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 – Chuck


Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a reader, and anyone who’s a reader knows that reading what you’ve chosen to read is an act of rebellious autonomy.

Reading makes you think, and the more you think, the more you’ll question the way things are. You’ll then start wondering how things could be different and before long, you’ll be making changes in the way you live, think, and teach.

I give you fair warning: if you read the books I’m going to tell you about, you’ll no longer look for ways to encourage learner autonomy. Instead, you’ll wonder how anything less could be called teaching and why school systems the world over work so hard to discourage autonomous teaching and learning.  Allow me to introduce you to some old friends.


Teaching As A Subversive Activity
 – Postman & Weingartner

When Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote Teaching As A Subversive Activity in 1969, it was news. It still is. This book is as valid an attack on lock-step teaching and unimaginative schooling now as it was when they first declared that, “There are trivial ways of studying language which have no connection with life, and these we need to clear out of our schools.”

This is something I remind myself of every single day. Above my desk is a  card on which years ago I copied these three questions from the book:

What am I going to have my students do today?

What is it good for?

How do I know?

Reflecting on these questions before teaching a class or writing an activity has forced me to constantly rethink the way I teach, the activities I write, and the reasons I’m a teacher. You might like to try this yourself.

On Becoming A Person 
- Carl Rogers

Roger’s beautiful book opens with these words

“I speak as a person, from a context of personal    experience and personal learnings” 

To offer yourself, as you are, to a group of learners is the greatest gift you can offer them. This is at the center of Roger’s work and at the core of what I believe about authentic teaching and learning.

For me, being a teacher means constantly working to become who I am while openly sharing that journey with others. My experience has been that the more I  offer who I am on any particular day, the more likely it is that others will do the same. Under these conditions, real learning and teaching become more possible.

This is not an easy thing to do, and so it’s only right that On Becoming A Person is not easy reading. It asks questions like: “What is the meaning of personal growth? Under what conditions is growth possible? How can one person truly help another? Is it really possible to teach anyone anything?” Rogers grounds his work in a lifetime of practicing psychology and teaching to share the answers he’s arrived at. In the process of reading,  you’ll likely discover your own.

A Place To Stand: Essays for Educators in Troubled Times – Mark Clarke

Like many teachers, you might be experimenting with non-traditional ways of teaching. In Clarke’s words you’re “a change agent” promoting not just change in your learners as you create conditions that make autonomous learning more likely. You’re also promoting change in the way things are done. Fantastic!

Be ready, though. People are going to notice, and not all of these people are going to be happy. I know this from hard experience. Reading Clarke’s book has saved my career more than once. If you’re doing non-traditional things in your classroom, get this book and take the following advice to heart:

Invite others in to see what you’re doing in class, but be sure to prepare these observers for what they’re going to see. Then, as your students are huddled up  around laptops gathering data, while others are in some other corner practicing their presentation, while still others are doing something else all together noisily,  be ready to “help others see the structure and order of events and how these build upon each other toward a coherent experience for the learners.” Then be ready to be accommodating. Sure, I’ll get them to quiet down. Of course, we’ll use the textbook sometimes. Yes, I’ll make sure students learn what we’ve all agreed needs to be covered. Then smile, make sure you do those things, and get back to work.

How Children Fail   – John Holt

I’ll let Holt speak for himself, but as you read, replace the word children with the word teachers and the word learning with teaching.  Watch what happens.

“Schools assume that children are not interested in learning and are not much good at it, that they will not learn unless made to, that they cannot learn unless shown how, and that the way to make them learn is to divide up the prescribed material into a sequence of tiny tasks to be mastered one at a time, each with its appropriate ‘morsel’ and ‘shock.’ And when this method doesn’t work, the schools assume there is something wrong with the children — something they must try to diagnose and treat.”

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that … My work is to help it grow. ”

That’s my work, too, and since you’ve read this far, it’s probably your work, too. The good news is, we’re no longer the one percent. We’re a movement whose members do not quite make up a majority yet, but we’ll get there in my lifetime. I’m sure of it.

Breaking Rules  – John F. Fanselow

Twenty-five years ago, this book set me free to become the autonomous learner/teacher I’m still becoming.  It helped me see what was really happening in my classes, while also giving me permission to explore alternatives. John’s premise is that, “Only by engaging in the generation and exploration of alternatives will we be able to see. And then we will see that we must continue to look.”

I’m still looking, and what I see gets me looking more.  My teaching is an ongoing experiment. I never do the same thing the same way twice. This way of being has extended into every aspect of my life. I live for learning and radiate that energy. I’ve got these old friends like John F. Fanselow to thank for that.

If you’d like to experience some of this buzz, I invite you to join me in taking Breaking Rules Live, a five-week online course led my John F. Fanselow himself. I’ll be taking the course. It’s a never-ending journey, and you’re welcome on it.

Editor’s Note: iTDi’s Breaking Rules Live course with John F. Fanselow, begins on November 10th.  For more information and registration, please click the link above.  A limited number of seats are still available.



Voices from the iTDi Community 2 – Michael

Michael Griffin – Korea

Michael Griffin is a teacher and teacher educator. Mike has been involved in English education in Northeast Asia for over a decade. He currently lives and works in Seoul and is online a lot.  Mike’s current professional interests are teaching unplugged, observation/feedback, and reflective practice. In addition to being a  #TESOLgeek he’s also interested in history, politics, sports, and technology. 

What are you passionate about, Michael?

I love to see students and teachers able to do something that once seemed incredibly challenging or even impossible. Helping people set, work towards and achieve their goals really drives me. I don’t want to sound like I am super altruistic but I genuinely (and perhaps even selfishly) enjoy the buzz that comes from helping people. Oftentimes, this comes from just helping people see what they are already doing well. I think teachers and students typically expect negative feedback on what they did “wrong.” I can’t deny that this can sometimes be useful but I greatly enjoy helping people see what they are doing well and what they might want to keep doing. Aside from teaching, I love reading, traveling, talking to people, and feeding my Internet addiction.  Combining the first two is ideal. I think I am at my happiest when reading a good book in a hammock near the beach.

How and why did you become a teacher? 

I often smile when I think about what my high school teachers might say if they heard I am a teacher! I was not, shall we say, a very good student. Becoming  a teacher was the furthest thing from my mind. More time in school? No thank you. I think I felt like I’d spent more than enough time in class even if I didn’t study much. How, then, did I decide I wanted to teach? It all started in Morocco in the spring of 1999. I was studying abroad in Seville and I went to Morocco on a whim with a bunch of near strangers. I bonded with a few people on the trip and had a fantastic time. I loved my time in Spain and learned a lot about myself and about the world, but those 4 days in Morocco were life changing. I think I decided against a normal life suddenly while being accosted in the market by someone trying to sell me a belt. I decided then and there that I needed to see the world!

When I got back to the states and my sleepy college town for my senior year, I hatched a plan. I would see the world right after college by teaching and traveling at the same time. I’d heard vague rumors about people doing such a thing in Spain and I thought I would give it a try. I enrolled in a course on TESOL that was taught by the amazing Chris Mares, and I was pretty hooked from the beginning. Even so, I still didn’t think it was something I would do for very long.

I started teaching about 1 month after finishing college. Again, I really just wanted to see the world. I guess I was in some ways sort of the typical backpacker teacher because travel was surely on my mind.  My original plan was to live and teach in 5 countries before settling down and finding a real job. I planned on moving each of the 5 years, but I discovered that I enjoyed Jinju in the south of South Korea very much. I ended up staying for nearly 3 years.

I guess I’d been teaching for about 4 years before I really started taking it seriously as a career. By that point I loved it so much it would have been extremely difficult to do something else. I often think that even if I had a completely different job I’d need and want to teach a bit on the side just for fun. It really is fun for me! What started out as a bit of wanderlust turned into a career. Even though my original plan called for 5 countries in 5 years I’ve only lived in two counties  –Korea and Japan — over 12 years and I couldn’t be happier.

What are you most interested in right now?  

I guess the most interesting and exciting thing for me at the moment is finding, building and participating in positive communities among ELT professionals. In the last year or so I have met some wonderful people. I think sometimes it can be hard to find like-minded professionals and I am especially grateful that I have been able meet and work with so many excellent people. The three main communities on my mind at the moment are the KOTESOL Reflective Practice SIG (RPSIG), the general ELT twitterverse, and #KELTchat (http://keltchat.wordpress.com/).

Along with Manpal Sahota, I am one of the co-facilitators of the RPSIG and since the inception of the group in early 2011 we have been collecting curious and reflective members. Monthly meetings are now happening in Seoul, Daejon, Daegu and Busan where reflective practitioners join to talk and think about teaching, learning and reflection. I think this is extremely exciting and I think it can be a very positive step for ELT in Korea.

I joined Twitter in October 2011, after a recommendation from none other than Chuck Sandy in his awesome presentation about communities at the Kotesol International Conference. I was actually quite skeptical about the power and use of Twitter, but I gave it a chance and I think I have been rewarded ten-fold. I am in awe of the group of educators that I am in contact with daily. The laughs, supports, nudges, insights, tips and questions have all been a treasure for me.

#KELTchat is another new group that is starting to pick up steam. What started with an innocent question about hashtags from Alex Grevett has turned into a thriving community that I am very proud to be a member of. We usually meet twice a month for live moderated chats on Twitter but we also share links, ideas, questions, trials, tribulations, and successes through the hashtag on Twitter. I am also very pleased that we will be presenting about #KELTchat at the 2012 Kotesol International Conference.

What things do you do to help you get better at being a teacher, Michael?

Working with other teachers as a trainer or trainer-trainer or instructor or as a mentor or critical friend is extremely helpful for me. I can see images of myself in what people say and do and this makes me more aware of what I am doing and not doing in the classroom.

Experiences training Korean public school teachers have been invaluable for my own development as it has helped me call into question some beliefs that seemed quite obvious to me previously.

Aside from being on Twitter and blogging, I get a lot benefits from just talking with other teachers here in Korea. I met some through #KELTchat, some through the SIG, some are my former or current training course participants, some are my training colleagues and some I just met quite randomly. Once again, I am extremely grateful to be a part of such wonderful communities.

Finally, I have also been presenting a lot in the last year. I guess I’ve presented 10 times this year already. I think this is a good way to develop professionally as well. Sometimes I chose a topic that I was interested in but didn’t know much about, and the fact I had to present on it helped me find out more and more about it and was quite a nice nudge.

What advice would you give to a teacher just starting out on a journey of professional development?

Just start! No really. I think a lot of time we want to wait until the time is right. We want to wait till this term is over or until something else happens in our personal life or we are totally ready for it. I think that we can start by starting and take things as they go. Perhaps this advice, like many kinds of advice is just a form of nostalgia, as I wish that I had taken professional development seriously from the start.  I also firmly believe that reflection is the key to professional development. Without reflecting I am not sure that we will get as much out of our experiences as we otherwise could.

Michael, is there any blog or online link you’d like to recommend?

I’d hope and expect that most iTDi folks would know about Josette Leblanc’s (@JosetteLB)  blog http://tokenteach.wordpress.com/ already. This is the blog that got me back interested in reading blogs after taking a few years off. It is also from the person that encouraged me to start a blog of my own!  I am amazed at the quantity and quality of ELT blogs out there. It can be hard to keep up.  I also think there are great things going on with blogs focused on teaching and learning here in Korea. My sense is that previously there were a lot of blogs about expat life and living in Korea but not so many about actual teaching. It is refreshing and wonderful to see blogs focused on teaching and learning.

Here are some blogs from teachers in Korea that have caught my eye this year:

http://www.alienteachers.com/ by Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

http://breathyvowel.wordpress.com/ by Alex Grevett by (@breathyvowel)

http://observingtheclass.wordpress.com/   by John Pfordresher   (@JohnPfordresher)

http://lizzieserene.wordpress.com/  by Anne Hendler (@AnneHendler)

http://barryjameson.blogspot.kr/ by Barry Jameson (@BarryJamesonELT)

Other links? Hmm, of course, http://zombo.com/

What’s your favorite quote about being a teacher?

I have two quotes that are very central to my ideas about teaching and learning.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire

      “It’s not the answer that enlightens but the question.” – Eugène Ionesco

Is there any thing else you’d like to say?

Yes, there is, and this goes back to challenges.  For me the biggest challenge these days is time management. . I have a tendency to pile things on during the semester and then find myself with lots of responsibilities and a lack of time. With so many things going on and so many interesting things and people catching my attention I sometimes find it hard to stay focused and use my time as fruitfully as possible. I am still working on and thinking about this, but some things that help me manage my time better include using to-do lists to helps me see what is in front of me. It is also pretty fun to cross an item of the list.

If I am pressed for time I use “Chrome Nanny” to block myself from Facebook and Twitter. I schedule regular breaks and do my best to enjoy the breaks so as to come back refreshed and ready to work. I find it useful to complete one thing before moving on to the next one, that way I can focus all my attention on the thing that I am doing. Sometimes just starting, instead of worrying about the task at hand is the best way. Finally, I am trying to be more selective about accepting responsibilities. I try to make sure that I really want to do something or that I believe in it before taking on more commitments.