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A definition of autonomy reads as the capability to control own learning and the skill learners can achieve to manage their individual learning (Benson 2001). Another perspective that qualifies this is Littlewood's (1999) claim that we should match the various facets of autonomous learning with the features and requirements of learners in a given context. However, one obstacle to establish autonomous learning is the unequal power distribution between the teacher on one side and students on the other. This inequality is not as unnatural as it seems, however. Wright (1987) claims that many teachers often resort to either forcing technique, or rewarding strategy to grab students' attention. It is a quite familiar context of having to use reproachment or incentives to motivate students for learning. I feel this problem is exacerbated in my Arabic cultural context in which traditional imposes a huge power imbalance between teacher and students. Students and teachers may not be aware of their rights and responsibilities or maybe the goals and aims of education are just different in that environment. This could be out of good intentions that student should respect teachers.
The nature of the problem
Through an autonomous learning program, students are encouraged to get more self-conscious, become more practical learners and use their own ideas in discussion. These features are conducive to independent learning on the part of students. Autonomous learning is quite useful and popular with those who are going to be educated at home, because the learners decide which projects to take or what interests to follow. For instance, a person who loves music has the option to learn or play a musical instrument instead of or in addition to more regular subjects like Mathematics or English. This concept in university or college is taken to mean that students should begin to learn independently without always being supported or aided by lecturers or tutors (Holt, 1991).
I have chosen this topic because I believe autonomous learning is essential the language learning process. I am interested in it because these are English teachers in my country whose perceptions of autonomy influences the way we can promote it. I am aware that what has been stressed is the so-called western view of autonomy which may not totally fit the cultural context that I aim to research. Mineishi (2010) points out that a particular form of autonomy associated with language teaching in the West may not be automatically appropriate within a totally different Eastern context. This research will show if such distinctions exist and will pave the way for further research into its specifications.
The strategies to use in promoting autonomy
Ze-sheng (2008) argues for the use of strategies in promoting learner autonomy. The author explains that supporting all students to become better language learners is the aim of strategy-based instruction and that as soon as learners realise and control their own learning mechanisms; they are likely to accept more responsibility for their own learning and develop into more autonomous learners. Preparation, practice, evaluation and expansion are the missions that teachers can perform to ease this transition. The first step is preparation with an outlook to develop learners' awareness and knowledge about themselves through discussing and interviewing in small groups and introducing the fact that some strategies can help them learn more effectively. They get more prepared when they are informed that every person can learn in a different way and that they have to be active in finding out what is best for them. They should also be helped in systematic and good use of strategies they have already developed. As the second step, students practice the learning strategies with an authentic learning task in classroom and guided the way certain strategies should be used to make autonomous learning possible. In the third step learners are provided with the chance to evaluate the quality of their strategies in supporting their learning and finally learners are expected to use the most effective strategies they discovered and use them in new contexts and personalise their strategy learning.
Achievement of autonomous learning
Learner autonomy is achieved when learners begin to take more initiative and responsibility for their own learning and move away from the total dependence on the teacher. Perhaps, the earliest thinker who shaped learner autonomy is Henri Holec who holds the title 'the father of autonomy'. This is a recommended process as a good learning practice since learners are given the power to decide and function on their own objectives, growth and assessment of their own learning (Holec, 1981). Learner autonomy is viewed in a range of positive ways. In Little's (1990, 1991) view, it is a gift to learner to independently reflect, decide and act. Dickinson (1993) has a perspective that places autonomy as a top asset to be gained by the learners to be in charge of all their learning. Dam (1995) also considers autonomy as both the willingness and capability of learners to take responsibility of their own learning and determine their own needs and goals. Benson (2001) claims that becoming autonomous is the right of learners which should be recognised in an educational system. It should be differentiated from self directed learning, as Oxford (in Palfreyman and Smith, 2003: 75) also claims to avoid a conceptual confusion. The generally agreed upon definition of learner autonomy is as follows:
This term describes the situation in which the learner is totally responsible for all of the decisions concerned with his learning and the implementation of those decisions. In full autonomy there is no involvement of a 'teacher' or an institution. And the learner is also independent of specially prepared materials.
(Dickinson 1987: 11)
Whilst there are claims that "the majority of students are still being taught in ways which promote dependence and leave them ill-equipped to apply their school-learnt knowledge and skills to the world beyond the classroom" (McGarry, 1995: 1), there should be a move to counter this. To do this, a move is to project five stages which Nunan (1997) explains for learners to achieve full autonomy. It begins from raising awareness, to involvement, intervention, creation, and transcendence. Autonomy, however, should not be mixed up with total independence. Promoting autonomy should rather be viewed as a supportive structure to empower learners in handling the responsibility. To resolve this conceptual misunderstanding, Little (2007) describes autonomy as learners who act for, rather than act on themselves. Autonomous learning skills assist learners to improve freely and limitlessly without forcing them to work individually to become good learners. These skills meaningfully stress on taking charge which makes them appreciate the value of ability to manage continuous learning and relating to future novel learning situations (Mynard and Sorflaten, 2003: 3).
A historical shift that set the scene for autonomous learning is the culmination of a period of apprehension of total restructuring in language teaching (Allwright, 1988). General awareness that neglecting learning for the sake of teaching cannot go on anymore helped changing focus from teaching to learning (Oxford, 1998). Modern Languages Project conducted by Council of Europe is one of the pioneers that provided the notion of autonomy with a character in the field of language teaching as there is new found awareness for the value of learning continuity further than and following teaching. Today, the Center de Recherches et d' Application en Langues (CRAPEL) project is shaping research and practice of autonomy in this field. Among the aims of CRAPEL is providing chances and supports for self-directed language learning. The relationship between language learning and the concept of individualization set up the background for theory and practice of autonomy in language learning. Another important vision of CRAPEL is to make counselling services available for learners (Benson, 2001: 8).
Critics of promoting learner autonomy
Promoting learner autonomy has met a number of criticisms in the recent years. Enhancing learner involvement is in line with some language teaching approaches such as communicative language teaching and against the precepts of approaches that focus on form. This is not congruent with the principles of post-method raised by authors like Canagarajah (2002) because learner autonomy can disregard the preferred learning styles of learners in a specific context. Another line of criticism comes from awareness of cultural issues. Critics like Benson (1997) ask whether the notion of learner autonomy is culturally appropriate as an objective for language teaching and learning, because autonomy call attention to the political issues and regarded as a device to implement social change. In response to that criticism, research into classroom learning attitudes demonstrated that learners prefer to take charge of their own learning across arrange of cultures and cultural differences among them does not make any group keen on giving full control in managing classrooms and relying unquestionably on teachers. For instance, Littlewood (2001) who conducted a large scale survey scrutinizing learners' mind-set to classroom language learning, has found that all learners are prepared for autonomy in several different European and Asian countries. The author claimed that learners are generally inclined to contribute to classroom learning actively and this does not depend on which country they are from. This reveals that all learners are keen on a dynamic participation in managing their own learning, but not all get the chance to do that.
Teachers' roles in autonomous learning
Role of teachers need to be redefined but not lessened in classrooms where autonomy is promoted. Voller (1997) summarises three significant roles for such teachers as facilitators, counsellors and resources. What is meant by facilitation includes a broad range of roles that are psychological, social and technical. The teachers should motivate, raise consciousness and assist learners to plan, assess and get hold of required skills. The second key role is counselling which means that the teacher should be ready to give advice, information and guide learners when asked or whenever they feel need be. This brings us to the third role of teachers who should act as a resource to the autonomous learner.
A challenge that readily comes to mind is to promote autonomy and act as a resourceful teacher at the same time. In other words, the question persists that how a teacher who aims to promote greater autonomy can implement the above mentioned roles as well. Some solutions that have been very effective are training and coaching learners to make more independent decisions and build up learning strategies in them and reminding them of their right to negotiate the syllabus. Dam (1995) explains the role of teacher as negotiator to be more in touch with growing learner control and that fulfils one of the key objectives of the promoting autonomy in language learning. The author claims that it is possible only when there is an atmosphere of learning through not only learners are made able of taking control of their own learning, but also they are enthusiastic in doing so. In response to classroom teachers who express doubts in the ability of a teacher to create enthusiasm in indifferent, uninterested and dependent learners, the author admits that it is not possible overnight and promoting learner autonomy is a time-consuming, painful and challenging course of action for both learners and teachers. Literature stresses the role of the teacher in the promoting learner autonomy (e.g. Breen and Mann 1997; Voller, 1997). Among research into the role of teachers in the classroom, Little (2007a and b), focused on the crucial aims of autonomous language use, which suggests the need to look deeper into learner autonomy.
Teacher autonomy as a gateway to learner autonomy
One of the methods to facilitate learner autonomy is to begin from teachers to experience autonomy themselves and when they are able to handle themselves they can transfer this skill to others (their students). It is believed that teachers who want to enhance learner autonomy have to build them deeply ingrained and ponder on their own attitude, values, practices and hopes of the ideal environment for teaching and learning (Little, 1995; Smith, 2000). The idea is great but as Sinclair, McGrath and Lamb (2000) claim, the concept of teacher autonomy turns out to be as challenging as the concept of learner autonomy. Little (2000: 45), assumes a direct relationship between learner and teacher autonomy by saying:
â€¦The development of learner autonomy depends on the development of teacher autonomy. By this I mean two things: (i) that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to foster the growth of autonomy in their learners if they themselves do not know what it is to be an autonomous learner; and (ii) that in determining the initiatives they take in the classrooms, teachers must be able to exploit their professional skills autonomously, applying to their teaching those same reflective and self-managing processes that they apply to their learning.
(Little, 2000: 45)
Successful implementation of learner autonomy is affected by a number of political, economic, social and pedagogical changes (Lamb and Reinders 2005). However, teachers need not wait for learner autonomy to be stipulated as a curriculum goal, because the advent of technological facilities is a compelling reason for the teachers to think of ways in which learners can take responsibility for their own learning. This area is very promising for future research (Lamb 2005).
Assessment as a constraint on promoting the learner autonomy
One challenge with feasibility of autonomous learning in practice is that the stakeholders behind any language classroom require a kind of accountability from the teachers who function in those contexts and this liability often only have the appearance of tangible language ability evaluations sought of each learner. The familiar and comfortable concept of marks or grades awarded for coursework does not match with the import of learner autonomy. This is because these grades are often decided by teacher alone, which is an external force to the learner control. However, to be more in line with promoting learner autonomy, two types of assessment are recommended to be used more often. These are self assessment and peer assessment that can act as alternative evaluation methods that more closely match with the goals of promoting learner autonomy. The problem still is with the uncertain reliability of these techniques as established methods for various assessment needs and until now is used to promote consciousness and boost conscientiousness for learning among learners. There is an interesting comparison between learning benefits collaborative peer, self and tutor assessment, performed by Stefani (1994) in which the students themselves determined the grading and assessed in terms of correlations between sets of marks. The author addressed reliability issues when students with higher achievement are thought to underestimate their performance and vice versa. The results of this study suggest that students observe their own abilities realistically and are capable of making rational judgements about the achievements of their classmates and peers. The results from his study were quite promising and keen the interest of researchers to consider peer and self-assessment more seriously.
A technique that might be very useful in resolving both requirements of stake holders and learner autonomy is collaborative assessment. However, in some settings, learners have been shown to be reluctant to shoulder the responsibility and a number of teachers who abandon that (Smith, 2001). There is another problem with it because each group come to a decision about its own scale and therefore groups cannot be compared with each other, which potentially undermines both the validity and reliability of the tests. Smith regards self-assessment as an appropriate tool for formative evaluation but takes issues with its appropriateness for summative evaluation. This criticism is also voiced by Dickinson (1992), who deems that the use of self-assessment is problematic for learning conditions which culminate in awarding degrees or certificates.
The choice of literature discussed cannot be inclusive, given the great attention drawn to learner autonomy in recent decades. However, this is an indication to guide this research, as present research aims to address the caveats in previous research in previous research on learner autonomy and draw first-hand insights from a group of teachers in a particular relevant context (that will be described) about how they think of issues in learner autonomy, such as the methodology, power relationships, stakeholders expectations, modes of assessment described above, teacher autonomy, and techniques for promoting learner autonomy and match them with what we know in literature and what we still have to explore further.
Design of the study
The overall design of my study will consist of case studies of 8 to 10 Saudi English teachers. The reasons for choosing this methodology are firstly, the potential to have a deep insight into the real reasons for and attitudes towards autonomous learning. Secondly, the practicality of this design for my research situation makes it feasible. Also, when the researcher is a person whom they know well them, they are more likely to readily share their perceptions and beliefs about autonomy and research will benefit from the mutual trust created because data can be elicited more accurately. Since there is not much literature on the perception of autonomy among teachers, the design for this research should have a discovery element which may also pave the way for further research. There are three purposes of social science research, exploratory, descriptive and explanatory. Exploratory research is used when problems are in a preliminary stage. (Babbie, 1989). The latter suits the description mentioned before and there is very compelling and supportive literature for the use of exploratory research, which will be shown in the next section. A type of research method which is used for solving a problem that has previously not been clearly defined is exploratory research. This design guides the most suitable research design, data collection techniques and choice of participants. We should be very cautious in concluding definitely. The nature of exploratory research does not easily allow confirming any posed problem and suits the nature of present research.
The research will be done within the Interpretivist paradigm because it is within the qualitative paradigm and draws on several sources of information philosophy, ontology and epistemology. As Interpretive approaches depend a lot on naturalistic methods of interviewing and observation and analysis of existing data, the methods and procedures for conducting present research fits the paradigm. These methods guarantee a sufficient dialogue between the researchers and research participants in order to construct together a meaningful reality and these meanings are normally developing during the research (Angen, 2000).
This paradigm provides a resource which assumes knowledge of the supporting philosophical, ontological and epistemological foundations of qualitative research. Bryman (2008) mentions three main characteristics of qualitative research that serve the purpose of this research. Firstly, it relies chiefly on the relationship between research and theory, with a stress placed on theory making, which is against the paradigm of deduction and testing theory used in quantitative methodologies. The second point is that through qualitative research, we shift from the traditional natural sciences and positivistic approaches to scrutinize the manner we can interpret the social aspects of a question. The third point of qualitative research that fits the purpose of present research is to break away from a preset or objective reality and develop a fresh insight into the shifting of perceptions of people who form it.
The data collection tools that will be used in present research consist of a series of Semi-structured individual interviews as well as personal observations. In case of this research, it is a more suitable tool than participant or non-participant observation because given the relationships that exist between participants and researcher, presence of a researcher in classes may put them in an embarrassing situation. Data from semi-structured individual interviews can be more reliable and the researcher can nullify observer's paradox by beginning with a chat with them first to relax them. The social atmosphere is conducive to research and data collection validity, which is an advantage to hope for an honest account of their beliefs to come up during the interview. Semi-structured nature of interview allows the researcher to be flexible in this process and guarantee the interview from going off-track while asking relevant and contextualised questions that contribute to collection of good data.
Based on a clear understanding of the implications of this research, the participating teachers express their satisfaction to provide the data required and the data to be used for research purposes. They are also informed of future consequences of their action, if any, and asked if they have any comments on the process of data collection. Informed consent is very critical in medical research and research that have serious consequences for participants but it is also important in social research and I plan this to be sought in a one page summary of research aims without giving away the information that might affect their attitude in terms of honesty. Out of good intentions to help me, they may tend to provide answers that please me, so I would not reveal my opinion about the positive (or negative) points I see in autonomous learning. This type of information does not help them to decide participating in my study, anyway. I will try to reach an agreement with them to continue their participation through the steps of study (if more than one step) while notifying them of their right to withdraw at any stage if they so wish.
I will point out to the participating teachers that their name is anonymised and their data is not reported to educational bodies or their line managers or used for any other purpose than my research. This is mentioned in footnotes of informed consent form described above. Their name including the name of specific school need not and should not be revealed in the articles I may publish later as a result of this research. I will keep their data in a locked cupboard and destroy their data at a certain time after culmination of study. All this is to guarantee that the data is not used to their disadvantage in case there is a change in policy, manager, etc. and give them the required assurance which is important to wholehearted participation in the project.
I will provide the participating teachers with the option to access the final results of the research in one form or another. If they expressed their interest to be informed of the results, I will ask their contact details to post them the results as a published paper. I will also ask them to note that this may take a few years, allowing time for the acceptance and publication of paper is a journal or proceedings. However, if I could report them anytime sooner, I will keep the promise and keep their contact details on file in a safe place. Perhaps the best way is to put a box in informed consent form they can tick if they want to. This is mentioned in a section of informed consent form described before.
I propose to analyse this qualitative type of data through several means appropriate in qualitative research but also triangulate the data with some statistical procedures, such as tables of frequencies of observed or elicited behaviour among the participants to ensure the validity is not undermined. The reason is that commonly qualitative analyses are labelled as not very organized. This will be taken care of by using available techniques for reducing data and making meaning out of it. The researcher will also allow the teachers or research participants to access to the data for a final validation in case to ensure the interpretations are accurate representations of their thoughts and beliefs. The researcher does not permit this accuracy check filter to take over his independent evaluation, however. The researcher will consider the ethical issues in relation to the analysis of data as well, as discussed in the relevant section before. In addition to that, data will be coded for reporting in tables in a way that the identity of the participants remains anonymous to the reader and the sensitive information cannot be accessed by authorities who may use this information as a basis for job promotion of certain teachers or use them in favour of publicity of their school, etc. at the same time, it is fair to assume that the results from the analysis should somehow benefit the participants who invested their time, energy and responded to the call of the researcher with good will. Thus, arrangements will be made to report the results to the interested participants to be in the know. Whatever, the research will conform to data protection act at any stage.
Reflective Discussion and Conclusion
Any study, there can be some strengths and limitations in the type of design used in data collection and practical issues that are inevitable realities in researcher's life. Aware of all these, the researcher will only claim what the research design will warrant to claim about the problem in question and not anything more. For example, the data from 8 to 10 teachers is not generalisable to all teachers in that environment. It will not also allow one to conclude Saudi teachers have a unified perception of the issues discussed. This is also the place to compare and contrast what is learned from this research with the insights from major works in literature in terms of relevance, or whether the results support or refute them.
It is clear that language classes, like many other classes, will benefit from promoting learner autonomy as a long term process and learners need loads of opportunities for strategy training during that. Little knowledge about the best possible strategy instruction should not stop an ongoing probe into strategies that second or foreign language teachers can use and instruct in their classrooms. Instruction of effective strategies is not a separate content area. It should be integrated to support language learning and to achieve authentic and meaningful language tasks. It is also clear that there are close relationships in fields such as the sociology of education, urban education and teacher education, and these connections need to be continuously investigated and utilised. On the other hand, we must not disregard the necessity to clarify and explain what differentiates the specific language learning and teaching context within this image of learning, where the general goal is to build the prerequisites for language learners to turn to more autonomy in both learning and using the language.
We can learn from many successful efforts to make learners more involved in decision making process regarding their learning. The literature discussed strongly supports and encourages more and more learner autonomy because many learners and teachers now realise that it is a useful and practical goal for language teaching. However, in some settings, there are greater political forces to determine the power relationships which can definitely leak into the progress of autonomy and influence its rational basis. As a result, teachers could have apprehension about their role in a classroom setting that promotes autonomy.