Curriculum Innovation, Testing and Evaluation: Proceedings of the 1st Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 11-12, 2002. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Institute of Technology.

Emancipatory student higher learning:
The role of autonomy, authenticity, and criticality

by Dr. Alan Brady (Kwansei Gakuin University)

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:
  1. what they have been doing with the text,
  2. what difficulties they have been experiencing in understanding the material and tasks that are suggested,
  3. what questions they have about any of the material, and
  4. 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.

[ p. 71 ]

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 authoritatively choosing.

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,
  1. reflection on one's own thought and actions,
  2. 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),
  3. development and continuous expression of a skeptical and questioning outlook
  4. 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.

[ p. 72 ]

"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:
  1. what language teaching should be about
  2. a broadened curriculum framework for English
  3. the prime importance of learners' needs analysis
  4. the altering of roles played by students and teachers
  5. 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).

[ p. 73 ]

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:
  1. that language in the classroom should be as authentic as possible so as to represent the reality of native-speaker use, and
  2. 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.

[ p. 74 ]

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:
  1. helping students be aware of the kinds of learning tasks that they could be involved in,
  2. 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,
  3. 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.

[ p. 75 ]

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:
  1. beliefs and attitudes about the additional language
  2. previous experiences in using the additional language in study
  3. what constitutes authentic additional language input
  4. the goals of the class/course
  5. what (if any) aims students may have in taking the class
  6. what students expect to get from taking the class and what they believe is expected of them, and
  7. 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.

[ p. 76 ]

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.


Altan, M. Z. (1999). Teachers as agents of change. Modern English Teacher, 8, 3, 7-9.

Allwright, D. (1999, October). Putting learners on the classroom agenda: A case for learner-based exploratory practice. Paper given at the 25th Annual JALT Conference in Gunma, Japan.

Armanet, C. M. & Obejecty, K. (1981). Towards student autonomy in the learning of English as a second language at university level. ELT Journal, 36, 1, 24-28.

Barnett, R. (l997). Higher education: A critical business. London: Society for Research into Higher Education.

[ p. 77 ]

Barnett, R. (l994). The limits of competence. London: Society for Research into Higher Education.

Bernstein, B. (1996). Pedagogy, symbolic control, and identity. London: Taylor and Francis.

Brady, A. (l997). English as an additional language: Language policy and planning at university for non-language majors. Kwansei Gakuin University Sociology Department Studies, 77, 85-122.

Brady, A. (2000). The integration of English language education within mainstream university discipline-area study in Japan: A case study of Shimada University and the Sociology Department. Unpublished Ph.D thesis, Lancaster University.

Brady, A., & Shinohara, Y. (2000). Principles and activities for a transcultural approach to additional language learning. System, 28, 305-322.

Brockbank, A. & McGill, I. (1998). Reflective learning in higher education. London: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Cassell, P. (1993). The Giddens reader. London: Macmillan Press.

Cook, V. J. (1983). What should language teaching be about? ELT Journal, 37, 3, 229-234.

Cotterall, S. (1995). Developing a course strategy for learner autonomy. ELT Journal, 49, 3, 219-227.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

Kelly, C. (l993). The hidden role of the university. In P. Wadden (Ed.) A handbook for teaching English at Japanese universities and colleges. Oxford University Press.

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. New York: Association Press.

Lee, I. (1998). Supporting greater autonomy in language learning . ELT Journal, 52, 4, 282-89.

Littlejohn, A. (1985). Learner choice in language study. ELT Journal, 39, 4, 253-61.

McCafferty, J. B. (1981). Self-access problems and proposals. London: The British Council.

Nunan, D. (1996, Autumn). Learner strategy training in the classroom: An action research study. TESOL Journal, **VOL NUMBER**, 35-41.

O'Neil, M. (1995). Towards a model of the learner in higher education: Some implications for teachers. In B. Smith & B. Brown (Eds.) Research teaching and learning in higher education (pp. 117-23). London: Kogan Page.

Prodromou, L. (1988). English as cultural action. ELT Journal, 42, 2, 73-83.

Seedhouse, P. (1995). Needs analysis and the General English classroom. ELT Journal, 49, 1, 59-64.

Tudor, I. (1993). Teacher roles in the learner-centred classroom. ELT Journal, 47, 1, 22-31.

Ullmann, R. (1982) A broadened curriculum framework for second languages. ELT Journal, 36, 4, 255-262.

Walter, C. (1997, Autumn). Learner independence: Why, what, where, how, who? Independence, 11-16.

Wengraf, T. (1995). Towards empowering undergraduate students as action researchers into student learning. In B. Smith & B. Brown (Eds.) Research teaching and learning in higher education (pp. 165-175). London: Kogan Page.

Widdowson, H. (1996). Comment: Authenticity and autonomy in ELT. ELT Journal, 50, 1, 67-68.

Yoneyama, S. (2000). The Japanese high school: Silence and resistance. New York and London: Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies Series.

2002 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

[ p. 78 ]
Last Next