What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered? Dimitrios Thanasoulas The Internet TESL Journal 2. What is Autonomy? For a definition of autonomy, we might quote Holec (1981: 3, cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 1) who describes it as ‘the ability to take charge of one’s learning’.
On a general note, the term autonomy has come to be used in at least five ways (see Benson & Voller, 1997: 2): • for situations in which learners study entirely on their own; • for a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning; • for an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education; • for the exercise of learners’ responsibility for their own learning; • for the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning.
It is noteworthy that autonomy can be thought of in terms of a departure from education as a social process, as well as in terms of redistribution of power attending the construction of knowledge and the roles of the participants in the learning process. The relevant literature is riddled with innumerable definitions of autonomy and other synonyms for it, such as ‘independence’ (Sheerin, 1991), ‘language awareness’ (Lier, 1996;James & Garrett, 1991), ‘self-direction’ (Candy, 1991), ‘andragogy’ (Knowles, 1980; 1983 etc. which testifies to the importance attached to it by scholars. Let us review some of these definitions and try to gain insights into what learner autonomy means and consists of. As has been intimated so far, the term autonomy has sparked considerable controversy, inasmuch as linguists and educationalists have failed to reach a consensus as to what autonomy really is.
For example, in David Little’s terms, learner autonomy is ‘essentially a matter of the learner’s psychological relation to the process and content of learning–a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action’ (Little, 1991: 4). It is not something done to learners; therefore, it is far from being another teaching method (ibid. ). In the same vein, Leni Dam (1990, cited in Gathercole, 1990: 16), drawing upon Holec (1983), defines autonomy in terms of the learner’s willingness and capacity to control or oversee her own learning.
More specifically, she, like Holec, holds that someone qualifies as an autonomous learner when he independently chooses aims and purposes and sets goals; chooses materials, methods and tasks; exercises choice and purpose in organising and carrying out the chosen tasks; and chooses criteria for evaluation. To all intents and purposes, the autonomous learner takes a (pro-) active role in the learning process, generating ideas and availing himself of learning opportunities, rather than simply reacting to various stimuli of the teacher (Boud, 1988; Kohonen, 1992; Knowles, 1975).
As we shall see, this line of reasoning operates within, and is congruent with, the theory of constructivism. For Rathbone (1971: 100, 104, cited in Candy, 1991: 271), the autonomous learner is a self-activated maker of meaning, an active agent in his own learning process. He is not one to whom things merely happen; he is the one who, by his own volition, causes things to happen. Learning is seen as the result of his own self-initiated interaction with the world.
Within such a conception, learning is not simply a matter of rote memorisation; ‘it is a constructive process that involves actively seeking meaning from (or even imposing meaning on) events’ (Candy, 1991: 271). Such “inventories” of characteristics evinced by the putative autonomous learner abound, and some would say that they amount to nothing more than a romantic ideal which does not square with reality. This stands to reason, for most of the characteristics imputed to the “autonomous learner” encapsulate a wide range of attributes not commonly associated with learners.
For instance, Benn (1976, cited in Candy, 1991: 102) likens the autonomous learner to one ‘[w]hose life has a consistency that derives from a coherent set of beliefs, values, and principles–[and who engages in a] still-continuing process of criticism and re-evaluation’, while Rousseau ( 1911, cited in Candy, 1991: 102) regards the autonomous learner as someone who ‘is obedient to a law that he prescribes to himself’. Within the context of education, though, there seem to be seven main attributes characterising autonomous learners (see Omaggio, 1978, cited in Wenden, 1998: 41-42): 1.
Autonomous learners have insights into their learning styles and strategies; 2. take an active approach to the learning task at hand; 3. are willing to take risks, i. e. , to communicate in the target language at all costs; 4. are good guessers; 5. attend to form as well as to content, that is, place importance on accuracy as well as appropriacy; 6. develop the target language into a separate reference system and are willing to revise and reject hypotheses and rules that do not apply; and 7. have a tolerant and outgoing approach to the target language.
Here, some comments with respect to the preceding list are called for. The points briefly touched upon above are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of learner autonomy, and many more factors such as learner needs, motivation, learning strategies, and language awareness have to be taken into consideration. For example, the first point hinges upon a metalanguage that learners have to master in order to be regarded as autonomous, while points 4) and 7) pertain to learner motivation.
In view of this, an attempt will be made, in subsequent sections, to shed some light on some of the parameters affecting, and interfering with, learners’ self-image as well as their capacity and will to learn. It is of consequence to note that autonomy is a process, not a product. One does not become autonomous; one only works towards autonomy. One corollary of viewing autonomy in this way is the belief that there are some things to be achieved by the learner, as well as some ways of achieving these things, and that autonomy ‘is learned at least partly through educational experiences [and interventions]’ (Candy, 1991: 115).
But prior to sifting through the literature and discussing learning strategies, motivation, and attitudes entertained by learners, it would be pertinent to cast learner autonomy in relation to dominant philosophical approaches to learning. The assumption is that what is dubbed as learner autonomy and the extent to which it is a permissible and viable educational goal are all too often ‘based on [and thus constrained by] particular conceptions of the constitution of knowledge itself’ (Benson, 1997, cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 20).