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.
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?