#AusELT chat summary: Learner Autonomy, with Phil Benson (4 Sept, 2014)

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The #AusELT chat on learner autonomy on Thursday 4th September was once again lively, fast-paced and interesting. Phil Benson, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University joined as guest moderator and supplied some pre-chat questions for people to think about beforehand. As the chat went on, it was clear that this was a subject that people often considered in their day-to-day teaching.

Phil Benson (@philbensonmq) started the chat with the first question, ‘What does “autonomy” mean to you, personally, in your own learning, teaching, or professional development?’ Several people answered with ideas about freedom to choose learning style and students not needing a teacher, book or other guiding influence in their learning. Others mentioned the possibility of making choices and decisions based on their own desired outcomes, as well as being responsible for their progress, which led to discussion of the role that perseverance plays in learning autonomy.

Motivation – the elephant in the room?

At the same time, @forstersensei asked the question ‘Is motivation the defining factor in learner autonomy?’ and this issue wove its way throughout the chat. @andrea_rivett raised the point that motivation is very important but that students need to learn how to be autonomous, an idea that many agree on. Phil Benson agreed that descriptions of motivation and autonomy include a lot of the same things. As @Penultimate_K said ‘I find you’re more likely to “push through” if your learning is self-determined.’ However, people agreed that learner autonomy might be something that needs to be taught or developed.

Phil Benson then asked whether ‘autonomy starts with being motivated but doesn’t end there?’ A brief flurry of discussion about whether motivation is in fact the starting point ensued, with @alicechik suggesting that imagination (the ability to imagine possibilities) was where it all started. Phil Benson explained that his model has ‘desire (motivation), ability, and freedom’ as three possible starting points and @alicechik suggested that motivation is perhaps the ‘externalised construct’, whereas desire is internalised. This led to discussion of the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, with @McIntyreShona and @MeredithMacAul1 mentioning the possibility to convert extrinsic to intrinsic motivators. @SophiaKhan4 added that the ‘right’ kind of experiences can help learners to become motivated, which @MeredithMacAul1 supported with her comment about learners setting goals, learning about resources and becoming more self-motivated. @TESOLatMQ then asked if that simply meant that students were ‘engaged’ in their learning, while Phil Benson agreed that motivation can be enhanced with ‘more ability or more freedom.’

Nature or Nurture?

@forstersensei then asked if the ability to learn autonomously is inherent or learnt, which @SophiaKhan4 answered by saying ‘Humans are creative, learning creatures [therefore] inherent’ while @andrea_rivett thought that it is rather learned through modelling and by doing. @Penultimate_K also chose inherent, since ‘from infancy we are motivated to reach out beyond ourselves and achieve goals.’ Phil Benson later agreed with this but lamented that students lose that motivation ‘either because of school or things just get harder to learn.’ @SophiaKhan4 raised the possibility that students are discouraged from being autonomous through ‘education’.

@forstersensei summed it up as ‘we could say all have the ability, but it must be taught/modelled at some stage.’ This became the main focus of conversation with @alicechik asking if autonomy is thus inauthentic if it has to be taught, which once more brought the teacher’s role back into the mix. Would it be so because it would be more the teachers’ concept of autonomy put into place, rather than the students’, thus possibly causing demotivation, as Paul Forster suggested and others agreed with. Doing what someone else wants you to do is not autonomy.

@SophiaKhan4, in a brief summary, grouped together Motivation, goals, goal setting and knowing yourself, adding that ‘autonomy is the default’ , while others mentioned that it is perhaps ‘culture specific’.

Phil Benson then commented ‘imagination, motivation, autonomy – I see these as things you can’t ‘teach’. It’s what do you do in a classroom to help them grow?’ The distinction between ‘teaching’ autonomy’ and ‘growing’ or developing it was seen as an important one because of the dangers of teachers treating it like just one more skill to teach. It was agreed that skills are associated with autonomy and that teachers need to shift focus to what we can do in a classroom to help students develop them.

The teachers’ role? What can we do to help?

The question of what strategies or activities can be used led Phil Benson to ask if the 10 strategies discussed here would help with ‘teaching autonomy.’ This was generally agreed but other strategies people liked were setting achievable targets and drawing on out-of-class experience, personalisation of content. This was an important point, according to many, who said that more needed to be done, not only by bringing materials into the classroom but also sending students out into society to complete tasks.

There was some discussion of the pros and cons of peer teaching, with Phil Benson explaining that ‘the point is in the process, not the assessment itself’. There was a sense that the amount of teacher scaffolding and direction necessary for the activity perhaps took away the effectiveness of it. @AgsBod explained that she found it difficult in ESL since students might not accept feedback from each other. Many agreed that students need to learn to listen to each other much more. David Block’s 1997 article,  ‘Learn by listening to language learners’, was cited and group work was suggested as a good way to encourage this skill. It was stated that giving feedback as constructive criticism is also a skill that people need to learn. As @SophiaKhan4 said, ‘[students] can learn from it and learn to focus on their own work in constructive, specific ways.’

In another thread, @andrea_rivett said that ‘being an active, autonomous learner is more productive than sitting there passively for hours’. However, @McIntyreShona raised the question of whether a non-autonomous learner is necessarily passive. @TESOLatMQ agreed that he has had very active students who were ‘over-reliant’ on teachers and other students. Phil Benson made the very good point that ‘active’ needed to be ‘more than what you can see on the outside. Mentally active…’

Final thoughts

Other points raised as the chat neared the end were the idea that ‘safety nets’ such as dictionaries, textbooks, teachers, etc. can be removed to encourage autonomy, while Paul Forster suggested that mobile devices could be brought in to do the same since students use them extensively outside the class to learn autonomously. @SophiaKhan4 said that this would depend on the learning context and @McIntyreShona mentioned time as a factor. @andrea_rivett felt that those traditional ‘tools’ could definitely discourage autonomy but Phil Benson asked whether dictionaries weren’t in fact good tools for autonomous learning. @Penultimate_K agreed that the potential for dependence on the traditional ed elements exists but the teachers’ role is to help students to ‘move beyond’ them.

Phil Benson asked how mobile devices are relevant to autonomy and several ideas were given, such as smartphone dictionaries, apps for learning, learning communities online, access to extensive materials for reading and research.

Winding down, Phil Benson asked ‘Autonomy can be defined as ‘the capacity to control one’s own learning’ with 98 characters to spare. What would you add?’ @alicechik added ‘over time and space with imagination and creativity.’ @Penultimate_K half jokingly threw in the term ‘heutagogy’ which our guest moderator liked. The hour ended with everyone saying how much they had enjoyed the fast paced chat full of ideas and learning.

Many thanks to Phil Benson for joining the chat and providing some thought provoking discussion throughout the hour.

Useful resources and reading

This post by @McIntyreShona

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