Today I had the pleasure of doing a webinar for the British Council TeachingEnglish folk, the topic and title of which was: Learner Autonomy – Tools and Tips. A whopping 97 people participated! (I mention this because it properly surprised me…!) What lovely attendees they were, though, which made for lots of great discussion.
This is my write-up of the session but if you want to watch the recording of the webinar, you can find that here.
The outline of my session was as follows:
In the event, due to my internet briefly conking out about 3/4s of the way through, the end discussion became questions to take away and think about, BUT there was a lot of discussion and interaction throughout, fortunately, so there was no missing out in that respect.
We started with this key question:
The participants came up with some great definitions. Then I changed the focus slightly to:
Getting the participants to speak about what learner autonomy looks like to them immediately brought us onto something more tangible. Again, they had plenty to say, lots of which I was able to refer back to in the course of the webinar.
Next we looked at a seminal definition from the literature:
Having doffed our hats to Holec, we looked at different approaches to learner autonomy, as illustrated by Benson (2011):
When we talk about learner autonomy, it is my opinion that interwoven through the discussion should be the following two concepts:
I think it’s safe to say you can’t get very far in autonomous learning without them!
Having looked at the key concepts under consideration, we moved onto the question of methodology:
Smith (2003) identifies a strong and a weak methodology for learner autonomy. The former starts from what the learners bring to the table – their existent capabilities – and aims to build on and develop these, while the weak methodology is a deficit model where the teacher aims to transfer a set of skills that she or he associates with the “good language learner” (you know, that ideal person who studies for hours and hours every day outside class and has no other commitments to worry about, the perfect person…yeah, the one that mostly doesn’t exist). So, the strong methodology places the teacher more in the role of facilitator or enabler rather than transferrer of knowledge.
Moving away from the image of the “ideal language learner”, we were able to consider the constraints that teachers and learners face in the real world:
The real world is often far from ideal. However, in being aware of the potential issues, we are better equipped to negotiate them.
Of course at this point it was time to talk about the practical side, in this case how I have negotiated the issues, which is encapsulated in my top 7 tips. We did this as a guessing game, where I displayed the pictures and had the participants guess what they thought the tip would be, based on the image. They did not disappoint – lots of great ideas consistently throughout the game!
My top 7 tips
What I mean by this is, find out as much as you can, as soon as you can, about what your students do and don’t do already. Encourage them to find out as much as they can about what their peers are doing. This is your starting point. How: For example, at the beginning of the course, you could use a Find Someone Who activity (they find out about each other, you listen in and find out about them), followed by writing you a letter (you find out some more). They aren’t empty vessels.
Here is an example FSW I made and used with some of my classes.
In a nutshell, provide ideas. E.g. my experimentation with English handout.
With higher levels, encourage them to add and share ideas of their own. There is no such thing as an exhaustive list. (For more information about this, look at my previous related posts! )
Nothing happens overnight…
In fact, the question of time works on many levels. Firstly, give them time to talk about their outside class activities in class. Doesn’t have to be heaps of time. Little and often is good. This provides opportunities to bolster each others’ motivation, spark interest in untried ideas, share victories or issues, celebrate, troubleshoot and so on. It also motivates them to keep going. Secondly, in terms of take up: Don’t worry if they aren’t all enamoured with the project from the get-go. Give them time to get used to it, and to start to recognise the benefits. Encourage discussion of the benefits. Thirdly, emphasise to the learners that whatever little they are able to do is better than nothing. Learners often have the impression that if they don’t have a good hour to dedicate to studying then it’s not worthwhile even starting. Whereas ten minutes here or there is not only more likely to be the case, given peoples’ busy lives, but done regularly is really beneficial! Learners need to know that.
This links to my previous tip, in terms of discussion of benefits. Helping students develop meta-awareness of the learning process is important, as understanding the why behind activities will help them be better able to select suitable activities themselves, independently. This makes them less teacher-reliant in the long run. This contrasts with just blindly doing what teacher tells them. I showed an example of a handout I used with my learners to facilitate discussion with regards to reading outside class:
The handout encourages learners to discuss their experience thus far, and to question it (so not only ‘what do you do/have you done?’ but ‘why?’). In raising their awareness of different resources, approaches and the benefits and drawbacks of each, we equip learners to make more successful decisions with regards to what they will do next.
For ideas of how to engage student metacognition, I suggest reading/using:
Having realistic goals to aim towards helps to break down the mammoth task of learning a language into achievable steps in the right direction. This helps students not to lose motivation and to be more aware of their own progress. Making effective goals is not simple, and it is worth bearing the following principles in mind:
It’s important not to set everything up and then forget about it. Keep being interested in what the learners are doing. Give them that bit of time regularly, as mentioned before. If you forget about it, chances are they will too. Let them show off! Keep bringing it back into the classroom.
Using some kind of platform that allows them to share and communicate outside class, e.g.Edmodo or a class blog or wiki, immediately increases the scope and variety of what learners can do outside class. More activities become possible. (For ideas of how to useEdmodo or class blogs/wikis in this way, see the posts I have written in relation to this!)
Having shared my 7 tips and so brought the guessing game to its end, I shared a bit of feedback from students:
To conclude the webinar, I shared a final quote with the participants:
I also reminded them that learner autonomy is…
It’s not all going to go perfectly straight away, but we should persevere and remember that it is an organic process.
To reiterate the books whose virtues I extolled earlier:
Here are the references from my webinar:
Benson, P. (2003) Learner autonomy in the classroom in in Nunan, D. [ed] Practical English language teaching. PRC: Higher education press/McGraw Hill.
Benson, P. (2011) Teaching and Researching Autonomy (2nd Edition) Harlow: Pearson Education.
Dornyei and Ushioda (2012) Teaching and Researching Motivation (Kindle Edition)Harlow: Pearson Education.
Holec, H. (1981) Autonomy and foreign language learning. Oxford: Pergamon. (First published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.)
Morrison, B. and Navarro, D. (2014) The Autonomy Approach: Language learning in the classroom and beyond. Delta Publishing.
Oxford, R. (2003) Towards a more Systematic Model of L2 Learner Autonomy in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Basingstoke: Palsgrave Macmillan.
Smith, R. (2003) Pedgagogy for Autonomy as (Becoming) Appropriate Methodology in Palfreyman, D and Smith, R. [Ed] Learner Autonomy Across Cultures. Basingstoke: Palsgrave Macmillan.
Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. (2012) Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action. Oxon: Routledge.
And here are the discussion questions that became questions to take away and reflect on:
Thanks again to the British Council for this opportunity, I very much enjoyed it and the participants seemed to as well! 🙂