Three decades working with language learner autonomy

This month we are publishing Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen. In this post the authors reflect on three decades’ work in the field.

Learner autonomy entails that learners are fully involved in planning, implementing and evaluating their own learning. We were first introduced to the concept in the 1980s. For Leni Dam it offered a way of responding to the challenge of differentiation in teaching and learning at school; for Lienhard Legenhausen and David Little it was a prerequisite for successful self-access language learning at university. Our collaboration of almost three decades, however, has focused on classroom learning. Leni and Lienhard have used empirical techniques to explore the outcomes of autonomous language learning and compare them with the outcomes achieved by learners working with a ‘communicative’ textbook; while David has been concerned to derive pedagogical principles from successful practice to facilitate replication in other contexts.

Although learner autonomy has been a focus for innovation in language education for almost forty years, it’s equally relevant to other areas of the curriculum. In our view its operationalization entails that learner self-management and reflective learning are exercised and further developed via ‘practice’ appropriate to the curriculum subject in question. In a language classroom, practice means use of the target language as the preferred medium of communication and reflection. Under guidance from their teacher, autonomous language learners use the target language from the beginning to plan, implement and evaluate their learning. Writing plays an indispensable role: learning is documented in logbooks and portfolios, and this supports use of the oral language and facilitates reflection on the process and content of learning.

It is sometimes assumed that learner autonomy is concerned exclusively with individual learning, but this is a misunderstanding. All effective classroom learning is based on interactive communication; what makes the autonomy classroom different is the fact that, by definition, the learners have equal right of access to all discourse roles, initiating as well as responding. Our experience leads us to define the autonomy classroom as a self-generating and self-maintaining community of practice whose members develop proficiency by using the target language to manage their own learning individually and collaboratively. This means that they devise their own learning materials and produce a wide variety of creative texts – stories, poems, plays, and reports on projects of many different kinds.

Some years ago, Leni asked a class of 15-year-olds, ‘After four years of learning English, how would you assess your overall progress?’ This is what one girl wrote (transcribed without correction):

“I already make use of the fixed procedures from our diaries when trying to get something done at home. Then I make a list of what to do or remember the following day. That makes things much easier. I have also via English learned to start a conversation with a stranger and ask good questions. And I think that our “together” session has helped me to become better at listening to other people and to be interested in them. I feel that I have learned to believe in myself and to be independent.”

Clearly, in four years this learner has acquired a proficiency in English that extends her communicative and reflective capacity and with it her identity. Her facility in writing implies that English is a fully integrated part of her developing plurilingual literacy.

The autonomy classroom shares fundamental pedagogical principles with inclusive education. It is thus not surprising that autonomous learning succeeds with students whose learning difficulties might cause them to fail in more traditional pedagogical settings. We have also found that learner autonomy empowers adult refugees learning the language of their host community; and that when primary pupils from immigrant families are encouraged to use their home languages in the classroom (even though their teacher may not understand them), this not only helps them come to grips with curriculum content but also gives them an interest in taking autonomous learning initiatives.

Everything we have written about learner autonomy over the past thirty years or so has taken successful practice as its starting point, and we have always believed that learner autonomy is first a pedagogical imperative and only secondly a fertile research topic. Aimed at student teachers, teacher educators and language learning researchers, our book will have served its purpose if it encourages more language teachers to embrace the principles of learner autonomy and find ways of implementing them in their classrooms.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also enjoy Managing Diversity in Education edited by David Little, Constant Leung and Piet Van Avermaet.

Managing Diversity in Education

Last month we published Managing Diversity in Education edited by David Little, Constant Leung and Piet Van Avermaet. Here, David tells us a bit about how the book came together.

Managing Diversity in EducationManaging Diversity in Education began to take shape at an international conference organised by Trinity College Dublin’s Trinity Immigration Initiative in June 2010. The conference marked the end of the Initiative, a network of five loosely linked research projects that were philanthropically funded from 2007 to 2010. One of the projects (which I directed) was concerned with the provision of English language support for immigrant students attending post-primary school in Ireland. The strand of the conference devoted to language education mostly comprised reports on Irish research in different educational sectors, but we also had an international dimension: Constant Leung (King’s College London) and Piet Van Avermaet (University of Ghent) were our invited speakers, and both had things to say that complemented local contributions while opening up broader perspectives.

As the conference drew to an end, Constant, Piet and I reviewed the presentations we had heard. We were impressed by their quality and their variety and agreed that they were worth publishing. But on their own they were not enough to make a book, and a book would in any case need a greater diversity of themes and perspectives. So we started contacting colleagues in various countries who we knew could contribute chapters that would add substance and variety to the three preoccupations of the conference papers: linguistic diversity, policy and pedagogy. Not all of those we contacted were in a position to write something for us, but an encouraging number were. By the time we approached Multilingual Matters we had contributions from eight countries: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Nevertheless, seven of the sixteen chapters come from Ireland. Read together, they provide a comprehensive overview of the country’s response to the educational challenges posed by large-scale immigration: the implementation of official policy in primary and post-primary schools; the often inadequate provision of English language support at post-primary and tertiary levels; the sometimes hostile attitudes of teachers; the positive contribution made by research, especially the research carried out under the auspices of the Trinity Immigration Initiative; and innovative pedagogical developments in some schools. But the perspectives these chapters offer are greatly enriched by the multiple links between them and the contributions from other countries. For example, Déirdre Kirwan describes the way in which the girls’ primary school of which she is principal, situated in one of Dublin’s western suburbs, has progressed from a narrow view of English language support to a focus on plurilingual awareness that exploits pupils’ home languages in many different ways. It’s an inspiring story that assumes added resonance when it is read together with the discussion by Sven Sierens and Piet Van Avermaet of “functional multilingual learning”, the account that Nelson Flores and Ofelia García give of translanguaging in a high school for newly arrived Spanish-speaking immigrants in New York City, Natalie Auger’s description of the ways in which immigrant languages have been exploited in a number of French schools, and Shelley Taylor’s account of the management of linguistic diversity in Nepali primary schools. All other contributions to the book are similarly enriched by the chapters that surround them.

Editing a collection like Managing Diversity in Education is an instructive experience. One learns a great deal simply by reading the contributions as they come in, and more by gradually deciding the order in which they should be presented. Compiling the indexes provides a vivid reminder of the complex interplay of themes and arguments that runs through the contributions and of the international reach of published research, and this is reinforced when the proofs land one one’s desk. When a copy of the published book arrives in the post one sighs with relief, but one also hopes that readers will gain from it something of the same instruction and stimulation that the editors have enjoyed.

For further information on the book please see our website. If you found this interesting you might also like other books in the New Perspectives on Language and Education series.