In this paper the researcher explores some of the main concepts in the area of learner autonomy and makes an attempt to implement them in the Libyan EFL context. After explaining learner autonomy and the different levels of control involved in autonomous learning, the researcher presents the reasons for fostering autonomy with special emphasis on the Libyan context, particularly in universities. The researcher also suggests some preliminary practices that can be applied to the Libyan EFL context. At the end, the conclusion summarises the most important points raised in the paper.
2. What is Learner Autonomy?
There have been several definitions of learner autonomy, but, probably the most frequently cited one is Henri Holec’s definition which has reconceptualised the role of learners in the learning process. In addition to defining autonomy as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (Holec, 1981: 3), Holec (1981: 3) explained that autonomous learners have the ability to make all the decisions related to their learning: from determining objectives and defining the content to selecting methods, monitoring and evaluating what has been learnt.
Holec’s aims were to foster a kind of autonomy which is not only concerned with learning but also an autonomous approach which has far–reaching implications for society and its structures and this is what has been emphasized by Benson (2001) and Little (1991:7). This means that autonomy may also help learners to be more “responsible and critical members of the communities in which they live” (Benson, 2001: 1), in other words to become ‘a fully functioning member of society’ so as to bring about changes within society, education systems and language learning. (Benson, 2001: 19).
Although Holec’s reconceptualisation of the educational process covered all the areas that involve the transfer of control over learning from the teacher to the learner, other researchers such as Benson (2001: 49) do not agree with him and maintains that Holec’s account of learner autonomy does not take into consideration “the nature of the cognitive capabilities underlying effective self-management of learning”. Little (1991: 3-4) realized this weakness in Holec’s definition and argued that
“autonomy is a capacity – for detachment, critical reflection, decision making, and independent action. It presupposes, but also entails, that the learner will develop a particular kind of psychological relation to the process and content of his learning. The capacity for autonomy will be displayed both in the way the learner learns and in the way he or she transfers what has been learned to wider contexts”.
For this reason, Benson (2001) prefers Little’s definition and argues that this definition adds a vital psychological aspect to Holec’s definition in that it describes autonomy as control over the cognitive processes involved in effective self-management of learning (Benson, 2001:49). However Benson (2001: 49) maintains that Holec’s and Little’s definitions of autonomy seem to underestimate the fact that autonomous learning presupposes the freedom of learner to determine the content of learning.
Although several definitions of learner autonomy have been proposed, confusion and disagreement about what autonomy is as well as other misconceptions of this area of applied linguistics are still present. This has led Little (1991) to summarize the characteristics that are not ascribable to autonomy. He (1991: 3) emphasises that autonomy is not synonymous with self-instruction, which mistakenly implies that autonomy requires teachers to hand over the whole learning process in the classroom to learners and thus, renders them redundant. Little (1991: 3) also clarified the fact that autonomy is not a teaching method which can be implemented through a series of lesson plans. Finally, he (1991: 3) insists that autonomy is not a single easily described behaviour or a stable state reached by learners.
Benson (2001: 49) adds another fundamental component of autonomous learning which is to allow learners to take control over their own learning by giving them the opportunity to determine the content as well as the objectives and purposes of their learning. Benson (2001: 49) also argues that learner autonomy has “a social aspect, which may involve control over learning situations and call on particular capacities concerned with the learner’s ability to interact with others in the learning process”. Although learner autonomy gives the learners a high degree of freedom, the social element of autonomy makes this freedom constrained to some extent, but as Little, (1991: 5) argues “Because we are social beings our independence is always balanced by dependence; our essential condition is one of interdependence”.
Perhaps the best summary of all these definitions and with which the researcher agrees is provided by Benson (2001: 47) who described learner autonomy as “a multidimensional capacity that will take different forms for different individuals, and even for the same individual in different contexts or at different times”.
3. Autonomy and Control over the Learning Process
According to Benson (2001: 75), autonomy presupposes learners’ readiness to take control over their own learning, which means that they “initiate and manage their own learning, set their own priorities and agendas and attempt to control psychological factors that influence their learning”. To be considered as autonomous, learners have to take control of their learning in a systematic way, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to encourage, support and assist them in doing so. If autonomy is considered as an objective of language education, teachers and educational institutions should make the required effort to promote autonomy. This can be done through implementing practices which encourage and enable learners to take more control of all aspects of their learning, which in turn, will help them to become better language learners (Benson, 2001: 109).
Benson (2001:47) argues that control over learning takes distinct forms at different levels of the learning process. However, Benson (2001:50) believes that any “adequate description of autonomy in language learning should at least recognise the importance of three levels at which control may be exercised: learning management, cognitive processes and learning content”. He maintains that these levels are interdependent because “effective learning management depends on the control of the cognitive processes” and “control of cognitive processes necessarily has consequences for the self-management of learning” (Benson, 2001: 50). He further argues that “self-management and control over cognitive processes should involve decisions concerning the content of learning” (Benson, 2001: 50).
3.1 Autonomy and Control over Learning Management
Benson (2001: 76) maintains that “Control over learning management can be described in terms of the behaviours that learners employ in order to manage the planning, organization and evaluation of their learning”. Management over learning is considered an integral element of effective self-directed learning and is taken to be the key to successful language learning and to learning how to learn. When learning a language learners undoubtedly need certain language learning strategies to manage their learning.
Learning strategies have been defined differently by different researchers. For example, Chamot and Kupper (1989:13) define learning strategies as “techniques which students use to comprehend, store, and remember new information and skills”. Oxford et al (1989:29) regard language learning strategies as “actions, behaviours, steps, or techniques…used by learners to enhance learning”. Oxford (1990:8) views learning strategies as “specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations”. According to Brown (2000: 113) strategies are “specific methods of approaching a problem or task, modes of operation for achieving a particular end, planned designs for controlling and manipulating certain information”. Cohen (1998) argues that learning strategies are consciously selected by learners.
Strategies are classified into three main types: metacognitive, cognitive and socio-affective strategies. Metacognitive strategies help learners to “coordinate their own learning process” (Oxford, 1990:135-136). They provide the learners with ways to plan, organise and evaluate their learning. Cognitive strategies are “more limited to specific learning tasks and involve more direct manipulation of the learning material itself” (Brown, 2000: 124). Socio-affective strategies involve the regulation of emotions, motivations and attitudes and also facilitate learning through interaction and learning with others (Oxford, 1990:135,145).
The discussion about learning strategies steers us towards the topic of strategy training and its aims which Cohen (1998: 67) explained as follows:
“Strategy training, i.e. explicitly teaching students how to apply language learning and language use strategies, can enhance students’ effort to reach language program goals because it encourages students to find their own pathways to success, and thus it promotes learner autonomy and self-direction.”
It should be noted that strategy training can be conducted alongside the teaching of language itself. Practically, this means that teachers should include components of strategy training within their lessons. In this way teachers assist their students in improving their skills in learning how to learn and in developing effective strategy use which in turn enable learners to use their language outside the classroom (Nunan, 1991: 181).
The goal of learner training is to facilitate language learning by providing learners with a wide range of strategies to choose from during their learning and language use (Cohen, 1998: 65). This implies that proficiency will be improved and autonomy will be fostered.
Benson (2001: 65) argues that “learners who achieve proficiency in foreign languages tend to take some degree of control over the overall direction of their learning”. Therefore, training learners to manage their own learning is vital when implementing learner autonomy.
3.2. Autonomy and Control over Content and Cognitive Processes
Control over cognitive processes is concerned with specific mental processes which “offer a concise account of the psychological factors underpinning control over learning behaviour.” (Benson, 2001:87). Benson (2001) argues that control over cognitive processes is mainly concerned with three aspects: attention, reflection and metacognitive knowledge (Figure 1).
Attention is considered essential for language learning if it is to be effective. Language learners have to exert cognitive responsibility for the linguistic input, because as Tomila and Villa (1994: 184) argue, the learner is “ overwhelmed by incoming L2 input, and it is a virtual certainty that attention employed to help sort out that input and to bring order to the chaos threatening to, and sometimes succeeding in, overwhelming the learner”. Bialystock argues that
The reason that … language proficiency increases, is that mental representations develop. Analysis is the process by which mental representations that were loosely organized around meanings become rearranged into explicit representations that are organised around formal structures. … Because cognition originates in mental representations, then there must be a means of focusing attention on specific representations, … relevant to a particular purpose. … Awareness is the result of the interaction between analysis and control. Analysed representations can be attended to by means of control of processing in precise ways. … This process of focusing attention onto specific aspects of the representations gives rise to the subjective feeling of awareness that has been called consciousness. (Bialystock, 1994:159-65; cited in Benson, 2001:88-9)
Reflection is also believed to be one of the main components of learner autonomy. Accordingly, Little (1997) argues that if autonomy is to be implemented in formal learning, reflection, then, is imperative in autonomous learning for “formal learning is the result of deliberate intention” (Little, 1997: 94). As a result, in addition to reflecting on the language itself, learners will also be able to reflect on the process of learning and develop their own way of learning by applying the results of their own reflections. This view of reflection is supported by Kohonen (1992:17) who argues that “Only experience that is reflected upon seriously will yield its full measure of learning, and reflection must in turn be followed by testing of hypotheses in order to obtain further experience.”
It is believed that control over content is fundamental to autonomy too. With regard to control over the learning content Benson (2001:102) argues that it “requires, more than any other aspect of autonomy, that teachers and education authorities create situational contexts in which freedom in learning is encouraged and rewarded.” In Libyan classroom teaching the content is determined by teachers and the national curriculum, hence learners cannot exercise any control over the content. However, if learner autonomy is to be implemented in the Libyan context, learners should have their say about the syllabus and textbooks that they are using in the language classroom. To develop learner autonomy then, negotiation has to take place so that a balance can be achieved between what learners want to study and what the institution offers. In this way autonomy can be fostered through interdependence.
4. Why Fostering Learner Autonomy?
Cotteral (1995:220) argues that autonomy has to be promoted to enable learners learn even when they do not have access to teachers’ instruction and that they will learn more effectively if they do not depend on teachers’ help. Discussing a course strategies for learner autonomy Cotteral (1995: 222-223) argues that in order to foster autonomy learner/teacher dialogue about all aspects of language learning should be encouraged, and that learners’ beliefs about learning should be questioned and related to information about factors which contribute to language learning success. This, she maintains, will provide learners with the vocabulary necessary to talk about their language learning experience. Cotteral (1995: 224) asserts that a course which fosters autonomy “must incorporate frank discussions of objectives, methodology, roles, and expectations”. In this way she argues learners will be able to think about the application of classroom tasks to their future needs.
4.1 Reasons to Promote Learner Autonomy in Libya
Dickinson (1995: 171) regards autonomy as factor in the motivation-success chain and asserts that ‘Success in learning … appears to lead to greater motivation only for those students who accept responsibility for their own learning success’. Thus, learner autonomy increases students’ motivation which in turn leads to more effective learning.
Traditional teacher-centred approaches do not give learners their right to freely choose what they want to learn and how to learn. However, learner autonomy brings back this freedom to the learners and prepares them to abandon the idea of being teacher-dependent and to be responsible for their own learning. As a consequence, they become more efficient learners. Confucius realised the importance of autonomous learning which for him means a process of independent exploration (I read, and I forgot; I saw, and I believed; I did, and I understood). Autonomy is also encouraged by the Libyan culture and is evident in the Arabic proverb which says ‘if you want a thing well done, do it yourself”.
The Libyan education system is suffering from a shortage of English teachers at present. Learners are taught collectively in large classes and they are experiencing a lack of English language interaction in the classroom. Thus, fostering learner autonomy not only provides an economical solution for the education system problem, but also an effective way for students to compensate for the lack of opportunities to use English in class. It is believed that learner autonomy offers learners more opportunities for English interaction in non-native contexts.
Due to individual differences Libyan learners are usually at different levels that no formal classroom instruction can comply with. Self-directed learning, however, is adaptable. It is independent of time, location and method. It can be carried out in the library, at home, in a self-access centre, in the classroom, in a computer lab or even under a tree. Students can also choose the convenient time for them to learn. It is adjustable according to the individual’s learning style and his/her use of strategies. It also allows learners to select materials according to their own needs. It reinforces individualism but does not rule out collaborative learning (Gardner and Miller, 1999).
It can be argued that once students have developed their own autonomous approach to learning one can claim that they have acquired a life-long learning skill which will help them after their graduation.
4.2 Some Practices to Foster Autonomy in Libyan Classrooms
Learning English in Libya is completely teacher-centred and students usually do not have the right to fully control their own learning and therefore do not know how to exercise this control. In a situation like this where learners have not experienced autonomy before, it is of vital importance to introduce autonomy gradually through some practical classroom actions. The researcher suggests that learner autonomy can be implemented in the Libyan context through the following preliminary classroom practices.
1. When asking students to write assignments, the teacher should provide several topics from which students can select the topic they are interested in. Students should also be allowed to design their own topics and discuss them with the teacher. The teacher may even negotiate the deadline for the submission of assignments. After students had submitted their assignments, the teacher should ask the students how they did it in order to elicit and discuss the strategies they have used while preparing their assignments.
2. In conversation classes the teacher should give students the freedom to decide the topic they want to discuss or at least he/she provides them with several topics to select from.
3. In revision classes, students should be given the opportunity to select those areas which they feel need revising as well as reviewing the points that the teacher deems to be not fully understood.
4. In Reading comprehension classes, students should be allowed to select from several passages or articles provided by both the teacher and the students.
5. The teacher should discuss the importance of reflection with his/her students and ask them to reflect upon what they have learnt (e.g. the articles they have read or the assignments they did).
6. The teacher should encourage learners to prepare a classroom magazine or posters and let them decide the content of them. The teacher here might suggest some sources to collect data from.
7. The teacher should discuss the components of the course and give students the opportunity to participate in the process of deciding the sequence in which the course will be taught, but after highlighting that certain lessons have to be studied before others.
8. The teacher should ask the students about how they did their tasks to elicit their strategy use and then discuss them with the learners and point out the effective ones according to the task in question.
9. The teacher should help his/her students to develop metacognitive strategies for planning, organising and evaluating their learning.
In fact, the promotion of learner autonomy in classroom settings depends to a large extent on teachers’ ability to help their learners by involving them in decision-making, self-discipline, self-help and teamwork …etc.
Although autonomy is beneficial for learners, fostering it in teacher-centred settings is a very difficult task for teachers because it involves the change of the preconceived beliefs about the traditional learning process. Moreover, “if the curriculum itself lacks flexibility, it is likely that the degree of autonomy developed by the learners will be correspondingly constrained” (Benson, 2001: 162). Although the Libyan curriculum is inflexible, the researcher believes that teachers can foster autonomy by implementing the classroom practices suggested above. The researcher also believes that teacher training is a prerequisite to the promotion of autonomy in Libyan classrooms, because if teachers are well-trained they will find the ways by which autonomy can be fostered.
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