareness of the nature of language, culture and language learning, reflection based learning, learning initiatives and exploration of the target language, relevant choices of learning activities and learning to learn activities (2008; 37). In order to so, it is clear that the stated objective of such institutional learning needs to in some way reflect a move towards learning autonomy, as these are not natural by-products of traditional learning strategies. Providing this framework also has bearing on the skills that a student will acquire such as those allowing them to relate the knowledge that they have to new knowledge given to them, in other words providing them with transferable language skills. The importance of the role of the educator in providing this framework is self-explanatory. If one uses the example of readily available authentic teaching materials, one can see the importance of providing useful guidance in this manner, allowing students to distinguish between sources that are helpful to learning and those that are not. This has a strong relevance for the cultural engagement with the language and in providing this framework students will be able to identify the various elements of the language. This is a useful example of the importance of framework in autonomy development.
Favouring Learner Autonomy in Language Studies
There are three general arguments in favour of learner autonomy in language studies. The first generally relates to the efficiency and efficacy of learners through a reflective learning process. In facilitating a reflective environment, learners are more likely to be engaged with their learning in a way that is more suited to their needs. Therefore, with regards to adult education if business involvement is the key aim of the learning, the students will be more likely to focus on aspects of language learning that suit their needs. Therefore in some aspects, the process of learner autonomy allows a student to receive a more focused education than that which they would receive through traditional learning methods. This again emphasizes the importance of providing a solid framework for the students to learn within, as material and source selection is highly relevant and equipping a student with the tools to correctly select materials based on their learning expectation becomes highly important. The importance of reflection as a tool in autonomous learning goes without saying and has been emphasized as an important aspect of learning autonomy since inception (Holec, 1981).
This idea is linked to the evolution of the need for a more autonomous learning method. With the development over the years of language learning programmes for adult learners, there is a simultaneous need to make these courses flexible as often the learners are employed full time and cannot dedicate as much time to their learning as traditionally students would have been able to (Nowlan, 2008). One could argue therefore that the evolution of and move towards more autonomous learning methods has been born out of need.
The second advantage of a learning autonomy approach is that by definition it solves the problem of learner motivation. Motivation in learning is a key aspect and there will be no success in any form of learning without a proactive engagement by the student in the material they are trying to learn. Because of the reflective skills and attitudinal resources that a learner develops through autonomous learning objectives, whilst there may be times when a learner is not feeling positive about their learning, they can use these skills to overcome motivational lapses (Little, 2004). One can again use the example of authentic material use to demonstrate the accuracy of this advantage, as it has been well documented that the use of these materials improves learner motivation (Hastings & Murphy, 2002). It has been documented further that often in a teaching environment a learner is not focused on the information that is being presented to them (Nunan, 2000). The upshot of learning autonomy therefore is that it presents the learner with the opportunity to form their own learning patterns, therefore increasing motivation levels as they are not dependant entirely on the information which they received in a traditional classroom setting.
Whilst the first two advantages are applicable to learner autonomy in general, the third advantage relates specifically to the use of this strategy in a language learning environment. This advantage relates to the possibility for effective communication over and above that which one would learn through traditional teaching methods. “Effective communication depends on a complex of procedural skills that develop only through use; and if language learning depends crucially on language use, learners who enjoy a high degree of social autonomy in their learning environment should find it easier than otherwise to master the full range of discourse roles on which effective spontaneous communication depends” (Little, 2004). This advantage is strongly related to the idea of reflective learning being central to tailoring language learning to the specific needs of the student. That is to say that they are equipped with skills allowing them to effectively communicate in the way that they will need to in practice, making learning autonomy in a lot of ways more important that the knowledge base which they may gain.
Challenges of Learner Development
The biggest challenge of learner autonomy is that it is entirely dependent on an attitude towards learning from the perspective of the student. In his study on language learning students in Japan, Nunan (2000) identified the characteristics of a successful learner as a diversity of skills, passion and enjoyment for a particular field, a focused and active approach to learning, and finally, pursuit of learning and success despite high probability of failure and public disapproval. However, despite this the vast majority of students do not possess the motivation nor ambition to become autonomous learners (Chan et al, 2002). How then does one instill this idea of autonomous learning in learners that are not naturally predisposed to the skill setLittle argues that this involves the learning of self-awareness and that learners need to become aware of the various techniques available to them for learning coupled with the ability to assess the success of these techniques (Little 1994).
There is some disagreement on the best method of promoting learner autonomy, however a central thesis of this idea is to provide an environment whereby learners can be more autonomous, making learners more autonomous (Little, 1994). Although this seems like a fairly circular argument, there is some truth in the idea that in order to teach learners responsibility, one needs to give them more responsibility. This is based on the connection between social interactive dimensions of the learning process and cognitive dimensions, i.e. giving autonomy will teach autonomy. Dam (1995) suggests the gradual inclusion of techniques into language teaching in order to promote this. Examples of these include a continuous assessment model in the classroom by both learners and peers therefore including an element of self-assessment, a certain level of useful learning techniques and the use of the target language in learning from the beginning, rather than gradual inclusion. These learning techniques include keeping a log or journal of one’s learning activities. This in itself is highly relevant to the development of reflective skills that are required by autonomous learners. These kinds of learning techniques are useful for the capturing of the content of learning, the support of development of speaking and provide a useful focus for assessment. One could argue that the aim or goal of learning autonomy is outcome based and therefore the creation of an autonomous learner is only necessary in so far as the achievement of these broad educational goals. This autonomy may also be effected by allowing students control of their study plans (Stephenson, 1998). By doing so in a focused environment, the teachers are in effect forcing students to reflect and share their reflections with others, as well as meeting their needs for their own personal development. It is imperative in developing autonomy in students that there be a strong presence of educator guidance, as Stephenson (1998) points out that often in autonomous learning environments, students feel more at risk of possible failure due to psychological factors of self-reliance. This relates back to the importance of providing a framework for the autonomous learning environment and this ‘transition crisis’ (Bilorusky & Butler, 1975) can be easily managed, if not altogether avoided through the correct monitoring of these learning techniques. Support from various stakeholders in the institutions can take many various forms such as the educators themselves, tutors, peer-review mechanism and assignment feedback. It is clear from examination of these structures that much of current adult education takes an approach of autonomy creation.
Recommendations & Conclusion
The success of learner autonomy in various learning environments is well documented and there is a plethora of literature in support of its use (Dam, 1996). It is clear therefore that this is a preferred teaching and learning technique in education generally. In particular relation to language teaching of English as a second language to adult learners, it is highly recommended that learner autonomy be used as a strategy for teaching as the advantages of this strategy are aligned with the expected educational competency outcomes. However, its use is not without significant warning to educators. Firstly, there is much documented on the idea of loss of control by educators (Little, 1991). Autonomy does not in any way shift responsibility from the educator to the learner, the importance of the control by the educator goes without saying and if total control was relinquished, there would be a series of very unfortunate consequences. The foundation of learning autonomy is based on guidance from the educators in the system providing the necessary environment to learn these internal capabilities to produce an autonomous learner. Teachers play a fundamental role in both the facilitation of a conducive learning environment for student growth, as well as teaching students to work within this environment therefore providing the internal aspect of autonomy, being capacity. This ranges from the provision of suitable materials, teaching material selection, appropriate language and culture engagement and the provision of suitable learning techniques.
One can see that there is a global trend towards the incorporation of learning autonomy generally in language studies through the Council of Europe’s European Language Portfolio introducing principles and guidelines that incorporates autonomous language teaching methods. It seems that the central thread of the success of these guidelines is the reliance on self-assessment and reflection. The particular tools that a teacher may use are often varied, however with the goals of competence in English language in mind, one can see that with proper facilitation autonomy skills can be learnt to the extent that they achieve the educational outcomes specified. At the end of the day, learners can generally not educate themselves without supervision by educators and in realizing this one can understand the balance between learner autonomy on one hand and teacher intervention on the other. These two concept are necessary in all learning, however with different approaches taken the effectiveness of the approach will be shown. Through careful planning and cooperation between learners and educators, autonomy can be taught to effectively achieve educational outcomes.
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