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LEARNER AUTONOMY IN A NUTSHELL

Abstract

The aim of this study is to discuss the concept of learner autonomy in a very large
scale. This presentation will be about the following questions concerning learner autonomy:
a) what is learner autonomy? b) why is it necessary in EFL settings? c) what dispositions does
an autonomous learner display? d) what should be done to promote learner autonomy in EFL
settings? e) what is the importance of learner autonomy in terms of Common European
Framework (CEFR)?
Introduction
Within the changing landscape, new conceptions of what it means to be an educated person,
the deconstruction of the traditional language learning classroom, and teachers’ growing
concerns about their own roles in the teaching and learning process have been particularly
important (Benson and Toogood, 2001). Specially, the rise of ideologies of globalization, the
information age and the knowledge-based economy are leading educational authorities to
become much more “receptive to autonomy-related ideas than they once were” (Benson,
2001). Early pedagogical experiments related to autonomy were inspired by humanistic
expectations aroused by the political turmoil and “counter-cultures” of late 1960s Europe
(Gremmo and Riley, 1995, cited in Benson, 2006), which led to the development of self-
directed learning and independent learning.

As Allwright (1988: 35) puts it, the idea of learner autonomy was for a long time “associated
with a radical restructuring of language pedagogy” that involved “the rejection of the
traditional classroom and the introduction of wholly new ways of working”. It is no doubt that
the pendulum in language teaching has swung dramatically from an emphasis on language
teaching methodology to a focus on the learner (Oxford, 1998). With the proliferation of self-
access centers in the 1990s and more recent developments related to computer-based modes
of teaching and learning, and learner-based approaches, Allwright’s (1988) “radical
restructuring of language pedagogy” has become a reality that many language teachers must
come to terms (Benson, 2006). The deconstruction of traditional language classrooms and
courses all over the world has underlined the growing interest in autonomy in recent years.
What’s more, with the innovations that centre on the learners, learner autonomy, inevitably,
has become an exhilarating concept in the field of foreign language learning over the last
three decades. Likewise, more recently, learner autonomy has met with renewed interest as
the educational sector is witnessing an enormous and rapid development in terms of new
technologies, and the past few years have seen the importance of learner autonomy,
particularly in higher education (Gremmo, 1997: 111). In this respect, I try to explain learner
autonomy from several different dimensions in this study.
What is Learner Autonomy?
Like many other terms, the concept of learner autonomy is so difficult to define properly.
According to Benson (2006), this difficulty simply stems from two basic assumptions that
“there are degrees of autonomy” (Nunan, 1997: 172) and that “the behavior of autonomous
learners can take numerous different forms, depending on their age, how far they have
progressed with their learning, what they perceive their immediate learning needs to be, and
so on” (Little, 1991: 4), which causes the educators to make several various definitions
ranging from the simplest to the most difficult one. Thus, the pertinent literature hosts a
considerable number of perceptions and definitions of learner autonomy.

Some of the most well-known definitions in the current literature are as follows:
'Autonomy is an adaptive ability, allowing learners to develop supportive structures within
themselves rather than to have them erected around them (Trim, 1976, cited in Esch, 1996).
'Autonomy is the ability to take charge of one's own learning' (Holec, 1981).
'Autonomy is a capacity – for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and
independent action (Little, 1990).
'Autonomy is a situation in which the learner is totally responsible for all the decisions
concerned with his/her learning and the implementation of those decisions' (Dickinson, 1993).
‘Autonomy is a readiness to take charge of one’s own learning in the service of one’s needs
and purposes’ (Dam, 1995)
'Autonomy is recognition of the rights of learners within educational systems' (Benson,
2001).

As is easily observed in the definitions, “ability” has been very often replaced by “capacity”
or “take charge of” has been replaced by “take control of” of one’s own learning (Benson,
2006). Holec’s (1981) definition of learner autonomy has proved remarkably robust and
remains the most widely cited definition in the field. Nonetheless, his definition explains what
autonomous learners are able to do rather than how they are able to do it. Apart from the
definition by Dickinson (1993), the core is based on the “an attribute of learners, rather than
learning situations.” In his definition, autonomy is regarded as the situation in which the
learners feel responsible for all the decisions, but all other definitions tend to take the term as
a capacity or ability rather than a situation. As one can easily discern, there have been many
attempts to define the term properly over the last twenty five years. The point here is that
some strongly advocate the idea that if learners are placed in situations where they have more
options to make choices regarding their own learning process, there is no doubt that they will
display certain autonomous characteristics whereas others are of the opinion that this freedom
in learning may not necessarily lead the learners to develop their own autonomy unless they
are disposed to show autonomous tendencies. After all, Little (2007) makes a statement that
learner autonomy now seemed to be a matter of learners doing things not necessarily on their
own but for themselves.

While looking through all definitions right here, one can assume that all these definitions here
do provide us with useful reference points, yet it does not necessarily mean that the concept of
learner autonomy has fully been understood. Oxford (2003) believes that the theoretical
framework of learner autonomy in language learning is still far from coherent. However,
subsequent to all these attempts to define learner autonomy, there seems to be a consensus on
at least some crucial issues (Huang, 2005: 205).
• Autonomy should be viewed from multiple perspectives, e.g., technical,
psychological, socio-cultural and political-critical (Benson, 1997; Oxford, 2003), and
is a multidimensional capacity, which can “take different forms for different
individuals, and even for the same individual in different contexts or at different
times” (Benson, 2001:47).
• Autonomy is a learners’ and teachers’ right (Benson, 2000).
• There are degrees of autonomy (Nunan, 1996; Sinclair, 2000).
• The development of autonomy implies collaboration and interdependence, rather than
learners working in isolation (Little 1996; Littlewood, 1999).
• The concept of autonomy can accommodate different interpretations and is universally
appropriate (Benson, 2001; Little, 1999; Sinclair, 2000).

Why is learner autonomy important in EFL settings?


In a democratic society, the primary purpose of education should be to prepare students to
“take an active part in both social and political life by having them gain the skills and attitudes
need for democratic and social participation” (Dewey, 1916). As Dewey rightly argues, it
holds the importance of taking an active part in individual’s own education process. As a
consequence of this importance, growth of interest in autonomy as an educational goal can be
identified in changes that occurred in the twentieth century in social, psychology, philosophy,
and political sciences. The philosophical reason is the belief that learners have the right to
make choices with regard to their learning; the need to prepare learners for a rapidly changing
future, in which independence in learning will be vital for effective functioning in society
(Knowles, 1975, cited in Finch, 2001); the pedagogical reason is that adults have been shown
to learn more effectively when they are consulted about dimensions such as the pace,
sequence, mode of instruction and content of what they are studying (Caef, 1988; cited in
Finch, 2001); the practical reason is that learners who are involved in making choices and
decisions about aspects of the programme are also likely to feel more secure in their learning
(Joiner, 1985, cited in Finch, 2001). As we can draw a conclusion from the pointed out
reasons above, learner autonomy has been important in terms of several dimensions in general
education.

In the field of second/foreign language education there has been a shift in focus from the
teacher to the learner, from exclusive focus on how to improve teaching to an inclusive
concern for how individual learners go through their learning (Gremmo, 1995). As our
language teaching has practiced a shift to a more communicative approach, it has become
more learner-centered (Yang, 1998). Benson (2006) discusses the necessity of learner
autonomy in terms of the innovations that have become remarkably important over the last
twent five years.. In the light of these circumstances, the last 25 years have seen an increasing
amount of attention to learner autonomy, self-directed learning, self-access systems and
individualized/independent learning in second language learning literature, which makes the
inevitable that learner autonomy should be perceived as important in EFL settings.

Who is an autonomous learner?


Although there are lots of different attempts to describe the characteristics of autonomous
learners in the relevant literature, the profile of autonomous language learner depicted by
Breen and Mann (1997) meets the expected standards by providing the features below:

Autonomous learners
• see their relationship to what is to be learned, to how they will learn and to the resources
available as one in which they are in charge of in control.
• are in authentic relationship to the language they are learning and have a genuine desire to
learn that particular language.
• have a robust sense of self that is unlikely to be undermined by any actual or assumed
negative assessments of themselves or their work.
• are able to step back from what they are doing and reflect upon it in order to make decisions
about what they next need to do and experience.
• are alert to change and able to change in an adaptable, resourceful and opportunistic way.
• have a capacity to learn that is independent of the educational processes in which they are
engaged and to make use of the environment they find themselves in strategically.
• are able to negotiate between the strategic meeting of their own needs and responding to the
needs and desires of other group members.

It has been widely accepted that autonomous learners are generally good language learners. It
becomes apparent to infer that the characteristics of the autonomous learners (Rubin and
Thompson 1982, cited in Brown, 1994) are very similar to those of good language learners,
which inevitably leads the educators and foreign language teachers to take into account the
implementation of autonomy in foreign language classrooms as their aim is to help learners
achieve the target language in a more efficient and concrete sense.

However, naming someone an autonomous learner may not be valid at all times. Even though
one displays some autonomous dispositions at a certain subject, s/he may not be as
autonomous as at another subject. The premise behind “capacity” is that even autonomous
learners are not autonomous all of the time. These fluctuations may occur due to affective
factors such as mood; psychological factors such as tiredness or hunger; motivational
variables such as their attitude towards the subject matter, and environmental factors such as
noise, temperature or time of day (Sinclair, 2000).

How can teachers promote learner autonomy in classrooms?

Over the past two decades, a sparkling interest in the study of autonomous learning processes
has been evident. This interest proposes that the promotion of learner autonomy be an
important explicit goal of the language programme within the courses. Learner autonomy is
promoted through the provision of circumstances and contexts for language learners which
will make it more likely that they take charge- at least temporarily- of the whole or part of
their language learning programme, and which are more likely to help rather than prevent
learners from exercising their autonomy (Cotteral, 1995: 197). It is not that difficult to bump
into several ways and views to enhance learner autonomy in EFL literature. Among them,
Brajcich (2000) suggests various practical ways to promote learner autonomy:
1. Encourage students to be interdependent and to work collectively. The less students depend
on their teacher, the more autonomy is being developed.

2. Ask students to keep a diary of their learning experiences. Through practice, students may
become more aware of their learning preferences and start to think of new ways of
becoming more independent learners.

3. Explain teacher/student roles from the outset. Asking students to give their opinions on the
issue of roles could be beneficial.

4. Progress gradually from interdependence to independence. Give the students time to adjust
to new learning strategies and do not expect too much too soon.

5. Give the students projects to do outside the classroom. Such projects may increase
motivation.

6. Give the students non-lesson classroom duties to perform (taking roll, writing instructions,
notices, etc. on the board for the teacher)

7. Have the students design lessons or materials to be used in class.

8. Instruct students on how to use the school's resource centers: the school library, the
language lab, and the language lounge.

9. Emphasize the importance of peer-editing, corrections, and follow-up questioning in the


classroom.

10. Encourage the students to use only English in class. Tell the students that this is a great
chance for them to use only English, and few opportunities like this exist for them. Part of
the role of the language teacher is to create an environment where students feel they
should communicate in the target language and feel comfortable doing so.

11. Stress fluency rather than accuracy.

12. However, do allow the students to use reference books, including dictionaries (preferably
English-English with Japanese annotations), in class.

These ways in which a teacher can incorporate learner training into a regular classroom can
easily be used in any classroom in order to have the learners develop their own autonomy.
Yet, there seems to be a common misunderstanding about the promotion of learner autonomy.
Developing autonomous learning abilities is not about letting students work alone, it is about
assisting students to develop skills which will help them to become good learners; to take
responsibility for learning and to be able to apply these skills to any new learning situation
(Mynard and Sorflaten, 2003: 3). Cotteral (1995) believes that learner autonomy does not
arise spontaneously from within the learner but develops out of the learner’s dialogue with the
world to which he or she belongs. Therefore, we, as teachers and educators, ought to be
patient enough if we aim to help our learners become autonomous learners as it does not
happen over night, as Cotteral said above. Conversely, autonomy is a process that enables
learners to be responsible for their own learning through strategies and techniques applied in
the learning process in time.

What is the importance of learner autonomy in terms of Common European Framework


(CEFR)?

Up to 2000, there were a lot of European Language Portfolio Projects carried out in 16
organizations and European countries including Austria, Switzerland, Czech Rep., Germany
NRW, France CAEN, France CIEP, Finland, UK CILT, Hungary, Italy UMBRIA, Ireland,
Holland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Slovenia, Turkey, CERCLES, EAQUALS and the
European Language Council (Demirel, 2005). What these projects were common with learner
autonomy was that all these projects aimed to promote autonomy through the development of
self-directed learning. All these projects illustrate a communicative, action-based, learner-
centered view of language learning, similar to that in other Council of Europe projects on
needs analysis and learner autonomy and self-assessment (Heyworth, 2006). Simply, the
Council of Europe intends that the ELP should serve complementary pedagogical and
reporting functions. On the one hand, it is designed to make the language learning process
more transparent to learners and to foster the development of learner autonomy; on the other
hand, it cumulatively provides concrete evidence of the owner’s L2 proficiency and
intercultural experience (Little, 2007). Little (2002) provides the readers with the evidence
that ELP promotes learner autonomy by mentioning the pilot projects held between 1998-
2003, informal experience reports prepared by those who have been involved in those
projects. It seems probable that in the next few years much of the research relevant to learner
autonomy will be prompted by the desire to explore the impact of the ELP on learners,
teachers and educational systems (Little, 2002).
Conclusion

Above I have shown that learner autonomy is an inevitable approach (understanding) to take
if we want our learners to be the man ‘‘product of his society’’, to the man ‘‘producer of his
society’’ (Holec, 1981). While I tried to persuade the readers to have a very positive attitude
towards learner autonomy, I broadened the discussion to consider what learner autonomy is
by giving several definitions that have contributed to the notion of the term. Then, I touched
upon the necessity of autonomy for pedagogy with the changing landscape of foreign
language learning/teaching. I attempted to show that the characteristics of autonomous
learners overlap (with) those of successful learners, which no doubt indicates the significance
of learner autonomy. As a consequence of this necessity, I showed certain practical ways in
which each and every language teacher can make use of in their own classrooms. And lastly, I
tried to make a connection between learner autonomy and Common European Framework via
the pilot projects carried out around Europe.

Recently, Turkish Ministry of National Education has had the scholars prepared English
language syllabus based on the principles of CEFR, which is all about self-assessment and
leaner autonomy and more. At this point, it is no doubt that learner autonomy is based on the
constructivism, which indicates that the learner has to construct his/her own knowledge. In the
light of this current situation, the teachers who have not been accustomed to constructivist
approach or learner autonomy should be given in-service training to live up to the
expectations of the new syllabus. Likewise, a need has emerged for the student teachers who
will have to teach English in a constructivist manner, as a response to this need, some courses
that highlight the importance of learner autonomy, self-assessment or more are to be provided
with the student teachers so that they wouldn’t face any difficulty at this issue.
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