About learner autonomy

The following introduction to learner autonomy is taken from the book Learner-Controlled Tasks for the Autonomy Classroom: A Teacher’s Resource Book by Christian Ludwig and Lawrie Moore-Walter, published by Candlin and Mynard. Find out more about this book.

Learner autonomy has been a key issue in foreign language learning since the end of the 1970s when Henri Holec first published his seminal work Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning for the Council of Europe. Although learner autonomy is not always explicitly mentioned as an approach to or outcome of learning, the idea has found entry into most official documents for foreign language education and has gained increasing scholarly attention. The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), for example, states that

learners should participate actively in the learning process in co-operation with the teacher and other students to reach agreement on objectives and methods, accepting compromise, and engaging in peer teaching and peer assessment. (CEFR, 2001, p. 144)

Below is the widely-known Bergen definition of learner autonomy:

Learner autonomy is characterised by a readiness to take charge of one’s own learning in the service of one’s needs and purposes. This entails a capacity and willingness to act independently and in cooperation with others, as a social, responsible person. An autonomous learner is an active participant in the social processes of learning, but also an active interpreter of new information in terms of what she/he already and uniquely knows. (Trebbi,1990, p.102)

As this definition, perhaps for the first time emphasised, learner autonomy does not mean that learners learn on their own independently from the social context in which the learning takes place. Quite contrary to this, autonomous learning is an inherently social endeavour in which learners work together (in groups, pairs, and alone) towards achieving a common goal.

Pedagogical Characteristics of Learner Autonomy  
Giving learners choice
Promoting reflection
Assigning responsibility
Building on previous knowledge
Nurturing self-evaluation
Fostering peer learning
Supporting authenticity of interaction
Encouraging authenticity of communication
Increasing authenticity of materials
Building on learners’ identities
Promoting target language use

In the autonomy classroom, learners are ideally involved in a process of joint syllabus construction, i.e. a syllabus that is based on curricular demands as much as it is based on the learners’ needs, priorities, interests, and learning goals. Furthermore, activities are designed in such a way, often by the learners themselves, that students are given the opportunity to become active participants in their own learning. It is only by creating environments “[…], where the learners are given the chance to be autonomous learners […]” (Dam, 2008, p. 14) that we can support our students in becoming life-long learners.

Quite naturally, learners will build on their previous individual experiences and subject knowledge when learning a foreign language. In order to bring together learners’ individual action knowledge, i.e. knowledge that learners already possess (Barnes, 1976), with the goals and content of the curriculum, we need to “present and process curriculum content in ways that are accessible to pupils from the perspective of their own action knowledge” (Little, 2019, n.p.). Second, we need to establish a constant (largely student-led) target language dialogue, which encourages learner engagement and motivates learners to integrate their identities. It is clear that learners are different, i.e. depending on their previous learning experiences and learning styles, they may have different experiences regarding the various aspects of the learning process. Cooperative and collaborative forms of learning take these leaner differences into account while, at the same time, offering students opportunities for engagement and target language dialogue. Collaborative forms of learning support learner autonomy in that learners take over responsibility not only for their own learning but also the success of the whole group.

Implementing some or all of the principles of autonomous learning will naturally influence the learner/teacher roles in the classroom. The teacher is no longer the sole source of knowledge but gradually becomes the facilitator of learning and ultimately a learner him- or herself. However, it remains the responsibility of the teacher to create a balance between curricular demands and students’ expectations as well as action knowledge. In other words, the teacher has to make sure that learning takes place.