The Answer is Learner Autonomy  
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The Answer is Learner Autonomy  

Issues in Language Teaching and Learning

Anja Burkert, Leni Dam, Christian Ludwig

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eBook - ePub

The Answer is Learner Autonomy  

Issues in Language Teaching and Learning

Anja Burkert, Leni Dam, Christian Ludwig

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About This Book

Through its 16 chapters plus a foreword by Ema Ushioda, the book explores themes such as the role of technology in autonomous learning environments; language learner autonomy and its demands on the teacher

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Part One: Contextualisation

A Brief Personal Note by Anja Burkert, University of Graz, Austria

Organising this conference on learner autonomy in my hometown of Graz was an extremely rewarding experience for me. It was a lot of work, this is true, but I enjoyed every second of it.
I had met Leni Dam, who is also one of the editors of this volume, and Lienhard Legenhausen, for the first time at the IATEFL conference in Exeter in spring 2008 and I cannot express in words how much inspiration and positive energy I had been able to transport into my teaching in the following years thanks to the infectious enthusiasm and continuous support of these two wonderful people. Organising this conference was for me a way of saying thank-you for everything that learner autonomy and its supporters had given me.
When I approached my dear colleague and friend Dani Unger-Ullmann in her function as the head of 'treffpunkt sprachen' with my idea of organising an international conference in Graz, she was from the very first moment excited and supportive of the idea. Dani's generous offer to contribute to financing the event and to also cover the costs of a resulting publication was more than I had expected. She was also always there for me with valuable advice but never interfered in any of my decisions.
A year before the event happened, I also approached five of my ex-students who had actually been some sort of guinea-pigs as they had attended one of the first courses in which I started to experiment with peer-reviewing, learner diaries and peer teaching. The students had never been to a conference before as they were only in their second or third year of studies, but during the actual event, they acted like professionals and thus largely contributed to the positive and friendly atmosphere of the whole conference. I am very indebted to them.
This book is dedicated to our dear colleague and friend, Richard Pemberton, who sadly passed away in January 2012. As a pioneer and supporter of learner autonomy as well as a valuable friend, he will always be remembered.

Foreword by Ema Ushioda, Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick, UK

I should like to begin this foreword with an apology for not actually contributing a chapter to this book, even though, along with David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen, I was one of the invited plenary speakers at the Graz conference (June 2012) that gave rise to this edited volume. After the conference, when I received the invitation to write up my talk as a chapter for the book, I found myself needing to exercise my autonomy and decline, and yet I felt profoundly uncomfortable doing so because I knew it would cause disappointment to the editors and because it did not feel congruent with my sense of professional responsibility and loyalty.
My reason for not writing a chapter was that my talk was based on another book project I was working on - an edited volume on international perspectives on motivation in ELT (Ushioda, 2013). Presenting at the conference in Graz had been an opportunity for me to receive feedback and engage with teachers and researchers on the issues under focus, in order to help me shape the concluding chapter to my book that I was drafting at the time. Indeed, in that concluding chapter, I specifically refer to interactions I had at the IATEFL LASIG conference in Graz and how they resonated with themes and concerns raised by various writers in my book. Participating in the Graz conference thus proved of enormous benefit to my own book project. In turn, however, this project meant that I could not reasonably produce a separate chapter for a different published collection that essentially synthesised the contents of my own edited volume. Thus, I felt I had no choice but to decline the invitation to contribute to this book, for which I apologise, and I am particularly grateful and honoured to have been asked to write a foreword instead.
Yet in reflecting on this professional quandary I faced when invited to write up my talk for this book, I find myself reflecting on the nature of autonomy itself - which is, of course, the central theme of the conference and of the papers in this volume. I wrote earlier that I needed to 'exercise my autonomy and decline' the invitation, but just now I wrote too that 'I felt I had no choice but to decline'. I have also expressed my profound sense of discomfort in having to disappoint the editors and in not fulfilling my sense of responsibility.
This suggests that the relationship between 'autonomy' and 'making choices' is rather more complex than I had once imagined (e.g. in my own writing on intrinsic motivation and autonomy, such as in Ushioda, 1996). While exercising autonomy is an expression of individual self-determined choice and decision-making, there may be circumstances in which there is effectively only one choice or direction possible because any other is simply not viable. We may wish that the circumstances could be different, but unless it is in our power to change them, the autonomy we exercise is necessarily bound by the limits these circumstances impose on our actions. This brings home to me the situationally embedded nature of autonomy, and the environmental constraints as well as supports and structures that affect how individuals can exercise autonomy, whether as language learners or as teaching or research professionals. Reading the various contributions to this volume, I am struck by how pervasively this theme runs through many of the chapters - that is, the relations and tensions between individual and environment, or between learner or professional autonomy and external structures and systems (e.g. the chapters by Stephen Brewer, Anja Burkert, Christian Ludwig, and Dietmar Tatzl).
The professional quandary I experienced also brings home to me the complexity of trying to act in ways that are congruent with one's sense of self (the essence of autonomy as defined within the framework of self-determination theory - e.g. Ryan and Deci, 2002), when faced with competing commitments and responsibilities, as is typical in our busy working lives. We cannot easily compartmentalise our lives so that how we act in one sphere of activity will bear no impact on what we do in another. Although we may fulfil different social roles and identities in different areas of our life, we need to reconcile these varying roles and identities in order to sustain a coherent sense of self, and to act autonomously in ways that are congruent with and express this sense of self. In the complex lives that we lead, this congruence may not always be straightforward, as my experience illustrates. Nevertheless, it is important for our own psychological well-being that we strive to achieve such congruence and inner coherence. Thus, if learning a second or foreign language is one aspect of what we do, it is important that we can meaningfully connect the process of learning and using this language to who we are and what we do beyond the classroom and what we may do in our life in the future, so that this language becomes a tool for expressing and expanding our sense of self. This is a principle that is fundamental to pedagogical approaches that seek to promote autonomy in language learning, as discussed, for example, by David Little in this volume, and illustrated in practical accounts in various chapters (e.g. in the chapter by Gerhild Janser-Munro and Tanja Psonder)
Yet, above all, it was the profoundly social and emotional dimension of my professional quandary that affected me the most. I was deeply uncomfortable at having to decline the invitation to contribute a chapter, not least because I have enjoyed a longstanding professional relationship and friendship with two of the three editors of this book and did not want to let them down. I also felt a strong sense of commitment and belonging to the community of researchers and practitioners in the learner autonomy field who have influenced my work on language learning motivation over the past two decades. My experience therefore brought home to me the fundamental role played by social relations and interactions when we develop and exercise autonomy. For language learners, the social learning environment of the classroom and the sense of community and security it brings are vitally important in providing a safe and supportive context within which they can be enabled to develop autonomy in small manageable steps. This is a very clear message in many of the papers in this volume, voiced for example by Maria De Santo and Luisa Boardman, Carol Everhard, and also Lienhard Legenhausen. At another level, however, the process of developing and exercising autonomy also implies moving beyond these safe horizons in order to realise the potential for growth or change. These 'growth points' (Dam, 1995) can be liberating but the experience of venturing beyond one's comfort zones and changing one's attitudes or practices can also be challenging, painful and often emotional for both learners and teachers, as described, for example, by Maria Pree and Ruth Wilkinson in their chapters.
While I am not sure if writing this foreword - or being enabled to write this foreword through the kindness of the editors - has been a 'growth point' for me, the opportunity for critical reflection it has brought is personally significant and valuable. It is rare that I get the chance to write about such reflections and share them in public with the professional and research community outside the tighter framework of a more formal academic paper. I am grateful to Anja, Leni and Christian for having given me the autonomy to do so and to connect my personal reflections with the richly diverse researcher and practitioner perspectives on learner autonomy contained in this volume.

Notes on the Contributor

Ema Ushioda is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick, UK. Her research interests are motivation, autonomy and teacher development. Recent publications include International Perspectives on Motivation: Language Learning and Professional Challenges (2013), Teaching and Researching Motivation (2011), and Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self (2009).


Dam, L. (1995). Learner autonomy 3: From theory to classroom practice. Dublin, Ireland: Authentik.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. In E. L. Deci and R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 3-33). Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press.
Ushioda, E. (1996). Learner autonomy 5: The role of motivation. Dublin, Ireland: Authentik.
Ushioda, E. (Ed.). (2013). International perspectives on motivation: Language learning and professional challenges. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Part 2: Language Learner Autonomy: Theoretical Considerations

Chapter 1: Learner Autonomy as Discourse: the Role of the Target Language by David Little, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

In a number of publications (e.g., Little 2001, 2004, 2007) I have argued that the exercise and development of language learner autonomy depend on the operationalization of three interacting principles: learner involvement, learner reflection, and target language use. In this article I explore the theory and practice of language learner autonomy from the perspective of the third of these principles. I argue that the most successful language learning environments are those in which, from the beginning, the target language is the principal channel through which the learners' agency flows: the communicative and metacognitive medium through which, individually and collaboratively, they plan, execute, monitor and evaluate their own learning. I describe in some detail the communicative and metacognitive dynamic that shapes target language discourse in the autonomy classroom at lower secondary level before suggesting ways of creating the same dynamic in other contexts of formal language learning. I conclude by briefly considering the implications of my argument for empirical research.
Keywords: autonomy, agency, authenticity, communication, metacognition, dialogic learning, target language use
Language Learner Autonomy: Evolution of a Theory
It all began towards the end of the 1970s with two questions. The first came from adult education: How can we ensure that adult language learners develop the communicative proficiency they need in the real worl...

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