Losing the radical element

Edith Esch, in a chapter in Benson and Voller’s 1997 book on autonomous language learning, suggests that some practitioners of automous language learning (ALL let’s call it, eh?) are losing sight of the radical element in autonomy, whether by accident or design.

I was reminded of this when I read Nunan’a article in the same volume, and again when I read Steve Brown’s article in AYA! (2003) on stereotypical views of language learners and of autonomy (ALL). Steve’s article seemed to me to touch on something important, but I felt he hadn’t quite got to the nub of it. Dick Allwright’s comment on the article re-inforced this impression, especially his doubt about the effectiveness of Steve’s questionnaire.

This prompted me to reflect further on what the radical element of autonomy is (or was). I begin to see several radical elements, basing myself on Holec’s 1981 definition of autonomy as the ability to self-direct one’s own learning:
1) it challenges the accepted notion of learning, namely that it is the product of teaching
2) it challenges the accepted notion of a teacher, namely someone who knows (an expert) transmitting information to someone who doesn’t know
3) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as a transmitter of information and/or knowledge
4) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as central to the learning process
5) it challenges the accepted notion of learner as someone who is incapable of learning without a teacher, who is not central to the learning process

These challenges came about as the result of a number of crucial discoveries of theories in the field of learning, psychology and in particular SLA (for details see Holec 1988).

An important aspect for me in developing my understanding of autonomy has been having the opportunity to exchange ideas, bounce ideas off of other people, especially people who are equally interested and ideally more experienced than me in ALL. The first major opportunity came when a new colleague joined Tezukayama University. He was the first full-time colleague (and I include the Japanese staff in that) I could really talk to about teaching, learning and EFL (as well as a whole bunch of other things like music and love).

The second major opportunity was the Les Brunets seminar on autonomy, led by Henri Holec himself, and hosted by Turid Trebbi of the University of Bergen, Norway, in July 2004. This led me to read a lot more about autonomy, including re-reading things I’d read 4-5 years previously, and to discuss them with my colleague.

A third opportunity was less directly, through reading the AYA book, JALT’s Learner Development SIG’s collaborative effort. This introduced me to the idea of Collaborative Development.

It is this idea which I now think is central to the radical-ness of autonomy.

One major lesson I learned from the Les Brunets seminar was the power of negotiation: the teacher’s role in developing autonomy is more like a psychologist/counsellor, helping the “patient” find their own solution to their own problem. This process includes discovering (with the patient’s help and participation) how the patient sees the problem. This is what is important; not the expert psychologist’s view. The psychologist’s role (I’m referring here to what I know of Gestalt psychology) is to help the patient re-frame the problem. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

In a similar way, the teacher’s role in helping students develop autonomy is to ask them questions, to find out how they perceive their needs and wants, how they think those needs/wants can be fulfilled, what materials or methods they think are necessary or helpful.

A story to illustrate. Turid told of a boy she was talking to about what he wanted to do in English class. He said, listen to songs. She then asked him what exactly he would do. He said, translate the songs into his native language. Turid doubted the value of this; it sounded like an activity the boy came up with because of his past experience of foreign language classes, i.e. an outdated method based on now superceded understandings of SLA. But she said nothing, allowing the boy to find his own way. Some time later she met him again and looked at what he had done. He had pasted the song lyrics on 1 side of the page, and on the other written his own translation. But then he had gone further, and marked arrows here and there on both pages. Looking closely, Turid noticed the arrows pointed to grammatical elements, and illustrated discoveries the boy had made about English word order and syntax. Turid had learned a valuable lesson: her decision to override her initial instinct to dissuade the boy from his chosen course of action had been a good one.

The point I’m trying to make here (I think!) is that there are teachers who have reached a stage of humility, a stage where they realize that although they know a lot, it is the learner who needs to discover rather than be told, and so the teacher’s role becomes one of a counsellor asking questions that seem pertinent but in the spirit of exploration rather than teaching or guiding.

It is this spirit I feel is absent in the writings of Nunan and some others. It is this spirit I feel is present in the writings of Holec, Esch and others such as John Holt.

This spirit of humility, this decision to “teach” by exploring together with students, not as a clever technique but because the teacher has come to the understanding and realization that this is in fact a better way to teach; the understanding that the teacher’s knowledge cannot be most effectively transferred directly, but instead can be put to best use by helping the learner to learn, to discover, is key, I think.

It is similar to the position of some people in the field of critical pedagogy. It is highly illuminating, for instance, to compare some articles in AYA (e.g. Andy Barfield’s) with, for instance, Alastair Pennycook’s chapter in “Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning” (Norton & Toohey, 2004). There is the same questioning, the same “skeptical self-direction” (Barfield, 2003: 53).

The questioning approach is supported, I think, by the collaboration between people, both in the projects and action researches, and in the writing process, and later in the post-writing (the critical comments inserted after each article in the AYA book). This collaboration seems to me a natural extension, or rather a counterpart, to the back-and forth exchanges between teacher and learners in, what are to my mind the most interesting and impressive, examples of language advising or autonomy “guidance”.

The above perhaps also explains my instinctive suspicions of the various “learner training” ideas, including those of Joan Rubin, Wenden, Chamot, Uhl, Robbins and the CALLA gang. The idea of “learner training” immediately suggests a trainer or leader or teacher who knows. How different this is to the attitudes of Holec, Esch, Benson, Barfield, Pennycook: they know they don’t know and that they need to discover. We don’t know how language is acquired, so we need to discover the process. Perhaps the process is unique to every learner, in which case we need to discover it, or help each individual discover it, on an individual basis.

Not long ago, my colleague commented on something he’d read in Robert Kiyosak’s book “Rich Kid, Smart Kid”. Kiyosaki wrote that he had learned to be humble when teaching or giving seminars: “If I think I know more than the students, then I know I’m in for trouble” (or words to that effect). My colleague’s comment was, if he doesn’t know more than his students, what’s he doing leading the seminar? I think I can now answer the question: Kiyosaki may know more about finance and about money, but he doesn’t know more than his students how to learn about this. I think this is what Kiyosaki was talking about.

Many years ago, I practiced Aikido, and did some research on the founder of modern Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. One of the things that struck me about him was how he was always discovering amazing things. He did not seem to be a man who set out to master supernatural powers, they just seemed to come to him. Those who knew him, at least towards the end of his life, seem to agree that he was a humble man who maintained a sense of wonder and of discovery. A master swordsman once challenged him to a duel (Ueshiba was always getting such challenges). Finally, Ueshiba assented. They were both in the dojo. The swordmaster was ready, but Ueshiba took up no defensive stance, and did not even pay much attention to the other. He pottered around his dojo, watering some plants, re-arranging things, humming to himself. The swordsman was completely nonplussed and found himself quite unable to raise the necessary agression – how could he attack this old man who wasn’t even looking at him? Instead of being angry that Ueshiba wasn’t giving him a proper challenge, he recognized the superiority of the other, and asked Ueshiba to accept him as a student.

“Don’t look into the eyes of the other; don’t be influenced by the intention of others. I don’t look into the eyes of others. I simply put them all into my belly. Then agressors fall all by themselves. That’s the best way.” He also said, “We should leave everything in the hands of God.”

I’m still not completely clear why I have put in here these quotes and anecdotes of Ueshiba, but I feel they are relevant in some way.

Perhaps it comes down to the old adage: the fools think they know, whereas the wise know they don’t know and try to learn more. We (SLA researchers, EFL teachers) simply don’t know enough yet about how language is acquired to be able to lay down the law to learners. Lots of practice is obviously necessary, but what kind of practice depends on many variables that the teacher does not know: the purposes of the learner, the past experiences that have moulded the learner’s attitudes, motivations and beliefs.

Perhaps it is time to jettison the word “autonomy”. I’m beginning to feel it is getting in the way.

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