NeltaChoutari July 2010 Issue

Learner and Teacher Autonomy

Prem Phyak

I welcome all colleagues to the July 2010 Issue of NeltaChoutari. The theme of this issue is learner and teacher autonomy. The articles published in this issue have focused on the correlation between learner and teacher autonomy.

Learner autonomy is concerned with developing learners’ ability to explore ideas through various means, discuss, analyse, and evaluate them, and develop their own view points towards a particular issue. It is a process in which students are actively involved in a constant negotiation of meaning through interaction with friends in the classroom to identify common views among diverse voices. Moreover, in learner autonomy, learners take active role rather than being a passive recipient of what teachers say in the classroom. To be specific, an autonomous leaner is critical, exploratory and independent. But it is true that without being ourselves autonomous teachers (described below), we cannot make our students autonomous learners.

Two articles What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered? (Thanasoulas, 2000) and Learner Autonomy: Bird-in-the-hand or Bird-in-the-bush? (Sheu, 2001) have been included as lead articles. The first article defines learner autonomy, discusses theories underpinning it and provides some practical activities for fostering learner autonomy.

Learner autonomy is defined as a learning process in which learners learn independently. It is learners’ ability to cope with process of learning utilising their own learning styles. In this regard, Thanasoulas (2000) argues that an autonomous learner is an active agent in the learning process. Likewise, Little (1991:4) defines it as “a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision making, and independent action.” Heather Ashley Hager discusses the Win-Win Approach as an approach to resolve dispute and develop critical thinking skill which are important aspects of learner autonomy. She also discusses how our effort to foster critical thinking and dispute resolution skills in the classroom makes a great impact in politics and social development.

In learner autonomy, learning is considered as a constructive process in which learners actively participate in exploring meanings which fit in their world views. Learners are not passive recipients of knowledge but an important source of constructing new knowledge. In this sense, in the autonomous learning process, the bottom-up process in which learners are put at the centre is adopted rather than the top-down in which teachers seek to transmit what they have in their head to the students.

Thanasoulas further says that “Learner autonomy consists in becoming aware of, and identifying, one’s strategies, needs, and goals as a learner, and having the opportunity to reconsider and refashion approaches and procedures for optimal learning.” This clearly tells us that learners must be aware of their own learning styles or strategies. This implies that without identifying the needs and goals of learners, teachers cannot facilitate them towards being an autonomous.

With an extensive review of the literature on learner autonomy, Thanasoulas argues that the objective of language teaching should be to produce an autonomous learner. Without promoting autonomy, we can, of course, question or doubt on sustainability and effectiveness of any language teaching program. He also discusses activities (e.g. self-reports, diaries and so on) that promote learners autonomy. The activities mentioned in the article can be used in our own teaching. For details please go through the article.

However, learners’ beliefs and attitudes towards learning, teachers and themselves are very important factors to shape learner autonomy. For example, in my contexts learners expect notes through dictation, as mentioned by Madhu Neupane in her article in this issue of NeltaChoutari, from teachers and they consider teachers’ ideas as a final source of knowledge. Even the master’s level students do not go through the books prescribed in the course. They ask teachers to give notes. They never ask questions in the classroom. This is the continuity of how children are taught in schools in Nepal. When I was in school, I was never asked to read the passages and discuss with friends to answer questions based on the text. Teachers used to give us answers. Moreover, I was never asked to write a paragraph or essay myself. Teachers used to dictate us all essays on discipline, value of time, river in Nepal etc., for example and we should parrot them line-by-line. This is similar to what Ashok Raj Khati shares in his article in this issue. The same learning style gets continuity upto higher level.

In another article, Sheu (2001) opines that the degree of learner autonomy is not only an individual process but it is determined by the whole teaching system. I agree with him. For example, my students are not motivated to learn themselves independently. There are two reasons behind this. First, the whole evaluation system of university is so limited that students’ performance is evaluated on the basis of a 4-hour written examination in which they have to answer the structured questions asked from the syllabus. They cannot put their views and critiques. They have to write what the teachers say but not their own judgement and opinions. Second, teachers have to finish the whole course within a limited time frame. So they focus mainly on finishing the course by delivering lectures and giving notes rather than involving students in independent works. Moreover, as the students are evaluated on the basis only what they score in the examinations, they do not see any relevance of reading more books, articles and judging them from their own perspectives. Sheu, referring to Smith (2001), argues that learner autonomy is correlated with teacher autonomy. If teachers do not believe in the exploratory learning, involve students in classroom interaction, try bringing changes within the teaching system where they work, and have their own idiosyncratic way of teaching for better learning of students, there is no point in discussing the value of learner autonomy. At the same time, teachers can be an agent of change by giving students active role in the learning process. This implies that teacher autonomy is important for learner autonomy.

Learner autonomy is not only individual but also social. And it is not only a product but also a process. We cannot produce a 100% autonomous leaner. Autonomy always remains in degree and process. In order to enhance autonomy, learners need to be engaged in interaction in which they get chance to negotiate their views. At some point, I find that the concept of learner autonomy is sometimes contradictory with the concept of learning through interaction and collaboration. This tension is intense if we take learner autonomy as an individual. To sum, the theory behind learner autonomy has to integrate social-cultural factors too. A discussion on process vs. product of learner autonomy has to be backed up by some empirical studies. The ways teachers present themselves in the classroom also determine the degree of learner autonomy.

I hope the articles in this issue will help colleagues to explore further issues of leaner and teacher autonomy in their own contexts. I expect that colleagues will come with new ideas on learner and teacher autonomy.

Thank you to all contributors of this issue of NeltaChoutari.

Happy readings!

Prem Phyak

Editor

NeltaChoutari, July 2010 Issue

References

Little, D. (1991). Learner autonomy 1: Definitions, issues and problems. Dublin: Authentik.

Sheu, S. P-H. (2001). Learner Autonomy: Bird-in-the-hand or Bird-in-the-bush? Available at http://coyote.miyazaki-mu.ac.jp/learnerdev/LLE/8.1/sheuE.html

Thanasoulas, D. (2000).’What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered?’ The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 11. Available at http://iteslj.org/Articles/Thanasoulas-Autonomy.html

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered? Dimitrios Thanasoulas

  2. Learner Autonomy: Bird-in-the-hand or Bird-in-the-bush? Samuel P-H Sheu

  3. Win-Win Approach Heather Ashley Hager

  4. English: Bane or Boon? Madhu Neupane

  5. Teaching English: Lifeless Life? Ashok Raj Khati

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7 Responses to NeltaChoutari July 2010 Issue

  1. Tika Ram Bhatta says:

    Hello,
    I would like to add something about Madhu ji and Ashok ji’s opinions. No doubt, Master’s Level students have also been so conditioned and dependent to the teachers. However, I think, the lecturers who teach Bachelor level student must discourage this eventhough their students plead so much if they really want to see their students’ improvement. Teachers in Nepal have a blaming attitude to keep themselves safe from all the hassle. Let us start learner autonomy approach regardless of 0% passouts. Then see the result within a few years” time. Let us give up our corrupt habit ( sorry if it hurts any of my colleague). We are not teaching English to enable the learners rather to have them pass their exam cent percent so that we become renowned. Thanks.
    Tika Ram Bhatta,
    EFLU, India

    • madhu says:

      Tika Ram Ji,
      thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have absolute agreement with your idea that we should apply learners autonomy in the class. I don’t think we can practice learners autonomy totally neglecting the course. We should search autonomy within the course. Were there not exams, we could do the way we like totally neglecting the pass %. Even if we say that we are not teaching students to pass the exam, they are required to do so. If only teachers have autonomy to design the course according to the level of their students!

  2. Ganga Ram Gautam says:

    Dear Premji and Friends,
    Thank you the Neltachoutari team for bringing such a wonderful topic Learner Autonomy in the current issue. This is my favourite and I have also practiced this in my teaching. I try to empower the learners to learn by themselves and this has worked well. One of the recent examples is my Action Research Class with M.Ed. students in Kathmandu University as a visiting faculty. Rather than talking about the action research in class, I encouraged the students to experience Action Research throughout the semester. The students were divided into pairs and each pair choose a problem that they were facing in their class as their Action Research topic. I only facilitated them in the process by sharing with them the resources (books and references) and they carried out the research. Every week they presented their progress and by the end of the semester, they completed the entire cycle of the action research and presented their findings in a seminar which was participated by the faculty, dean and the other M.Ed. students. “In the beginning we were lost but as we proceeded we realized that this is how we actually learn”, said one of the students.
    I also practice learner autonomy in my regular class in Tahachal campus where I teach ELT course. It’s a bit difficult here due to the centrally controlled examination system. But still, I try to encourage the students to become independent in their learning by asking them to prepare activities and present them in class. Most of them do it.
    Would love to share more when you respond friends !!!!

    Ganga

  3. Prem Phyak says:

    Dear Ganga Sir
    Thank you so much for your insightful comments. Your experience has three important implications for me. First, learner autonomy is a continuous process. We need patience although there are some problems in the beginning as your students were confused. I also recommend my students to go through some readings before they come to the class. I encourage them to ask questions and challenge the ideas which we discuss in the classroom. Rather than saying this is a right answer, I involve students in discussions and sum up the issues finally.

    Second implication is that learner autonomy begins with teacher autonomy. It begins when you are confident what you are going to do with the new way of teaching you are introducing. In your case, you are confident that engaging students in action researches works better than giving lectures on action research.

    Third implication is that the whole education system e.g. centrally controlled exam also shapes the degree of learner autonomy. I think if we believe in our own teaching-learning process, learner autonomy should be part of our eveyday teaching.

    However, it is true that we cannot generalise things for all contexts. One technique which works well in my context may not work in others’ context. Thus teachers’ role to judge what works or does not work in their respective context is beginning stage of learner and teacher autonomy.

    Cheers
    Prem

  4. Ganga Ram Gautam says:

    Thank you Premji for adding more Khurak to what I said. Yes, I agree that learners autonomy is possible only when teachers feel that it works. I have also seen that some teachers hesitate to implement this thinking that they will lose the control over their class. So they might feel it as a threat. But it actually supports the teacher as the learners will engage themselves in the learning process. This requires a great deal of shift in thinking on the part of the teachers who need to realise that education is meaningful if it is LEARNING-FOCUSED rather than TEACHING-FOCUSED.
    Regards,
    Ganga

  5. Bal Krishna says:

    Learner autonomy has a good promise to make learners agents of their own learning. In my academic writing class for international graduate students, I basically teach ‘writing for publication’ issues and processes. I do not actually ‘teach’ the content, but prepare a set of guidelines and tasks, give the students an autonomy to select scholarly papers from their fields, ask them to read them thoroughly, make observations and produce a final paper on genre conventions in their academic fields. Then they do a peer review before they finally submit the papers to me. This works really well.
    But in our context in Nepal, care should be taken to design tasks and guidelines in each stage so that students know in advance what they in fact are supposed to do. Just letting them go to ‘sink-or-swim’ technique might not work. Because teachers are not much trained for learner autonomy in Nepal, they might run into a risk if they do not prepare well.

    I found Ganga sir’s action research project really impressive. I read one McDonough’s article on a similar project using action research. I am glad that we can have such positive results in our local context too. If Ganga sir has not read this article, I would be happy to send that one to Ganga sir; you will find strikingly similar approaches between you and her studies.

    As everybody pointed out, there are constraints, particularly in contexts when we prepare our students for ‘exams’ rather than for ‘learning’. In addition, when we have more number of students than we can handle (as in TU), careful monitoring in each stage might be a big challenge. But still as Madhuji said, we can have autonomy within the textbook tasks or texts, though quite limited in extent. So definition of autonomy to me is quite context sensitive.

  6. Ganga Ram Gautam says:

    Thank you Balji for sharing more thoughts on learner autonomy. Please do send us the article that you are referring.
    Thank you very much.

    Ganga

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