Learner Autonomy (reloaded)


November 17, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

What follows in my next posts here and there are snippets of a recent Learner Autonomy workshop I put together to present at SGI. (+ other related stuff I thought of later)

Morpheus: I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one who must walk through it.

This is kind of what I felt about learner autonomy, except the learners were not always The One.

And except I didn’t always know where the door was.


To conceptualize autonomy is not an easy task. Different people associate it with different things. Responsibility, independence, self- evaluation, etc.

For me, at some point (maybe not now), I thought of individualization. On my part as a teacher, the individualization of instruction mainly.


“Individualisation… (in general) leaves very little freedom of choice to the individual learner. Rather it is the teacher who tries to adapt his methodology and materials to the learner… That is, the majority of the relevant decisions are made for the learner, not by him. It is in fact individualised teaching.”

Riley (1986: 32)

The made for the learner, not by him/her, is something that really hit home and made me reconsider the matter.

Another idea is self-direction – something I particularly like to think I practice all the time. And here’s another quote:

In its broadest meaning, ‘self-directed learning’ describes a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.

Knowles (1975: 18)

It strikes me that learner autonomy, ideally, should be fostered at all levels; and that includes course management and decisions that are rarely discussed with the learner such as, how and when to evaluate.

Have you ever asked learners:

When do you think you should take the tests? Erm… actually, are tests really the best way to evaluate your learning or would you prefer a learning portfolio?

If you have, I admire you. 🙂

to be continued

**update: here’s part II http://www.tesoltraining.co.uk/blog/learner-autonomy-and-the-classroom-layout/


14 thoughts on “Learner Autonomy (reloaded)

  1. Rachel says:

    Regarding the Morpheus quote, my initial reaction to it is panic! The ‘conversation’ that I thought I wanted with a student was being replaced by the learner walking off! Then when I thought about this I felt it was my own need for engagement with the student and control of that process that I was thinking about. On further reflection I thought perhaps the student could go through the door and might come through and report on his/her experience.

    Lots to think about, but at least my panic subsided!

    Thanks, Willy.

  2. Excellent, Willy. I look forward to the second edition and know it will be better than Matrix 2. 😉

  3. Huw Jarvis says:

    As you will all know David Little is one of the founding fathers of LA. Readers may be interested in watching his keynote video web cast available from http://www.tesolacademic.org/keynotes0810.htm#572106897

  4. Josette says:

    Those last questions really struck me. My first thought was that most of the teachers I train (in Korea) would be scared to ask the first one, and may not even understand the second one. The concept of learning as being a choice is completely foreign to so many. A sad reality.

    However, reading your blog, and others like it, gives me hope that learning will some day be a choice for learners everwhere. From kids who are forced to study subjects they despise, to children who don’t even have the option to go to school.

    Thank you Willy!

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, Josette!

      I like that you said “learning as being a choice”. Many thoughts pass through my head when I see these words together, learning or education and choice or option. I’m pro-choice in most aspect of my life and specifically in education, mainly because of my educational experience as a teenager, when there was no choice – i.e. do 6 hours of math per week even when you know you’ll end up working with languages and/or arts. Anyway, I know that choice is not an option in many places, and I don’t expect this to change much in a top-down way. I don’t think governments will ever let go of standardized tests, their PISA’s, and all that. But I think teachers, even in very controlled environments, have the power to change the small things, and the small things are just as important.

  5. Tyson Seburn says:

    Hi Willy,

    The Riley quote seems to me like a quasi-promotion of undifferentiated instruction: the more we as teachers assess the needs of our students and as a result determine what they need to improve or work on, the less control we give the students over their own learning. Though I think that line of thinking is not the status quo school of thought (not practice), what’s most important for the student’s language development, but also autonomy is the tools to equip them to critical think. Then instead of differentiating ‘instruction’ per se, you are individualising the guidance you give students.

    When students come to my office hours for help, I try to guide them to their own conclusions, giving them that control over what they need to work on or look into. Since some form of exam is standard to the faculty I work for, we don’t ask students to help decide whether or not to have them. However, we do use writing portfolios and reading circles as forms of assessment, which include opportunities for reflection, where they are asked how, if at all, they feel they’ve benefited from the process.

    Also, an increasing push towards autonomy seems the likeliest pace for success. Moving too fast from a highly rigid structure, like Chinese high schools, to student-controlled everything wouldn’t get much buy-in from the students and potentially hinder motivation to be autonomous. I think taking baby steps in transferring control dependent on the learnt skills is essential. I can’t wait until next April, at which time most of my students will be able to look back at September and reflect on how their habits and motivations have changed.

    Ok, sorry for the ramble. =)


    • Interesting thoughts there, Tyson!

      I have failed sometimes to promote learner autonomy because of moving too fast as you said. What I’ve been trying to do is to create systems, adaptable ones of course, that I can use to organize and assess autonomy initiatives. I think once I put in my head I needed to be more systematic, good things have happened – even though it’s difficult for me to be systematic in the structural and disciplinary sense.

      I wish I had the possibility to do that (guide/coach students) out of lesson hours too. It’s really important to give learning support and not only ‘linguistic’ support as language teachers. I miss that.

      • Tyson Seburn says:

        Office hours are valuable, but a tough call really too. Given the choice, it tends to be the keeners (who need the littlest guidance) and the absolutely desperate (because they’re in danger of not passing) who come. So do you take away the control, again, and require signing up for consultation? I lean towards yes, once at the beginning of the year, to gauge how they interact just with you, but then no, no matter how downhill things are going. My students are late teens too, so they need this lesson in self-motivation.

  6. Thanks for this post Willy, it certainly gives me lots of food for thought.

    With my students, as I don’t have to fit into any assessment criteria (I’m talking English teaching now, not Celta training – clearly that has assessment criteria coming out of its ears!!), I am free to spend those 90 minutes with my classes doing whatever it is that suits them. I try to do fit their needs and desires as much as possible by asking them all the time, letting them know they can bring things to lessons that interest them or they need for work or whatever, and I will happily turn it into something for the class if possible. This freedom is wonderful, and I realise that it’s not exactly the norm in a lot of contexts.

    Their classroom, their choice.

    However, there are many classes I have who, when asked, seem to come up with no subjects in particular that they are interested in or want to talk about. Colleagues of mine have often expressed frustration at this. I’ve realised though, that it’s because of what these learners THINK they should be doing in class, and that the teacher might not be happy about discussing the things they want to, so they keep quiet in class and continue to do whatever the teacher brings in, and then in break time or before/after class, they animatedly talk about the things that are close to them.

    Freedom invites collaboration, I would say.


    • I have taught groups to which the question “What do you want to do today?” caused euphoria, and to others intimidation and indifference. Sometimes all of these with the same groups depending on the week. For some, I came up with strategies, like brainstorms -sometimes in a stormy way- like arriving five minutes earlier and butting in in their ‘authentic’ conversation or simply eavesdropping to collect ‘anything’ I would then find appropriate to bring back to life while in lesson, and a big ETC follows this short list because, yeah-asweknowit, there’s no right way to do stuff that will suit everyone. The job is to find as fast as possible what is better for each one, and for each one within a group, and to keep track of how that changes over time; to bring everyone’s attention to these changes is also a good possibility. Speaking of possibility, one of my favorite understandings of teaching is “expanding the space of the possible”, I think it was Denis Sumara who said this.

  7. I think you don’t go far enough Willy! How can a teacher “create” or even foster learner autonomy. I think that idea bogus.

    Let’s remove the teacher from the equation and make motivation something wholly a construct of the learner. I’ve studied and visited several Sudbury “schools” and this is central to their notion of what education should be (and always is in the final analysis – you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it think).

    Autonomy is thrown around by academics most often as a way to keep the same old wheel grinding out the same old wheat. Let’s start grinding our own stuff. Teachers, who needs them? This is particularly true with language learning. Even dogme is really asking the teacher to be central to the student’s learning experiencing and embracing the notion as you and Riley suggest of “teacher individualization”.


    • Hi David

      I’m not sure if I understand what you want to say in this comment, so here’s a limited reply:

      re: not going far enough. At the moment, this is perhaps as far as I can go in practice. And I don’t think I said a teacher can ‘create’ learner autonomy, did I?

      re: removing the teacher. I quite like the idea, in theory very much; in practice, I already do it in my own learning, though I depend every now and then on better others and I think it’s healthy to do so. Now doing it in the practice of others, I can’t. I think they have to do it themselves, if they feel teachers are useless. The most I can do is to refuse teaching, which I have done sometimes, but that doesn’t solve their problems, it only solves mine.

      A little question: when you say ‘teachers, who needs them?’, do you include yourself? If so, what is the answer? – I think this is interesting because I’ve asked the first question many times, answering it with the second one embedded is very hard though.

  8. […] This is the second installment of the Learner Autonomy material which featured at SGI’s CPD Club and some bits also at the TESOL France Colloquium. The first part is on authenticteaching. […]

  9. Scott Shabot says:

    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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

receive new posts by email.

Join 490 other followers


Events 2015

IATEFL Manchester, UK
10 April, 2014
TDSIG PCE: Challenges and Rewards
More info

IATEFL Manchester, UK
12 April, 2015
Talk: Initial teacher training: challenges and innovations in course design

23 March, 2015 - Kragujevac
28 March, 2015 - Belgrade
Theme: Assessment: who is it for?
More info



%d bloggers like this: