IN recent years there has been a lot of emphasis on a learner-centred pedagogy where learners play a central role in the learning process.
Learner autonomy is a desirable goal both for pedagogical and practical reasons but many classrooms do not promote such an environment in actual practice.
Many lecturers, even at tertiary institutions, spoon-feed students instead of assigning them tasks that will challenge them to be more autonomous.
It is important for teachers to bear in mind that they have a role to play in developing learner autonomy.
They also need to discover ways on how learner autonomy can be promoted in the classroom and the roles of teacher support and challenge in developing autonomous learners.
The concept of learner autonomy is gaining popularity today as educators realise the need to shift from a traditional teacher-centred classroom to a learner-centred one. Although teachers have a certain amount of power in the classroom, learners also clearly influence the pace and direction of interaction.
In tertiary institutions learner autonomy is of greater importance because at this level, students are preparing themselves for working life where independence in learning will be vital for effective functioning in society.
However, the majority of students in tertiary institutions are still being taught in ways which promote dependence.
This leaves them ill-equipped to apply their knowledge and skills to the world beyond the classroom.
According to researchers, the main characteristic of autonomy is that learners take significant responsibility for their learning above merely responding to instruction.
In this way, learners exert control over the learning process and increase their efficiency in learning both inside and outside the classroom.
More recent research on learner autonomy has claimed that autonomy does not necessarily imply total independence.
Teachers should realise that learner autonomy does not mean that they abdicate control over the learning process which transpires in the classroom.
The term autonomy is perceived as a gradual never-ending process of self-discovery which can only be achieved if educators provide a balance between support and challenge to guide learners through this stage.
Learner autonomy is a capacity that has to be learnt. In the classroom, teachers have to train students to take responsibility for their learning.
In this context, if educators spoon-feed students and test them in ways which only require them to regurgitate what they have been fed with, then learners will never take the effort to obtain new knowledge.
It is clear then that the step towards learner autonomy is to teach learners “how to learn”.
Students have to be constantly made aware of the skills and strategies that can increase their efficiency in learning.
Autonomy is also a process not a product. One does not become autonomous, one only works towards autonomy.
Hence, autonomy is a process where each individual discovers the amount of autonomy that can be attained within the given situation. The degree of autonomy achieved then will constantly change depending on the task, personal attitude, motivation and reaction to a particular situation.
If learners are to achieve autonomy, teachers must be prepared for a change in power relationships that is maintained in a traditional classroom.
Learners are not to be viewed as vessels to be filled with knowledge held by teachers. Teachers have to be prepared to allow learners to acquire and construct knowledge through discovery.
Autonomy requires supportive structures both internal and external.
Practice of autonomy in the classroom should not be confined to the freedom to learn within a framework that the teacher has set.
Institutions and education policy also need to be flexible if they want learner autonomy as their goal.
For example when setting up self-access centres in each school or faculty, the management should incorporate students’ ideas as this will have a greater influence on students’ inner feeling of autonomy.
Autonomy is only achieved in a classroom where the teacher regards the classroom as a society which involves social change.
In such a classroom, learners through group activities move away from dependence on the teacher by collaborating with their peers.
The interaction between learners during group activities helps them develop the target language faster. Autonomy is also not limited to the classroom.
In fact, learners have to be encouraged to be autonomous outside the classroom. One activity that can be done to promote autonomous learning is to encourage extensive reading.
Teachers should give students assignments that require learners to find their own material whether it is from the library, self-access centres or even from the Internet.
In second language education students can be encouraged to choose reading material that match their taste. This will further motivate them and improve their mastery of the language.
Finally autonomy has to be adapted to different cultural contexts. For example when one teaches reading, the chosen texts must incorporate different cultural contexts.
Such reading material will increase student motivation as they can draw upon their background knowledge.
The learners will then be prepared to contribute confidently to the discussions or the tasks at hand.
This will definitely prepare them well to face the challenges of the real world and develop their character.
PETER FRANCIS and MARY FRANCIS
UiTM Seri Iskandar,