With the realisation that the factory model of education lets students down and forces teachers to provide an education which is irrelevant, learner autonomy has become a key issue in education.
English Language Teaching has for a long time been at the forefront of using methods of teaching and processes in learning that rely on the learners’ experiences, personality and culture.
Here are some of the things pretty much all of us do to encourage independent learning:
- Our students discuss topics that are relevant to them.
- We talk less to allow our students to express themselves.
- We get students to work individually, in pairs and in small groups.
- Our students play games and use technology to learn to take risks, to experiment with the language and to understand the world.
- We choose materials according to its relevance to our students. We rearrange, extend, omit, re-configure materials to suit us and them.
- We start our courses with a needs analysis instead of following preconceived ideas about what our students need.
- We provide students with choices.
- We ask open-ended questions and don’t expect one correct answer.
- We praise individual achievement and encourage taking risks and learning from failure.
If you’re not doing these things, think about why you aren’t, whether you should and how you’re going to.
But of course the situation is not as rosy as it may sound. The next step is to break through the restraints of the EFL classroom and promote the advantages of learner independence across subjects, so that it can become an integral part of a school’s ethos.
It has been my experience that EFL teachers are considered a bunch of weirdos, running with scissors and playing silly games, who know nothing about ‘real teaching’. I’m sure many of you have had the experience of being told that your students are too noisy in the classroom for serious learning to take place.
I very strongly believe that every subject can be fun. Putting the students’ enjoyment of learning back into the system is the greatest challenge, and while English teachers have a lot of forums for learning about this, teachers of other subjects usually don’t.
Here’s something that you can do to support your colleagues’ efforts to foster learner autonomy:
- Team up with a teacher of another subject you get on well with. Invite them to your class and talk to them about the experience and what is happening there.
- Have a look at what they are teaching and find the fun in it – you can do it, I know. You have probably already done it. (We have all taught some maths, science, history, geography in our English classes.)
- Offer to teach some of their lessons. Yes, I believe that you can teach anything if you are a teacher. The less you know about the subject the more empathetic you will be towards the students who struggle with it. (I have always found this suggestion by Neil Postman* very intriguing.)
- Make sure you regularly discuss with the other teacher what is going on in the class. Tell other teachers, school administration and parents about your experiment. Discuss the results, the difficulties and the ways to go on. Make the experiment transparent, and make sure students have a chance to describe the experience, too.
- Don’t wait for external appreciation: probably no one will care – apart from the kids in that class and the colleague you have helped. But surely, that’s the reason why you are a teacher in the first place.
The key prerequisite is an open and friendly relationship with another teacher. This might take the longest to create. Before you break this idea to another teacher, spend some time sussing them out. Let them complain to you about their job, encourage them to tell you about their challenges, have a coffee every now and again. Don’t lecture or be very direct, that puts people off. (This is the toughest part for me. In situations like this I tend to barge in and scare people off. Tact is just not my strongest quality 😉 but I’m sure you are much better at it.)
In conclusion, I believe that we are doing the right thing in our classrooms to encourage our learners to be more autonomous, and that it’s our task to help others find the merits in what we do. There is no English teacher I have met who would not claim to be an advocate of learner autonomy, even if there is little sign of it in their classroom.
That’s not because they don’t want it, but because they don’t know how to be independent themselves. We need to help teachers to become autonomous in order to raise independent thinkers and learners.
*Postman, N. (1996) The End of Education Vintage Books p.115