Autonomy in the Classroom:
Why Teachers Desire it for Learners and Themselves
February 14, 2013
University of Regina
This paper examines the effects of autonomy in the classroom, and its effectiveness shown through studies in language classes. There is a direct relationship between autonomy, motivation to succeed, setting personal goals, and taking responsibility for classwork. Students become more invested in their learning when they can contribute to decisions on what and how they will learn, the timeline for the assignments they have chosen, and the type of evaluation method. Teachers also desire autonomy in classrooms because of the obligations towards evaluations and assessment. It was realized that students show more motivation when learner autonomy increases, and conversely they became frustrated and disengaged when teacher control increases. The methods to assess a student’s knowledge vary, and these instructors desire evaluation that reflects each student’s personal learning style.
Keywords: autonomy, learner identity, motivation, teacher control, learner control
Autonomy in the Classroom: Why Teachers Desire it for Learners and Themselves
There is much debate concerning the idea of autonomy. This includes how much autonomy should be granted, and whom it should be granted to: the teacher or the learner. This paper recognizes autonomy as the amount of control and independence one has in his or her choices regarding learning. There has been an abundance of research in this area, and this document will examine articles that show personal views on autonomy in the classroom. For example, Gordon Thomas’s article “Reasserting Our Professional Autonomy” will show from a teacher’s point of view why it is important to take responsibility and control of the teaching profession. Conversely, Mohammad Zohrabi’s article “Enhancing Learner Autonomy through Reciprocal Approach to Curriculum Development” and Terry Lamb’s “Fragile Identities: Exploring Learner Identity, Learner Autonomy and Motivation through Young Learners’ Voices” discourse studies of students with autonomy in language courses, and the effects it has on their incentive, success, and identity as learners. The teachers who wrote these articles feel that it is necessary for students to have autonomy in their studies, in order to become motivated and succeed as learners.
Thomas’s article “Reasserting Our Professional Autonomy” is an opinionated piece that discusses why teachers need to have autonomy in their occupation. The three key points Thomas has are:
(1) teachers are ultimately responsible, both legally and professionally, for evaluating and reporting student progress; (2) the current emphasis on standardized testing programs does little to address students’ individual needs and diverts precious resources from the classroom; and (3) any reliance on standardized testing programs to determine school and school system performance misrepresents the work of teachers and schools (2009, para 1).
Thomas argues that if teachers are to be held accountable for their students’ grades then they should be given the freedom to choose appropriate assessment methods. Obviously, the teacher is the most suitable person to decide how a student is progressing, as the teacher has contact with the students, while standardized testing does not: “[w]hile all education partners share responsibility for accountability, we [teachers] are in the best position to support student learning. That is our area of authority and expertise” (Thomas, 2009, para. 5). In addition, teachers are more aware of the learning styles in their classes, and how students react to other types of evaluation, such as project work and class or group discussions. Thomas also argues that standardized testing is flawed because it does not account for diverse students, which is not limited to individualized learning styles: “such programs are neither fair nor equitable for all students, particularly those with special needs or for whom English is an additional language” (2009, para 4). For these students standardized testing can be difficult and produce inaccurate results. Thomas encourages teachers to demand professional autonomy because he believes it is beneficial to the students and the proper assessment of their knowledge.
The next article of in this paper, Mohammad Zohrabi’s article “Enhancing Learner Autonomy through Reciprocal Approach to Curriculum Development”, conveys that when the student has autonomy he or she will be more involved in his or her studies, and more motivated to learn. This study is based on a language class, English for General Purposes (EGP), at the University of Tabriz, Iran. The instructor had taught the course for more than ten years, and had noticed that it failed to meet the expectations of the students. As such, Zohrabi assembled groups with similar expectations of the course and decided to give more control to his students: “We [the students and instructor] negotiated what aspects of language the students need[ed] to learn, as well as the topics, texts, and tasks that need[ed] to be covered” (2011, p. 2). He viewed his role as assisting the students, not leaving them on their own, but ultimately allowing them to choose from his selection of materials what they would study and what type of assignments they would complete. Zohrabi (2011) believes “the optimal form of learner autonomy is in making complementary contributions which results from students and teachers’ negotiation process in planning and implementing activities and exercises” (p. 2). By allowing students to take part in the decisions and discuss their learning, they are able to direct their learning to align with individual interests, and continue to study the subject on their own. Zohrabi states, “One of the best ways of developing learner autonomy is to assign [the students] project work. In this way, they can take responsibility for their own learning and ‘approach learning in their own way, suitable to their own abilities, styles, and preferences’” (2011, p.3). Undoubtedly, for students to have autonomy they need to be independent and make their own decisions, and project work allows them to study their particular interests. Zohrabi noticed several learner traits that were required for successful learner autonomy: “motivation, confidence, attitude, aptitude, learning pace, background knowledge, and linguistic and communicative competence” (2011, p. 6). These traits are useful in learning, as well as life in general. The connection between autonomy and motivation is shown several times, and the students who possessed these traits were able to successfully gain learner autonomy.
The final article, Terry Lamb’s “Fragile Identities: Exploring Learner Identity, Learner Autonomy and Motivation through Young Learners’ Voices”, agrees that motivation and autonomy are interlinked, but links learner identity to these ideas, as well. This article also focusses on learning language, but this occurs in England. Lamb (2011) states, “for intrinsic motivation to develop, people need to have control over what they do, be sufficiently able to do it, and have the opportunity to relate it to other aspects of their lives” (p. 4). As discussed previously, the inspiration to succeed and the independence can foster a continued learning of the subject, even when the class is completed. The article stresses that it is important for students to realize their learner and self-identities, as it is essential in choosing how they will control their learning. As this study drew closer to the national examinations, the students became increasingly frustrated. Lamb states, “The learners’ voices […] suggest that this identity is closely related to their motivation to learn, which is potentially compromised when their identity is challenged by an increase in teacher control” (Lamb, 2011, p. 10). When the students were no longer in control of their learning and outcomes, and questions began to require one correct answer, the students became less motivated to learn, as they could not see the relevance in their lives. However, these students had learned to evaluate themselves, and learned about their personal strengths and weaknesses in related to learning.
Thomas’s article demonstrates his personal beliefs about teachers gaining professional autonomy. I agree with his idea that since teachers are held personally accountable for each student’s grades, it should be teachers who decide on the evaluation system of the student. I also think that standardized testing does not show an accurate representation of what the student has learned, for the reasons of different abilities and cultural factors that may make these types of testing difficult. It is unfair to judge student or overall school knowledge on these tests. The results may not even mean that the student did not know the answer, but simply that he or she did not understand the question or the context. From my own experience in school, I remember that many students felt anxiety when we had to do standardized testing. In some cases, the teacher was not permitted to answer our questions, which made it increasingly frustrating and unnerving.
Zohrabi discusses how lessening the amount of learner autonomy can make the student exasperated and discouraged, and how giving more autonomy can motivate to student to succeed. I fully agree that allowing the student to become involved in decisions will encourage him or her to take a more active part, and even foster additional research on the student’s own time. From my own experience with learning language, I know that I enjoyed having an instructor to help me, but I also used programs at home both before and after the course because I was truly motivated to learn. It also helped that I could control what I wanted to study and for how long. As Zohrabi mentioned, students who learn this way learn their strengths and weaknesses. For me, I learned that learning specific vocabulary and conversation was a strength, but writing it down was harder for me, and it showed me where I needed to pay more attention.
Lamb’s article continues the associations between motivation and autonomy, but also adds in learner identity. When a student understands how he or she is best able to learn taking learner control becomes easier. I learn best through verbal communication, but I also have to be able to visualize when I am studying. When I was in Grade 12, I taught myself a math course with some assistance from a T.A. Math is a difficult subject for me, but after a period of time I learned how to teach myself in a manner that I could understand. The fact that I controlled when I wanted to complete a unit was a huge benefit for me. This allowed me to spend more time on difficult areas, and move on quicker with units I understood. I also was able to reduce the anxiety of exam time because I had a voice and was able to do it when I was ready. I believe that when a learner has more control they are more likely to succeed, as I did.
There are several connections between these three articles. Each author is an instructor who desires autonomy for the benefit of the students. While Thomas claims teachers should be responsible in order to evaluate the students according to their learning styles, Zohrabi and Lamb want students to become more engaged in their learning by taking control themselves. The assessments from the students in these articles also cater to the individual’s learning style. Thomas points out that culture can affect how a student learns, and wants to include culture factors in assessment. Zohrabi and Lamb’s articles take place in other countries, and as such, it is obvious that their cultures are included in the way the students chose to learn. Zohrabi and Lamb also focussed on allowing the students to decide what was important to learn, as part of a negotiation process.
The instructors were able to provide assistance, and guide the different groups in selection of study materials, but they did not try to influence their choices or control of learning. I agree with each of the main statements in these articles. It is important for students to connect their learning with their goals, and see relevancies between study and future aspirations. I can relate own experiences in school and university to the points in these papers. When I had more control, I was able to consider my learner identity; in addition, I took more interest and responsibility for my studies. While I understand it is hard to create learner autonomy in large classes, I agree that one simple way for learner autonomy is project work that allows the student to take an idea and explore it based on his or her interests. Autonomy can be difficult to achieve in classrooms, but with negotiations between teachers and students learner autonomy can be attained, and ultimately, influence a student to succeed and take control and responsibility for his or her education. After all, once a student is finished his or her education he or she needs to be able to continue learning and motivate others to do the same.
Lamb, T. (2011). Fragile Identities: Exploring Learner Identity, Learner Autonomy and Motivation through Young Learners’ Voices. Canadian Journal Of Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 68-85. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid= d8782ef7-2b74-4088-ac0c-c0ef9e678a1c%40sessionmgr115&vid=2&hid=126
Thomas, G. (2009). Reasserting our professional autonomy. ATA Magazine, 89(3), 58-58. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/231453471?accountid=13480
Zohrabi, M. (2011). Enhancing learner autonomy through reciprocal approach to curriculum development. English Language Teaching, 4(3), 120-127. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/889136490?accountid=13480