An ELT Glossary : On Autonomy

An autonomous learner is one who can take complete control of their own learning, without needing to depend on a teacher, course designer or organisation to make decisions for them about what, when how etc to learn. The importance of developing autonomy in learners began to be stressed in the 1970s and 80s, when humanism replaced behaviourism as the predominant theory of learning in language teaching. Language teaching was no longer seen as just a matter of providing input for intake, but also as having an educational aim, where the learning experience contributed to the learner's personal development and self-actualisation as well as simply teaching the language.

In the 80s, autonomy  (also called self-directed learning) was strongly associated with the work of the Centre de Recherches et d'Applications Pédagogiques en Langues (CRAPEL) in France. Holec (1985) pointed to a number of things that autonomous learners would be able to do unaided :

  • define the ultimate and intermediate objectives of the course in both communicative and linguistic terms
  • select the materials and activities which will reach those objectives, taking into consideration the time at their disposal, their learning preferences etc.
  • organise those materials into a logical programme
  • decide on the place and time of learning
  • self-assess progress, and on the basis of this assessment make any necessary changes to the course objectives, materials chosen, working methods etc
Holec also pointed out that :

a) few learners possess these capacities at the beginning of the learning experience. Autonomy is therefore something that needs to be developed gradually, the teacher's role being to determine "those types of intervention which are conducive to the learner's acquiring those capacities". (ibid:180)
b) autonomy doesn't have to be "all or nothing" : The learner may be responsible for defining every aspect of his learning programme, or some, or none; it is quite possible to imagine different learning programmes based on completely different combinations going from complete "self-direction" to complete "other-direction" or anything in between." (ibid:174)  and "The autonomus approach is just one of a range of options available to the learner, and is in no sense a path which has to be followed."  (ibid:173)

Few courses these days aim at total self-direction but, at least in mainstream Communicative Language Teaching, the partial development of autonomy is generally seen as something to promote. Reasons for this may include:
  • language learning takes time - generally more time than is available in the course. Some ability to learn independently will allow learners to continue learning outside the course and thus to make more progress.
  • autonomous learners are better learners, because they have a better understanding of the learning process and know what strategies are available, and which work best for them.
But if, as Holec says, few learners are initially autonomous, what can the teacher do to help develop these capacities. "Thrown in at the deep end" the learner is more likely to sink than swim. Initially therefore, the teacher needs to play a guiding role, showing the learner what is possible, and helping him/her decide what is best.

Some examples :
  • setting objectives for the course can be done by carrying out a needs analysis to show the learner that language learning doesn't have to be just "starting with the verb BE and continuing to the third conditional" but that course content can be selected to meet specific, immediate needs. This leads to a negotiated syllabus, the first step towards showing the learner that, even once the course has started, s/he can make changes as new needs come up. It doesn't however, mean just "doing what the learner says". At the beginning of the process s/he may not be right - and needs to find this out. I described an example of this here
  • many institutions have a self-access centre for learners' use, and the teacher can take time to show the learners what is available and how they can use the resources to further their learning. This may be as simple as borrowing a graded reader to read between each class. 
  • if no self-access centre is available, learners can be shown how they can use the internet to continue learning. Depending on level, anything from a language exchange (where two learners of each others' languages meet once a week to chat for ten minutes in each language) to following blogs written in English or listening to podcasts on topics they are particularly interested in - the possibilities are endless. 
  • learning strategies can be taught in the class for learners to use outside. Just a few examples might include: the use of vocabulary cards, or websites such as Quizlet, to record and review vocabulary; how to use dictionaries and grammar books effectively; inference strategies, and so on. 
  • peer and self-evaluation strategies can also be taught in class to allow learners to self evaluate their performance and overall progress. 

Problems encountered when attempting to promote autonomy?

So, the first problem involved in expecting autonomous learning is that learners are unlikely be autonomous from the start, but that these capacities have to be developed. This leads to the second problem : on very short courses, there may be insufficient time both to develop autonomy and to reach linguistic objectives. Learners who have paid to learn the language may, understandably, resent what they see as time being taken away from their main goal.

However, there are other issues that also need to be taken into account. 
  • Some learners may not wish to become autonomous but expect the teacher to "give them a language injection" that will instantly make them proficient. I wrote about one extreme example of this here (see point 3). However, as Holec said, autonomy is not a "must". Somewhat ironically, the philosophy that underlies it means that the learner must have autonomous choice as to whether s/he follows a self- or other-directed course. Imposition of autonomy would mean taking autonomous choice away.
  • Learners may come from a background - eg Chinese culture -  where teachers are held in high esteem,and seen as having full responsibility for their learners, so that "learners (are) barely given opportunities to make independent choices regarding their learning objectives and resources, which (are) taken for granted to be their teachers’ responsibility." (Zhong 2010). A learner from such a background, thrown into a situation where the teacher expects to take a different role, may at best suffer from "educational culture shock" and, at worst, lose faith in the teacher's ability.
  • lack of self-esteem may mean that the learner is unwilling to believe that s/he can become autonomous and lead them to resist any attempt by the teacher to involve them in decisions. Here, the best course is probably "baby steps" which emphasise that when the learner makes even the smallest of decisions, they are successful and conducive to learning.

References and Acknowledgements

Holec, H. 1985 "On autonomy : some elementary concepts" in Ed. Riley, P. Discourse and Learning, Longman