Learner Autonomy – Vladka

Learning Isn’t Everything, But Wanting To Learn Is       Vladimira Chalyova 

What is the first step you take on your own as you are discovering the world? And what makes you feel ready to take that step? As teachers and life-long learners, we wish and fear at the same time that every student will get to the point when they will not really need us anymore. For some students that’s true very early in their learning and some may never really feel comfortable enough to go beyond our lead and instruction. However, I believe that should be one of our aims as teachers, to build our students up so that when the moment comes, they not only can but also want to go their own way.

What really is learner’s autonomy? The father of that definition, Henri Holec, tells us that it is the ability of the learner to take charge of their own learning. For me it is not only ability but also willingness to do that. And that may come with or without ability I think.

Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.

Vince Lombardi

What if we substitute winning for learning and win with learn in the quote above? Would that define autonomy? Certainly it would for me:  Learning isn’t everything, but wanting to learn is?  Given this, I realize that what we need to nurture in our students, sometimes even more than information and ability, is their perception and awareness of opportunities and courage to take them even though they make bring some failures sometimes. It is teaching them as they make mistakes, as they take risks and find more than just what we present to them.

What does that means in the classroom? It means supporting our students’ motivation if they have it, counting on their curiosity if they lack motivation and through surprising discoveries making them want to go deeper. Most of all it means, giving our students space and time for discoveries, appreciating their effort and leading them gently towards other new challenges. It also means taking those small steps with them at the beginning, building the routine of exploration and experiment, as well as praising their trials and loses.

It is not enough to take steps which may some day lead to a goal; each step must be itself a goal and a step likewise.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This post may not be a clear and definite answer to what learner autonomy is but surely it is an example of what it could be. The style, content and result of this post are examples of the writer’s autonomy. As I learn how to put my beliefs on paper and find courage to share them with others, as I experiment with style and take risks by taking it in a bit different direction, I learn to express myself more clearly and learn who I am and who I want to be. I absorb a lot of practical knowledge on the way and as I come to feel comfortable with it, I feel safe sharing it, and I will want to do that again, hopefully again better.

What is it you want to build in your students? Are you autonomous enough to let them take their own route or should you take that journey with them?

Vladka’s Classes: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Vladkas-classes/206175306120150?fref=ts

Learner Autonomy – Vicky

Learner Autonomy In & Out Of Class      Vicky Loras  Vicky Loras

Autonomy: a very important aspect of the learning process. How do we encourage this in our learners, however?

Many factors come to mind when we come across the term learner autonomy. First of all, I think that learner autonomy can well exist in class during the learning process. Regardless of age, some students tend to depend too much on the teacher or even on other students. It is our responsibility to help them disconnect from other sources at times and try to stand on their own feet by taking ownership of their learning. Sometimes students need a bit of assistance in seeing where they are strong and what their abilities are – additionally, to look at their weaker points and see it as a challenge to overcome them and improve on them, on their own. When they gain confidence, then they can see that they can work independently.

There is also learner autonomy outside the classroom. I think this is equally if not more important than autonomy in the classroom, for the reason that here the students are completely alone and need the motivation and confidence to work on their own and keep up their learning outside the classroom. What I do with my students is that I present them with various tools and methods they can use, so that they can blossom into autonomous learners:

–       The internet. A huge vault of knowledge is waiting out there for them. I let them know of specific websites where they can either monitor their progress or work harder on aspects that trouble them. For instance, if they have issues with listening comprehension, I lead them to websites packed with podcasts and listening material that can help them practice and motivate them to become better at it. Once they start doing it on their own, they realize how much that enhances their learning.

–       Electronic devices and apps. Nowadays, a lot of students own smart phones and tablets. They can use them to store their work, podcasts, materials and they can use various apps, such as dictionaries, language games and so on to enhance their learning outside the classroom.

Some students even create and store and learn from their own materials! For example, they create podcasts of themselves speaking – all thanks to technology and the students’ willingness to learn autonomously.

–       Books and print materials. For students who do not have access to electronic media, but even for those who do, books are really important in their learning and we should encourage them to use them and research various aspects of the language. I sometimes take my students, children or older, to bookstores and libraries and we all search together.

It always helps to share our own experiences in autonomous learning (if for instance, we are learning a new language or skill) with our students – this way they can see how we learn and perhaps try to do the same. Won’t students become autonomous learners, if we model the behaviour first?

Learner Autonomy – Tamas

Spreading What We Do      Tamas Lorincz 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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

Learner Autonomy – Matt

Learner Autonomy? Clap clap Nice! Whooo         Matt Shannon Matt Shannon

There’s a reason I love my job. It’s because I see people award themselves every day; it’s because I see communities built and strengthened every day; it’s because I send packages full of science experiments on their way to the edge of space… sometimes. I’m talking about Learner Autonomy, about learners enabling themselves to be the people they want to be, making connections within themselves and the world around them.  Learner autonomy is vitally important to me. Without it, I can’t think of a more boring job than “teaching”, and there are a few lessons I’d love to share with you.

First, do your learners know how they feel about their efforts? Have they been given a chance to reflect on their activities; to make the connections between themselves and their performance, rather than their performance and the goal? Make it happen. Grab it; embrace it. Consider this remark: “at first I didn’t understand, so I couldn’t do the activity correctly, but now I understand. I want to try it again.” Now imagine that same student without the opportunity to reflect and to clear their chest: how damaging would that same performance be to their relationship with the subject? In these opportunities students are enabled to support themselves; an encouragement and assessment fundamentally different from what teachers can give, but through negligence can definitely take away.

Give them a chance to write. “I talked so much. I wrote so much. I feel great.” Watch how it changes the class; watch how it changes you. Provide the opportunity for reflection and self-assessment. If you’re as lucky as I am and have a chance to read student’s work, it will truly inform you as to the effectiveness of your class, and where further strength and opportunity lay. Don’t miss it.

Next, have you noticed there are more students than teachers in just about learning environment? That praise from someone, even if what’s been accomplished is not technically perfect in its execution, is still just as valuable? I challenge of all of you to make the most out of the goldmine that is peer feedback and support.

Every situation is different, but I have found a few consistent elements when I asked myself “what worked in this lesson? What worked this year?” Check it out:

Visuals help tremendously. If you put up 40 student papers on a wall, and ask students to respond to three – oh boy, good luck. Try the same with even the most basic cover sheet – the logo of the company you wish to apply to in the case of the resume-writing, or a picture or three in the case of a journal entry, a newspaper cut-out for any sort of review or commentary – and watch things take off.

“[clap clap], NICE!” A fifth grade teacher I work with solved the problem of getting the whole class involved in praise. Every time we hear a cool comment, [clap clap], NICE! is to be heard a second later. (In my class, we occasionally WHOOO like cheerleaders. That’s ok.) In your own environment, see if you can find a way to involve the whole class, and back up your supporters as they back up the supported. It doesn’t necessarily have to be loud.

Group feedback. As discussed earlier, time set aside for reflection and feedback allows us to re-assess our performance, and in the process make something special out of it. It’s fantastic in pair and group situations as well, and leads to some discussion skills I can think of no better way to develop.

Make it consistent. If you ask students for peer-feedback in one session, it might be difficult – they probably weren’t looking out for each other as much as they could have. Keep it up, and they’ll be listening and accounting each other at no additional cost to you.

Give examples early and often. Just as I am more excited about a picture of a cake than looking at its recipe, knowing what an end product should look or feel like allows students to reorganize and make self-corrections and share each other’s strength – the whole point of groups in the first place.

Lastly, if you want students to look beyond the classroom, well, give them that experience! It may take some thinking, but there are ways to give them external confirmations of success. I’m so proud to say that I’ve had students recently send science experiments to total strangers half a world away as part of the PongSat program – look for photos on the blog with a triangular orange sticker, or a blue circle, that’s us! – and even though it was barely related to English I’ve got everyone talking about what they can do next.

Be something between a coach and a librarian, and help them make the connections to where they want to be. Have them write letters to actual people or companies. Find some buddies on Skype who are willing to be interviewed. Enter competitions. Go to the library together; go anywhere together. Find the ways for them to engage themselves with the world beyond the classroom, now. That is the point, isn’t it?

I hope in all this talk about reflections and success, be it personal, peer, or in the world, that you have found something of value. It was a pleasure writing this.


Learner Autonomy – Anna

Independent Adult Learners?           — Ann Loseva 

I’d like to start with confessing that I don’t quite like autonomy as a term. An autonomous learner sounds somewhat robot-like to me and rather impersonal. Independence and self-reliance look way more appealing and, besides, in my understanding they carry a more positive attitude and the right concept. I hope to see my students independent in their language learning, self-reliant while making choices, self-directed on their way to orienting themselves in the overwhelming abundance of resources and opportunities available in order to improve their knowledge without a teacher’s helping hand.

I know there are plenty of posts online offering theoretical explanations of why we should encourage learner autonomy and practical ideas on how to bring our students to their independence. So I decided not to share my obviously typical suggestions, but rather express a concern that has been worrying me for a while. I would like to focus on one particular group of students who I find it especially hard to encourage towards independent learning. These are adult learners of English.

The problem with adult learners is that they can sometimes be too settled in their ways. I realize I must sound like a grumbling unhappy teacher now, but what I aim to say is that from my experience a vast majority of grown-ups will not do OR wish to do much to be independent learners (which to my mind is sort of paradoxical as the common image of grown-ups surely implies independence). They will do what they find easiest and least troublesome — which in most cases will also be what’s most conventional, or nothing at all. For many students a teacher is an integral part of their learning process, “pushing power” which is powerful enough to get them organized, guide and sometimes even take decisions for them. Due to the lack of time for grown-up students this particularly is a case in point.

As with everything else in life there are individual cases which break the tendency and are exceptions to rules. On the whole, though, after my 5+ years experience of working with adults, I’ve clearly traced a certain pattern. While being in a course environment, within a frame of a system that each teacher builds up, learners are ready to work and try out something new and maybe even get inspired to continue on their own. As soon as the course finishes, the frames break and let students go their own learning way, dramatic changes usually happen. Learners get frustrated or lack control or get lost in the list of resources you provide, being put off even before trying out for themselves. A teacher’s “pushing power”, their driving force, is missing! Most importantly (and also sadly), their independent and free learning will be largely passive – like reading, or watching a movie. Is it beneficial? It sure is. Is it productive? Not necessarily.

Such is the story with one of my recent private students. Ms M used to be in my General English class organized by her employer a couple of years ago. An incredible student, one of the most diligent, responsible and motivated adult learners I ever had. A month ago she called me to ask if we could have classes together as her English “totally deteriorated”. During our first lesson she explained that she had been trying to continue learning English all the time – self-studying for an exam in her field of work, reading books, watching films, trying to watch series. None of this worked for her. Just didn’t feel right, and there never was any feedback or active process. So we’re happily together again and she’s enthusiastic about regaining control over her English – with a teacher’s help.

I guess it’s fair enough that people find it difficult to learn by them selves. I have faced it many times myself. Autonomous learning, in my opinion, relies a lot not only on genuine interest, but also on will power, determination and more than anything else on practical relevance. I hope you will share some stories of success as I truly believe there must be some! 🙂