Learner autonomy and culture in one particular setting by David Palfreyman

(Published in Learner Autonomy in Language Learning, April 2002)

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I recently completed my PhD in Language Studies, which focused on an area related to learner
autonomy. The title of my thesis is “The Socio-Cultural Construction of Learner Independence and Learner Autonomy”. I conducted my research in the English Language Section of the University in Turkey where I was working. I will try to summarize here my main findings and conclusions; but first I’d like to explain something about how my views of my teaching situation and of learner autonomy changed as a result of my PhD work.

The ‘University School of English’ (USE) where I carried out my study is responsible for providing English preparation for students before they enter their University department. In the early ‘90’s, USE had taken on an expatriate management team which had been the catalyst for a new curriculum based on principles of language skills and learner independence – implemented by means of study skills training, learner training and self access. My initial interest was in cultural differences between local and expatriate teachers, and how the two groups view classroom methodology. I chose learner autonomy as a more specific focus, partly because I was interested in it, but also because the concept seemed to arouse controversy in USE. However, as I looked into how the idea of learner autonomy fitted into this particular context, and thought and read about the issues involved, I found that my perspective on autonomy changed:

· From ‘learner autonomy’ to ‘how people interpret learning and autonomy’.

I moved from trying to determine what learner autonomy ‘is’ and whether teachers and students understand it clearly, to investigating how different participants interpret the idea of autonomy and, more broadly, the role of the learner. I found, for example, that although most teachers and students expressed some support for the idea of autonomy, they interpreted this in different ways. Some of these interpretations correspond to Benson’s (1997) ‘technical’, ‘psychological’ and ‘political’ views of autonomy; others do not.

· From studying teachers and/or learners to studying the institutional context as a whole.

I also found that taking a purely ‘learner-centred’ or ‘teacher-centred’ approach to the research
seemed not to do justice to the fact that students and teachers in USE are participants in an ongoing social setting (as in any other institution): their work interacts with, for example, the institutional curriculum and those who manage it.

· From ‘culture’ to ‘cultures’ to ‘discourses’.

My view of ‘culture’ also changed. I started by looking for differences between Turkish and expatriate teachers and their students; but looking at teachers and learners in their institutional context meant considering ‘institutional culture’, too. I started to look more at a range of ‘cultural’ values, particularly the cultural assumptions of the (mainly British) expatriate staff. I also came to see the ELT profession, and the interpretations of learner autonomy which it constructs, as forming a professional culture: a cultural ‘package’ of which (certain interpretations of) learner autonomy are an important part. In reading about culture in other disciplines (e.g. in anthropology and cultural studies), I started to notice how these different cultures were intertwined with ‘discourses’ and with people’s interests at the classroom and institutional level.

Here are the main findings which I present in my thesis:

1. Learner independence in USE is interpreted in different ways, for example in curriculum
documents, in everyday discussions, and in interviews with informants. Sometimes it is
interpreted in ‘psychological’ terms (cf Benson, 1997), such as attitudes or creative thinking;
and sometimes in ‘technical’ terms, such as skills for learning without supervision. As the USE
curriculum developed, the technical view tended to become more aligned with the institution’s
need to direct and train students for university life, rather than with ‘empowering’ them.

2. Learner independence also became a reference point for cultural politics surrounding ethnicity and institutional roles: expatriate managers, for example, saw Turkish students and teachers as rejecting the idea of learner autonomy because it was unfamiliar to them.

3. The multiple perspectives on autonomy in USE were reflected in teachers’ views of learning
and study. Teachers’ perceptions of their own and students’ roles also fed into their views of
learner autonomy. One view, which I refer to as ‘centripetal’, is that the teacher and learners
have a shared responsibility for keeping the class on track and together, and that autonomy
involves exercising effort and self-restraint in achieving this. Another, ‘centrifugal’
interpretation is that ‘good’ learners are ones who pursue their own agenda and think
differently from their peers.

4. Many teachers perceived a tension between on the one hand their own role in ‘helping’
students, and on the other the roles which they see the institution as constructing for them, as
promoters of learner autonomy: they sometimes felt that encouraging autonomy meant not
giving students any help.

5. Teachers saw the institution as positioning both students and teachers inconsistently – and
sometimes inappropriately – with regard to autonomy. They saw the institution’s ‘hidden
curriculum’ as contradicting its own professed aim of developing independence.

6. Certain teacher-student interactions (e.g. asking the teacher for further help after class)
suggest the presence of autonomy in a broad sense; but because these fell outside the
institution’s definitions of independence, they tended to be viewed as showing ‘teacher
dependence’ rather than the opposite.

7. Students felt that they are not given the freedom they deserve: in contrast to the perceptions
of many managers and teachers, they seemed to desire some degree of autonomy, and
indeed this was an important part of their expectation of university life; but they felt that they
were thwarted in this.

8. Students saw their studies within a social and institutional context: teachers, other students
and family were all seen as affecting their learning in positive and negative ways. In fact,
these other people were often seen as resources (like certain kinds of teaching materials), of
which students wished to make active, independent use on their own terms. However, again
this did not sit easily with the institution’s interpretation of learner independence as solitary

Overall, carrying out and writing up this study made me think in depth about different perspectives on learning, and on what I was used to calling ‘learner autonomy’; and about the relationship between learner autonomy and other aspects of learning and study, including culture, power relationships and social interdependence.

If you are interested, you can browse the thesis at http://f7385.tripod.com/Thesis/.

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