Learner autonomy: myth or reality?

We as language educators rely so much on learner autonomy. Yet, how realistic is it to expect students to take responsibility for their own learning when they don’t know how to do it? What shall we do if in the traditional classroom they were not encouraged to think critically?

So here we are amid a growing flow of unmotivated students whose higher order thinking skills (HOTs) have’t been developed at school at all. They are lost, and confused, because the outdated system of education does nothing but demotivate them. We cannot expect things that worked even 10 years ago to be fully functioning nowadays. We cannot expect our students to think critically if what they did at school was to obey the teacher.

So one of the main tasks to do now is to empower the students to take full responsibility for their learning. It’s quite challenging, to say the least. For example, they are so used to the teacher-centered classroom that they do not know what to do in a student-centered classroom. They would prefer to stay in the comfort zone of drilling exercises than actually critically approach a problem. They’re so used to learning by heart that it’s quite difficult for them to question the need of all that learning. What’s more, they are quite helpless when it comes to transfer that knowledge into practice. So what’s the use of learning by heart, when you’re unable to solve a problem using that knowledge.

I’d like to share my experience, which was quite discouraging. However, I was encouraged by the students not to think of it as a failure but as a step further towards success; the exact wording was: ‘You’re on your right way.’ 🙂

I covered some grammar issues. I chose the flipped strategy. It did not quite work as expected. Yet, we did our best. When I asked the students to look through some exercises so that we discuss what was causing problems, they did not do anything at all, as, in their opinion, no homework had been given to them. The point is that they devoted zero time to English at home. As long as the students are not assigned tasks they won’t do anything.

When I asked them to get ready to debate whether or not money can solve all problems (something which has been started in the classroom), they again came totally unprepared. When asked what steps they had taken to be ready for the debate, the answer I got was that they had thought. OK. Thinking is good. How exactly? What exactly did you do? The trouble was they could not explain what they had done at home. Nor could they use those ‘thoughts’ in the debate (that would be a very strong word for what we managed to have 🙂 ).

I don’t blame the students. They seem to be nice, intelligent people who happen to be lost. It’s true that they lack motivation. But again I would argue that this is due to various factors. And one of them is fear. They are afraid to express their point of view. They are afraid to make mistakes. They are afraid to question a teacher’s statements/choices/decisions. They are afraid to take responsibility for their own learning (it’s actually the easiest thing to do as there will be no one to blame later on).

I always encourage students to ask themselves:

  • Why does she ask us to do it?
  • What does she want us to achieve at the end?
  • How will I benefit from this?

I think that sometimes the choices I make are not quite clear to them. They seem to lack awareness of the importance of doing a more thought-provoking, open-ended activity instead of a close-ended, drilling one. Actually, when asked what, in their opinion, my role is, the answer I got was to teach, to instruct. They do not see me as the one scaffolding the learning process. And they totally don’t see me as one collaborating with them to achieve OUR goals. So I’m that ‘ogre’ whose primary purpose is to punish if the slightest attempt at disobedience is made. 🙂

I think this is the problem of a society where fear has been used to control the masses. Undeniably, fear is a good primary emotion. It contributed to the survival of the human species. Yet, the more the humans evolved, the more their brain developed. So why not use it to think 🙂 Why not broaden our views? Why not try to understand? Why not stand one’s grounds? Respectfully and providing solid arguments, of course.

It is true that will involve much more mental effort, but this is what we have the brain for. It is true we will have to leave our comfort zone, but only by doing so does learning happen. It is true we will have no one to blame but ourselves, but this is how we will become more competent. It is true we will have to stop taking everything for granted, but this is how we will be able to make informed choices. So there’s work to do, but it’s worth it.

I’m not giving up! Do you?

Suggestions are welcome. We’re here to grow and become HOTs.

One more thing, there’s no absolute truth. There are different perspectives we should carefully consider in order to draw some conclusions. Hence, all opinions are accepted.

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4 Responses to Learner autonomy: myth or reality?

  1. Victoria Julcovschi says:

    I agree with the idea that learner’s autonomy is one of the most important factors in learning a foreign language, but unfortunately, the majority of the teachers from the national schools tend to use already old techniques and methods that seem to have not very good results. In such a way, the common goals are hardly achieved and have a bad impact on the children’s acquisition of the language. At the same time, instead of analyzing, discussing and communicating ideas, children are still memorizing by heart and reproducing information. They aren’t given the possibility to think critically and to develop new ideas. On the one hand, it may be the fault of the teacher’s activity, but on the other hand there are a lot of other problems that also affect this process.
    I also was impressed by the fact that most of the students did not do anything when they were given tasks that contain mostly independent work and self-management. I think the problem is not as much in students’ attitude towards studies, but the structure of the whole educational system. All the problems come from the beginning of the teaching-learning process. Of course, our educational system needs improvement, but it is very important the changes not to be made radically, because they will not be understood and will not bring the expected results.

    • vickycondrat says:

      Change is always painful as one has to get out of the comfort zone to develop. As it requires extra-mental effort, our brain will find thousands of excuses to delay or give up altogether. But change is part of one’s growth.

      By the way, you say there are a lot of other problems that affect the language education process. Could you be more specific and give some concrete examples?

  2. Anastasia Ceban says:

    I like this topic very much. This question has generated so many contradictions within my grey matter that I cannot even put them all together!
    It was during my mobility period in Latvia (“Europe=liberty, omnipresent democracy, great minds” and suchlike), when I saw the professor smoking together with the students. Suddenly I caught myself thinking: “How come? A teacher MUST be a role model, almost perfect! What example does she give to the offspring?” But later on I understood it was only one of the prejudices which had been drummed into my consciousness by someone.
    I am inclined to believe that many people would find themselves being blinded by this stereotypical idea too. By providing the above described occurrence I want to say that our culture/mentality/education makes us believe the teacher is the embodiment of all impossible virtues; therefore, we don’t tend to question their expertise, avoid their likelihood to commit a mistake, don’t dare to doubt their correctness. Needless to say, this belief takes its rise in our authoritarian past. For this reason we are strongly convinced that all the methods a teacher applies will bring good results. Well, in some cases they definitely will, but as for the rest… They won’t because teachers often do what they are told by “experts”. The ring is complete and rounded. To my mind, this is why students lack the ability to think critically for they are taught from the cradle childhood to take things for granted.
    By the way, for the most part educators don’t want to admit they are not omniscient and mistakes mean their improvement but not affront and shame. Their respond to some remarks might be so rude that it discourages you to “think critically” and speak up. (I know it from my own experience!)
    I agree with you on the point that we don’t take responsibility for our learning. I cannot exactly determine the reason for it, but it’s always easier to say: “It is the teacher who is to accuse of my failing the exam, not me.” Once again we face a survival of times past. No one will care about our well-being unless we realize it’s our own duty.
    I find the word “fear” you use so often very appropriate in this context. We students are afraid of making mistakes. This horror is due to the association: errors are punishment and low grade. Not to mention a fossilized conviction that high grades are of a great consequence.
    As for suggestions, I think the shift to critical thinking, taking responsibility, prioritizing knowledge, not grades, and perceiving learning as enjoyment cannot be done fast. Changes like that are time-consuming. We just shouldn’t give up!

    • vickycondrat says:

      Indeed, change is usually painful and time-consuming. Yet, it’s totally worth it. Teachers are also students, by the way, as one never stops learning 😉 I am sorry to hear whn6students confess that they are afraid to speak up. I am totally convinced that empowering students leads to a better life in a prosperous society.

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