Sharing university pedagogical practice and learning
Before explaining the theory behind the practice, allow me to begin by sharing with
you how I have been attempting to develop autonomy in my courses/classes. I will begin
by focusing on two required courses and one elective course at Kwansei Gakuin. I ask
that you consider how the events I report on may faithfully implement the principles that,
in my estimation, form the foundation of an autonomous approach: communication and
collaboration, democracy, negotiation, trust, and confidence-building.
In the first class of the semester I share with students why I chose the text that I have
decided upon. Each week I take a few minutes to discuss with students the following:
- what they have been doing with the text,
- what difficulties they have been experiencing in understanding the material and tasks that are suggested,
- what questions they have about any of the material, and
- what they would like to discuss or ask related to the text.
I begin the course with a discussion of the text because it gives students something
tangible to study both within and outside class, and because text-directed learning is
where they are coming from in my estimation. I also use more of the L1 than I would
like to, but find it makes me vulnerable and less hesitant to look and sound expert. We
do not, at the start of the course, explicitly discuss what constitutes learning success
or failure in the course (i.e. no discussion of evaluation). End-term evaluation can only
properly be discussed and negotiated after students decide what they wish to and need
to learn, and have opportunities to develop their own learning strategies.
In the first class we also talk about goal-setting and the kinds of learning tasks students
enjoy or prefer (with examples) following Brady and Shinohara (2000) and Nunan (1996).
We also discuss the importance of doing outside work. I ask students how much time on
average per week they feel they can spend on committing to the class, and preparing and
reviewing. I also go over with students what I and they together think should be required
regarding active teaching and study, active attendance, communication with one another,
feedback, and inquisitiveness. All this is done within the context of my getting to know
them and them getting to know (new things) about one another. Each class begins with
our re-establishing interpersonal contact.
Students' chosen learning goals are re-examined after two to three classes.
Specifically, I have found students initially choose very safe goals such as to communicate
with people from other countries, or understand movies and television programs better.
However, they may not realize how reasonable these goals are, and/or how the goals
can begin to be satisfied. In one class, for example, we discovered after three weeks
how important and enjoyable it can be for students to talk to one another in English about
their school life, in ways they may not discuss in their L1. Yet, among the 37 students
who reported on goals in the first class meeting (as a homework assignment), only three
admitted to talking to other students in English as being one of their main goals. The
way(s) in which we think about teaching and learning are mutable and need occasionally
to be re-examined.
In the elective course I assume students want to communicate and learn more
effective ways to do so, and in fact, I ask them in the first class how much time and effort,
daily and/or weekly, they are prepared to invest to achieve this goal. The one elective
class that I presently teach is a seminar which means that there are fewer students
enrolled than in the required courses (i.e. 20-25 compared to 35-45). The greater intimacy
of the classroom atmosphere due to small student numbers, coupled with the intrinsic
motivation many but not all students have for learning to use English, does not prevent
a similar mind-set from operating as it does in the required courses. For example, when
asked what they want to talk about, more often than not, students in the elective class
reply, please give us some topic(s) to discuss. I always have a repertoire of topics to seize
upon for discussion, whether they be from personal experience or from something that
I have heard or read. But I do not give topics to my students these days. I rather expect
that they have things they feel are worth talking about without my overtly suggesting or
The role and responsibility of additional language learning in higher education
The issue of autonomy in higher education, and in particular as part of liberal and
general education language learning, is a political issue, and has ramifications that can
extend well beyond the classroom and the university. We must consider, as Kelly (1993)
has, what role the university plays in Japanese society. We must also consider as Brady
(2000) has, what role and responsibility additional language study and learning plays at
university and in the wider Japanese society. In particular we cannot talk about autonomy
in language learning without first discussing how additional language higher education
can enhance the liberal higher learning of students, and contribute to the cultivation of
human thought and behavior: qualities that the changing wider society and not necessarily
its ruling authorities feels is required and useful.
Barnett (1994, l997) argues that higher education ought to provide experiences to
students which encourage, for example,
- reflection on one's own thought and actions,
- reinterpretations of presenting situations where the curriculum is not a set of impositions on students but a set of possibilities and practical hopes in large part framed by students (my italics),
- development and continuous expression of a skeptical and questioning outlook
- continuing reappraisal of one's own learning.
What is required of a higher education, in Barnett's estimation, is a focus on self-
construction through critical dialogue so that students and faculty can begin to produce
selves separate from and not constrained by the external life-world that would limit
frameworks of thought and action. The goal thus is the creation of a learning community
where students and faculty are interactive, participatory, mutually-supportive, but also
reflexive and self-critical.
"The decision to nurture autonomy in additional language learning cannot be separate or separated from the decision to nurture criticality, and authenticity . . ."
Autonomy is a crucial part of the nurturing of a critical being and thinking. But
beyond being autonomous and self-motivated, students and faculty must continually
inject their own critical energy into learning. Our prime concern as university educators
then is the extent to which we value an open society, including the one that can exist
in classrooms, recognizing at the same time that our valuation may not match our
students', our colleagues', our institutions', or even the wider society. The decision to
nurture autonomy in additional language learning cannot be separate or separated from
the decision to nurture criticality, and authenticity (i.e. that which is authentic to students
and teachers) or without an awareness of the extent to which autonomous language
learning is affected by, and impacts on, the wider liberal education curriculum.
Clarifying and defining the integrative additional language education mission
The issues that most critically impact on defining and practicalizing autonomy need
to be addressed within the context of clarifying the integrative higher education mission
of additional (i.e. English) language education. These issues involve:
- what language teaching should be about
- a broadened curriculum framework for English
- the prime importance of learners' needs analysis
- the altering of roles played by students and teachers
- the prioritization of learning as classroom study.
The content and overall goals of language teaching have not been adequately
clarified. At one level they may be functional or communicative, while at another level
they may be educational (i.e. people are taught language in order to broaden their
horizons). Language teaching can aim to develop personalities and potentialities, and/or
help students to think in more diverse ways.
We need to broaden the goal(s) of second language curriculum beyond a linguistic
focus since the large commitment of time to second language programs in schools makes
it essential that such programs be educationally justifiable (my italics) (Ullmann, 1982).And
although learners needs are theoretically of prime importance in current learner-centered
approaches, needs analysis is rarely carried out in the general English classroom.
Seedhouse (1995) offers some general conclusions and specifically examines need in
three areas: purposes and reasons for studying English, preferred ways of learning, and
problems in studying and learning English. Learner-centered approaches to teaching alter
traditional roles of both students and teachers. While Tudor (1993) argues that teachers
who think seriously of adopting a learner-centered approach must carefully consider
the implications in terms of extra work and responsibility. Tudor also points out that an
approach valuing learners and learning involves a recognition of students "potential to
meaningfully contribute to and shape the learning program" (p. 30).
There is, however, risk and danger to an approach which puts learners and learning
squarely in the forefront of the study agenda, and which necessitates student and teacher
transformation (Brady & Shinohara, 2000). This is especially true if it is the aim of the
wider society, and the educational institution, to limit people's opportunities to participate
in truly open and critical discussion (see, for example, Yoneyama, 2000).
Allwright (1999) makes a case for putting learning on the language study classroom
agenda. If autonomy is to be equated with democracy and power sharing, then it must be
recognized how risky such an approach can be in a social setting where power relations
and relationships may be clearly defined and not easily subject to change.
Language education as cultural action, and the tension between autonomy and authenticity
If a teacher recognizes and accepts the political implications of language teaching,
there are two options regarding English language study. One option is to reject or
reduce the import of the language, thereby, in Prodromou's (1988) estimation, limiting
its usefulness to one of technicality. The other option, argues Prodromou, is to treat the
teaching and learning of English in non-English speaking environments in its broadest
sense, in effect as a non-neutral process recognizing the ideological nature of language
teaching and learning (Freire, 1972). Educational practice seen in this light is thus a
statement of power relationships, specifically of how authority is viewed in the classroom,
and by extension in the wider society outside the classroom.
The authenticity of both the content of the language study, and the reasons one
studies the language and studies real-world life thru the additional (English) language,
should be primarily local. Widdowson (1996) states that two prominent ideas promoted
in ELT are:
- that language in the classroom should be as authentic as possible so as to represent the reality of native-speaker use, and
- learners should be as autonomous as possible, and be allowed to make the language their own.
The idea of authenticity prioritizes the goal of learning (i.e. outcomes and
expectations) according to Widdowson, whereas the idea of autonomy (i.e. students
make the language their own) gives primacy to the process of learning. If teachers adopt
a pedagogical approach favoring autonomy we need to appeal to the learners experience
and help them get engaged (my italics) on their own terms. Rather than focus on language
that is appropriate in contexts of (someone's) use, the emphasis should be on language
"that can be appropriated in contexts of learning" (Widdowson, 1996, p. 67).
Defining how we can value and conceptualize autonomy
The issue of student authenticity can help to bring us closer to just what additional
language autonomy might mean in the context of university study and learning. One
dictionary definition of autonomy equates the concept with freedom and the ability to
make one's own decisions without interference or influence of others. According to
Giddens (cited in Cassell, 1993, p. 306), "autonomy is the capacity of individuals to be
self-reflective and self-determining: to deliberate, judge, choose, and act upon different
possible courses of action." Furthermore, Giddens maintains that this concern with
how individuals might best determine and regulate the conditions of their associations
is "characteristic of virtually all interpretations of modern democracy" (cited in Cassell, 1993, p. 306).
Any definition of autonomy should take into account the desirability of creating as
democratic a classroom and communication environment as possible, but at the same
time recognize the many limitations of democratic classroom behavior and practice (i.e.
what is not negotiable between teachers and students or between students themselves).
There are rights and privileges in learning; students must be allowed the right to learn
what they wish to and need to learn, and teachers must also be allowed the right to teach
what they think is important for students to learn. How these two rights connect, and how
teachers and students share responsibility for ensuring that complementary teaching
and learning takes place constitutes a crucial element of autonomy in my estimation. It
is unproductive to speak of teacher-centered as being in opposition to student-centered
pedagogical methodology or orientation. More usefully, autonomy should be conceived
as collaborative: students and teachers teaching, researching, and learning in a mutually
beneficial symbiotic relationship that continually nurtures freedom with responsibility, and
which aims at critical inquiry, and intellectual and affective development.
Conceptualizing an interdependent learning community in the classroom
Theoretical foundations and justification
Philosophically, autonomy is justified on the grounds that it prepares people for
a rapidly changing future where learning independence becomes vital for functioning
effectively in society (Knowles, 1975), and that it increases learners' enthusiasm for
learning (Littlejohn, 1985). Learner autonomy is justified on pedagogical grounds for two
reasons as well. First, adults learn much more when they are consulted about dimensions
of their learning. In addition, learners can feel more secure in their learning when they
are involved in making choices and decisions about the program or course of study they
are engaged in (McCafferty, 1981). Autonomy is also justified practically. Students, says
Cotterall (1995), need to be able to learn independently since they cannot always depend
on having access to another's instruction.
Of particular importance to my desire to develop my own teaching and learning
autonomy with that of my students is a focus on:
- helping students be aware of the kinds of learning tasks that they could be involved in,
- the learning process (i.e. students looking ahead, their major worries or concerns about what was expected of them, and their possible solutions for alleviating these worries) and,
- keeping some record of what they studied/learned and how they went about it.
Nunan (1996) adopts this view and maintains that learner strategy training leads
students and teachers to greater sensitivity to the language learning process.
From theory to classroom practice
At Kwansei Gakuin University teachers in one first-year course of study attempted
to incorporate a learning-training component into the first term study (see Brady, 1997
for a detailed description). Classes in the course met twice a week, once with a native
L1 teacher, once with a native L2 teacher. Strictly speaking this was a variant form
of team-teaching, though in fact many components of the program reflected a very
strong collaborative and consensual element of instruction and evaluation (e.g. use
of uniform teaching materials, designation of teaching roles and responsibilities in
terms of counseling and modeling, and coordinated and collaborative design of course
evaluation with students). The course ultimately broke down, though one positive result
was a reconceptualization of teaching and learning in an additional language which
Brady and Shinohara (2000) have termed, following Zamel (1997), transculturation.
Brady and Shinohara concluded (like O'Neil, 1995) that there are principles governing
the development of learning, and classroom tasks and activities are motivated by these
principles which recognize the primacy of a whole-person developmental process of
learning that seeks to broaden students and teachers socio-cultural identities so that
they can become more effective local and global citizens (p. 320). Brady and Shinohara
enumerate principles of learning and teaching which are similar to those of O'Neil.
The model of learning that Brady and Shinohara offer advocates transculturation for
individuation of learning and extended socio-cultural identity enhancement as the main
goal of university additional language learning.
Theoretical foundations and justification
From theory and conceptualization to practice: Focusing on the importance of interpersonal and intercultural communication.
To conclude that autonomy is a worthwhile focus of study and instruction, without first
gaining trust from students that your concern can be shared and appropriated by them
impoverishes any further autonomy-building efforts in my estimation.
How does a teacher begin to gain the trust of students and help them to appropriate
the importance of learning of/through an additional (English) language for personal and
academic development? If the teacher can and is willing to, he/she can initially establish
a dialogue with students in their L1 and can talk with them about such things as:
- beliefs and attitudes about the additional language
- previous experiences in using the additional language in study
- what constitutes authentic additional language input
- the goals of the class/course
- what (if any) aims students may have in taking the class
- what students expect to get from taking the class and what they believe is expected of them, and
- who (if anyone) constitutes a role model that students could look up to in making the additional language more productive and useful for them personally and academically.
Of course some teachers may have the attitude that only the additional language
should be used, or worse that only students who can competently communicate in English
can benefit from the above being done in English. Teachers may also be incapable of
using the L1, or unwilling to risk breakdowns in communication if they attempt to use the
L1 or a combination of the L1 or L2 in class communication. However, if they believe that
self-direction is a useful aim of additional language study, then they should not differentiate
which groups of learners to make the journey with, or what means of communication to
use on that journey. That is not to say that using the additional language is unimportant.
On the contrary, it is the aim of the above dialogue to secure from students, in a caring
and trustful manner, the importance of using the additional language as the medium of
learning even from the very start of the course.
Being able to teach the value of autonomous learning to students requires a belief
in democracy and the sizing down of authoritarian rule and role (Giddens; Bernstein,
1996; Walter, 1997), belief in the value of change and innovation (Altan 1999; Armanet
and Obese-jecty, 1993), the ability to think on ones feet and not allow planning to get in
the way (Lee, 1997; Walter, 1997), and willingness to give frequent feedback (Cotterall,
1995). It also requires much talk from the teacher and between students motivated to
communicate to learn by that talk. The autonomous-seeking teacher must also be willing
to listen, wait, and negotiate, and most importantly risk vulnerability as a traditional
teacher. This last bit is tricky because while risking vulnerability and allowing for openness
in class is crucial, it is opposite to maintaining sensei expertise and authority. However,
that authority is equally important to many students within Japanese and Asian socioeducational cultures.
Conclusion: Developing autonomy is focusing on deep learning
"Autonomy crucially depends on teachers being principled about their teaching and valuing democracy, collaboration and negotiation, trust, and confidence-building in use of language to express a more reflexive and critical self."
Reflective learning in higher education has revealed, according to Brockbank and
McGill (1998) that the social systems in which learners find themselves dominate much
of the learning, and state, "that, no human thought is immune to the ideologizing influence
of its social context" (p. 34). The university, they maintain, through its faculty, has the
power to replicate those systems and reinforce them, and can, perhaps unconsciously or
implicitly, impose the historically embedded philosophies of academia (e.g. academic and/
or operational orientations). Brockbank and McGill argue that many or most students focus
their study and learning at university on extrinsic approaches (e.g. what others expect
of them, like earning a degree). Their intrinsic orientations to learning are discovered
only after they have left university and pursue personal and professional goals through
independent work and work-related activity.
Brockbank and McGill maintain also that the means to be reflexive requires
engagement in a way of learning that realizes and values the centrality of reflective
dialogue in search of a reflexive capacity and that if teachers are committed to being
facilitators of active, double-loop, criticality learning, they must reconceive and re-practice
their role. Teachers who do this will move into a different way of being and relating with
students, but the journey, however risky and potentially frightening, can be emotional,
inspirational, and exciting. Developing autonomy is significantly in the interest of teachers
and students, and serves the needs of teachers as well as students. This is so because
teacher transformation impacts on student transformation and vice-versa. The resulting
collaborative transformation crucially affects the success of autonomous learning, which
in turns facilitates further transformation.
The danger as I see it is that if teacher and student transformation reciprocally leading
to autonomy (i.e. reflection, criticality, self-actualization), remains compartmental only
within the additional language provision, it may have little effect on the overall development
of students caught up as they are in the wider hidden curriculum. Autonomy crucially
depends on teachers being principled about their teaching and valuing democracy,
collaboration and negotiation, trust, and confidence-building in use of language to express
a more reflexive and critical self.
It is often remarked that teachers learn as much from students as students do
from teachers or from each other. An autonomous approach to study and learning is
an attitude, not a recipe for action. Above all else, teachers and their students must
collectively investigate and agree on the importance of interpersonal and intercultural
communication from the very start of the course, and thereafter continually develop an
appetite for learning for its own sake.
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