AUTONOMOUS LEARNING
 


Lifelong learning

Despite the increased duration of education, the knowledge and skills acquired will not be sufficient for a professional career spanning three or four decades or for our personal development as individuals in the context of the knowledge society because of the continuous and accelerated changes in it. Lifelong learning is not an option, it is a must due to the continuous challenging educational needs generated in a world. That is what Darling-Hammond (2002, 332) affirms:

‘we must rethink how schools are designed, how teaching and learning are pursued, and how resources are allocated. If we want schools not merely to ‘deliver instruction' but to ensure that all students learn in more powerful and effective ways, we must create schools that are sufficiently personalized to know their students well, that are managed and staffed by teachers who are professionally prepared and supported, and that are funded equitably…'.

Thus, we need new educational models should be implemented based on the need to motivate and to provide our pupils the means and opportunities to learn how to learn a leading one. The proverb 'Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime' makes sense these days more than ever before.

It is a complex tasks that requires different steps. Work on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and on attitudes, on different procedures and skills (using different materials, finding and understanging information, practising the four skills, making summaries or mind maps, ...) on reflection on the ways to learn best individually and in group, etc. It is essential to train them to reflect on their own learning process. It is a way to get to know themselves much better and thus to make the most of themselves.

You can find useful information reading the document Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality or being involved in the Lifelong Learning Programme of the E. U.

 

 

Fostering learner's autonomy

Fostering learner's autonomy is a very necessary but also complex goal to be achieved.

Thanasoulas explains that Positivism, the leading approach to knowledge and learning in the twentieth century is not a valid model nowadays. Quite the contrary, the author defends the necessity to support educational processes much more based on the contributions of Constructivism and the Critical Theory. Knowledge doesn´t reflect reality but an ideologically influenced version of it and it can´t be learned or discovered but constructed. That is why the learner´s active and autonomous role is so important.

Different elements have to be considered when thinking about the way to do it: we have to motivate them to learn, situations in which they have to develop their own autonomy have to be created, we have to guide them in the process to develop a set of specific skills, we have to support them in the exercise of their responibility, some guidence has to be given for them to learn how to establish their own goals, they have to learn to evaluate what are the results of the process, etc.

It is not easy. We teachers tend to reproduce the way we learnt but we can´t continue doing it any more. Underhill (1999) stated clearly that we can no longer be lecturers or teachers but providers. We have to assume that we are educators and it implies that we are no only a source of information to be taught/learnt. Our role in the classromm only makes sense if we think about providing pupils with the opportunity to learn how to learn and motivating them to do it throughout their lives.

Some key points to consider when thinking about how to promote autonomous learning are:

 



1.- Motivation and attitudes

What´s the attitude of our students towards English? When I started teaching, a long time ago, I remember my students complaining about studying English.They didn´t find it useful and they were not very eager to learn it."What do we want it for?" They used to tell me.

Nowadays, things are different. New technologies and above all, the Internet have revolutionized the whole process of teaching and learning. They have made our students think of another way and now, they can see the importance of English and they feel more motivated to study it .They can communicate with different people from all over the world and they can access different information, videos, songs, art, history,etc..and everything is in English!.

So, if things are like this, why do we have so many problems in our classes? Why don´t our students want to study it? When I ask them about it, they usually answer that it´s a bit boring since they study the same things every year and most of it, grammar and grammar; they would like funnier classes and different activities so that they can use English in a practical way. Traditional classes and English books are always dull and difficult for them (to be honest, more uncomfortable as well!).

This is a worrying situation because the teachers do spend a lot of energy in trying our students to learn and get the objectives we would like them to achieve although it not only happens in the English subject but also in the other ones ( it´s a consolation to think that everyone is in the same boat). If we think about it, we get to the conclusion that in fact, our students are just a reflection of the times we are living, a consumer and a competitive society in which human values are being forgotten and short-terms objectives are replacing to the long-term ones.A society where material things are very important and we want to have them without effort and quickly . Culture and knowledge are not important any longer and our students´ interests are based on immediate needs.They just want to pass the exams.

In this context, we have a real challenge as we have to find creative ways to teach the language and increase their motivation to the learning of it. In 1972, Gardner and Lambert already introduced the notions of instrumental and integrative motivation,the first one referred to utilitarian purposes such as employment or travel or exam purposes and the second one related to the desire to learn a language; our important task will consist of combining both of them and integrate them successfully.The balance between the immediate needs of examinations and the long-term needs of communicative competence.

Here is an example of a very simple questionnaire designed to focus on attitudes to learn English so that we can get useful information about our students.The results are divided into optimistic and pesisimistic opinions with the aim of reinforcing the positive ones and working on the negative ones (for example,telling them about how much English there is around them,teaching them strategies etc..)

As we know, attitudes and motivation are very related to each other. If you have a positive attitude, you will be motivated to learn but if you are not motivated, your attitude will not be so positive and you will be more reluctant to learn. That´s why, we must be aware that the construct of motivation is not a single entity but a multifactorial one and there are some factors such as the following ones that play an important role in motivation and should be taken into account if we want to run our classes efficiently :

*Positive attitude. We must try to get an atmosphere of cooperation, tolerance and mutual support. We will encourage our students to respect each other and it will be important to ask our students for their opinions, reactions and preferences (to find out about your students´ interests). We must also offer them tasks at differents levels related to the same input. This way, the students will be more open to learning.

*Positive self-steem. If the learners feel uncomfortable or insecure, they won´t be able to communicate effectively. They must be able to express themselves openly and in a relaxed way. As in Maslow´s theory, which shows how people are motivated, our basic needs must be satisfied before we can give our attention to higher thinking skills. Although it is easy to take into account factors such as hot or cold,even sometimes it´s a bit difficult to keep students on learning in such circumstances, it´s much more difficult to take into account people ´s emotional needs but if don´t do it the learning will not work successfully. Students feel the necessity of being noticed and valued, so recognising good behaviour, effort and good work will be essential.

*Personalisation activities.It´s a good idea to provide students with activities which enable them to talk or write about themselves, about their experiences and feelings.We must give them opportunities to get to know each other in order to create a sense of cohesion within the group.

*Students involvement. Our classes should be designed to get the learners being involved in the language learning process in different ways. They must be conscious of the objetives they want to achieve throughout the course, as NLP says: "Knowing what you want helps you to achieve it". So, the more clearly we know what we want, the more clearly we express the goals to ourselves, the more likely we are to be successful.If we tell our students what we are doing and why, if we make them aware of the things we are studying we will be helping them learn.

*Students participation. We must encourage our students to prticipate in the class activities.Tasks, projects.. will be designed having in mind our learners´ different styles and preferences.We musn´t forget that people learn in different ways and at different speed .By providing them with auditory,visual,sensority,verbal and non-verbal inputs, varied activities relating to different senses and different intelligence types,we will be offering our students more effective learning opportunities.

We already know that there is no "magic formula" in getting great things but if we try to "humanize" our classes and be sistematic and coherent about what we do and say , we will be doing our bit to optimize results and get better English students, better students with a more positive attitude and more motivated to learn

 



2.- A new role for pupils and teachers: collaborative work

Collaborative work is an mportant part of the work to be done to achieve cognitive development in the knowledge society, a context where the future citizens will need of team work, a way to support affective and intellectual stimulation, critical experimentation and reflection on all this. We must foster pupils' autonomy by providing them with the chance to work in an autonomous way, and it can be done not only individually but in groups too.

Collaborative work multiplies the pupils' opportunities to use the foreign language in a communicative way, is a way to promote the emergence of importanthuman values and attitudes, can help pupils to develop the sense of responsibility when planning their work. is an excellent chance for pupils to know themselves and the others and to see those differences as a positive value and is recommended when working with mixed ability groups.

It implies a change in the roles of teachers (advisers and providers) and pupils (a more active and autonomous role) and it needs of a traiming period to put on the group the responsibilty for planning and organising the teaching learning-process, to do it, to assess its value and even to sugges ways to improve the process. It should be a carefully graded process based on reflection on its advantages and disadvantages.

There are lots of different types of activities to promote collaborative work, e.g., some types of pair work based on the development of complementary roles. We find particularly interesting the use of project work, where pupils have to develop both individual and group work to achieve a final task. Including the use of I.C.T., we can do it getting our pupils involved in the resolution of WebQuests.

 



3.- Strategies: some ideas
.

Wenden (1998:18) defined strategies as 'mental steps or operations that learners use to learn new language or to regulate their efforts to do so'. The Common European Framework, defines them as 'a means the language user exploits to mobilise and balance his or her resources, to activate skills and procedures, in order to fulfil the demands of communication in context and successfully complete the task in question in the most comprehensive or most economical way feasible depending on his or her precise purpose'.

Oxford (Language Learning Strategies : What every teacher should know. Newbury House, 1990) supports a conscious use of strategies explaining that they contribute to develop communicative competence, allow learners to become more self-directed, involve the use of cognitive and non cognitive aspects, support learning both directly and indirectly and can be taught. According to her, they are connected with the communicative approaches to foreign language and coincide with the methodological guideliness recommended by the E.U.

She offers an interesting classification of the different strategies we use to learn

1.- Direct strategies : Memory strategies. Cognitive strategies. Compensation strategies.

2.- Indirect strategies : Metacognitive strategies. Affective strategies. Social strategies.

The classification of strategies proposed in the Common European FrameworK of Reference (C.E.F.R.) considers them as the application of the metacognitive principles in four different steps: pre-planning, execution, monitoring, and repair action to the different kinds of communicative activities: productive, receptive, interactive, mediating and non-verbal communication activities and strategies.

Both proposals are different but complementary.

 




4.- A new way to use all the resources available.

Needless to say again, nowadays there are plenty of materials available to us. The only problem is the criteria we use to select them. Another important point is the diversity we have to cope with in each classroom. Every group is a mixed ability one : different social background, different interests and needs, different previous knowledge, different cognitive styles, etc. That's why we have to use a different approach where all these resources available find their opportunity to be used by each individual in the group who learns in a different way.

For a long time, we teachers felt the responsibility to teach our subject to pupils who only had to learn it, and we used to think of it in terms of an homogeneous process in which everyone had to learn the same things following the same pace. Perhaps we were not aware of the fact that learning is the pupils' responsibility too and we have to provide a variety of opportunities and materials for each individual to learn.

We have to be careful when we plan our lessons and an important point is the materials we select and the way we use them. Tomlinson (Materials Development in Language Teaching. C.U.P:, 1998) listed some criteria we can consider when doing it : materials should achieve impact, help learners to feel at ease and develop confidence, require and facilitate learner self-investment, help learners to pay attention to the linguistic features of the input, provide with opportunities to use the language with communicative purposes, take into account that learners differ in their learning styles and in their affective attitudes, maximise learning potential, ...

At the same time, we have to think of what we shall use them for and the way to do it. When doing it, consider the possibilities provided by self-access centres. They are an excellent make ou students much more responsible of their learning process by working in an autonomous way. It may seem a little bit complicated at first but it is a long term goal that can be achieved step by step. And you can do it by cooperating with other colleagues.

 



5.- Self e
valuation-assesment.

Self evaluation/assesment is basic to develop learner's autonomy. If we learn to make the most of ourselves, not only shall learn more but we shall be motivated to keeep on learning. That´s why we have a double task ahead:

a.- To learn how we learn speaking in general terms : To learn how we learn and to strengthen that processes we recommend you to have a look at other sections of our site : multiple intelligences, neurolinguistic programming, emotional intelligence, the dominance profiles theory, brain gym,...

b.- To learn how we learn foreign languages : To learn how we learn foreign languages the European Language Portfolio (E.L.P.) is basic. It is a group of complementary documents to help students to reflect about their achievements in the learning process : the Language Passport, the Language Biography and the Dossier.

According to Herbert Puchta parents, pupils and teacher will find the use of portfolio most useful for different reasons : the learning process becomes more meaningful, the learning progress becomes visible and noticeable, parallel to the improvement of their competence, the growing of the students' confidence, the development of the learner's study skills, the development of the capacity to plan their further learning, the development of the learner's cross-cultural understanding, the increasement of participation and autonomy on the learners' part ,...

May be at first some people don´t find it very useful. But the E.L.P. is a long term tool, a self-assessment grid showing major categories of language use at each of the six levels of th C.E.F.R. intended not only to help learners to profile their main language skills but also to be aware of what they can learn, to decide the level of proficiency they want to achieve and to find different possibilities to do it.

 



Fostering teacher's autonomy

Not all teachers feel the need to be autonomous. Many of them are involved in a teaching-learning process in which they are directed and they accept it without questioning it. However there are lots of them who like feeling free to decide what to do, when and what for. All of us are competent enough to do it and only by doing it can we be aware of its importance. Only autonomous teachers will use their lessons to foster the pupils' autonomy, something essential for them in the society they will have to live in.

Autonomy is something basic in the new context, but it is not enough. Strange as it may seem, it is complementary to collaborative work. Isolation is a very negative element in the present situation. The knowledge society needs people who work in teams as a way to support affective and intellectual stimulation, critical experimentation and reflection on all this. That is, teachers who work in cooperation with their environment and who consider their wor kas the application of shared knowledge derived from research.

Cooperating and contrasting ideas do not necessarily go against autonomy. They are the way to fight isolation, a very negative element that goes against innovation and professional development. And it is just a question of habits because professional cooperation can be easily developed nowadays thanks to the creation of internatio-nal professional networks based on the use of I.C.T.. Rejecting cooperative work no longer makes sense.

In the process to adopt our own teaching-learning decissions we have frequently created our own materials. Have a look at these samples. You can find them useful.

 

Some useful books :

Davis, P. , Garside, B. & Rinvolucri, M. (1998). Ways of Doing. Cambridge, Handbooks for Language Teachers.

Wright, A. (1988). Pictures for Language Learning. Cambridge, Handbooks for Language Teachers.

Tomlinson, B. (ed) (1988). Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge, C.U.P.

Lower, R & Target, F. (1988). Helping Students to Learn. A guide to Students Autonomy. London, Richmond Publ.

Hancock, M. (2003). English Pronunciation in Use. Cambridge. C.U.P.