September 24, 2004

Autonomy, critical pedagogy, collaborative development and more

I'm now reading in a number of different fields: autonomy and language-learning, critical pedagogy, participatory approach, collaborative development. There are a number of common elements in these different fields. One of them is the importance of dialogue. A vital element in autonomy training is self-evaluation/assessment and self-reflection, i.e. having students think about what they are doing, as without this they are unable to make future decisions about what to do, which materials to use or how to use them. The teacher's role is to act more like a counsellor, asking questions rather than telling, and helping students get clearer about their aims and purposes.

Dialogue is also important for teachers. Tim Murphey in the AYA book suggests that teachers who regularly discuss matters of education, teaching, learning, SLA, etc., with colleagues, including questioning their own motives and beliefs, tend to provide a higher quality of teaching for their students.

Critical pedagogy involves being willing to question sacred cows and absolute givens. The critical attitude is difficult to maintain alone, and seems to be helped by dialogue with others. The same seems to be true of collaborative development, which involves consciously creating dialogue and agreeing to a certain strategy which seems to be very similar to that of the counsellor as mentioned above. (CD then could be a good way to help develop teachers' listening and counselling skills for autonomy training).

In MI, Tom Hoerr, principal of an MI school, stresses the vital importance of collegiality. Without it, he says, attempts to introduce MI in a school are more or less doomed to failure.

Collegiality, which I think is another way of describing the kind of dialogue between teachers I mentioned above, perhaps a synonym for collaborative development, is also stressed in a plenary speech given by Mary Rane at Dublin's IATEFL Dublin conference in 2000 on the topic of curriculum change or development. Rane sees curriculum development as being impossible without pretty intense discussions and dialogues between colleagues on basic matters such as educational philosophy or vision. She insists teachers have to make an effort to enter into such discussions, even with colleagues they do not personally like or get on with, if meaningful curriculum change is to occur.

There is a section in the Chaos Theory book that my colleague quotes in a forthcoming paper(Briggs & Peat 1999: 74 ff), which deals with group discussions and the work of committees. This is the link I was talking about between Chaos Theory and what my colleague and I are up to. I see all these elements as being interconnected: the discussions that my colleague and I have about teaching, learning, autonomy, critical pedagogy, etc, and the actual class that we collaborate on; our attempts to introduce curriculum change in our department; collegiality and collaborative development (or lack of it) in our department. I think that it is not a coincidence that we are trying to introduce autonomy in our classes and that we have an ongoing dialogue about autonomy, teaching, learning, etc. It is also no coincidence that our dialogues involve a questioning of sacred cows; it is important that we do so because autonomy (at least the most interesting version of autonomy, the "radical" one) requires this from our students. Not much chance of us getting them to do this, if we're not doing it already, eh?

September 23, 2004

Participatory approaches in ESL

I happened on an interesting article on the web while searching for references to Auerbach, an author referred to frequently by Alastair Pennycook, for instance: "The students were given semiscripted dialgoues into which they were supposed to interject different details. The topic was calling plumbers and electricians to get things fixed. Again, nice contextual work, but I would have liked them to be more conflictual. When I call a plumber, they don't say, "Yes certainly, I'll be there at 6.00."....So they need tougher dialogues. A number of people have developed materials based on a more difficult world than the insipid vision of collaborative ESL texts (see Auerbach and Wallerstein, 1987; Goldstein, 1994)." ( Critical Moments in a TESOL praxicum p 339, in Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Norton & Toohey, CUP, 2004) (more info here )

A Google search brought up this: Transforming the Cultural Studies Curriculum in Partnership with Students, by Cheiron McMahill.
This was very interesting, but left me thirsty for more details on HOW: what procedures did McMahill use, how to introduce the topics, the approach, etc., etc. So I looked up some of McMahill's references, beginning with Auerbach because the TESOL Quarterly is in the uni library.

One of the Auerbach references is to Putting the P back into Participatory in TESOL Quarterly, 27, 543-548. In it I found this: "On the one hand it is heartening to see that participatory approaches are coming to be accepted as cutting edge rather than fringe views and that the field may even be on the verge of a paradigm shift. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable when the term participatory is used loosely to describe any approach that claims to involve learners in the shaping of curriculum goals or classroom processes. Often, the terms participatory and learner-centered are equated despite the fact that they have potentially different ideological implications, the former focusing on social transformation and the latter on self-realization. Although participatory pedagogy is rooted in a social change perspective, its inherently political nature is often obsured. As Edelsky (1991) says, "Buzzwords and movements not only can promote change; they can prevent it" (p. 161); my fear is that this may be the fate of participatory ESL."

This is an interesting forerunner to Edith Esch's comment (previously referred to); although she is writing about autonomy, the sentiment is the same: "Over the past thirty years, the radicalism of the concept of learner autonomy as promoted by Bertrand Schwartz, Yves Chalon and Henri Holec (1981, 1988), seems to have been gradually emptied of its substance. Practitioners appear to be unable to avoid the 'fossilization' (Little, 1991: p.1) of the concept in attempting to implement it in insitutional contexts. The debate about the aims of developing learner autonomy has been forgotten, to give way to shorter-term targets, and problems of management and the implementation of organizational principles, like self-access and other techniques, have been brought to the fore instead....Meanwhile, the concept of learner training, which has been closely associated with learner autonomy (Holec, 1980; Ellis and Sinclair, 1989; Dickinson, 1992) seems to have been merged into that of study skills." (Learner Training for autonomous language learning in Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning, Benson & Voller, Longman 1997).

Leaving aside for the moment the question of why it's important to hang onto the radical element of learner autonomy, I want to look more closely at participatory approaches in ESL. A google search on "participatory approaches" ESL brought up an overview of the subject: Freirean/Participatory Approaches.
"Among adult educators in the United States, Freire's ideas have been adapted to fit diverse learners and educational contexts. The primary revision is the notion of "emergent curriculum" (Auerbach, 1992), where learners identify their own problems and issues and seek their own solutions. Teachers, freed from doing extensive research to identify problems for learners, become facilitators of class discussions and activities, and learn along with the class."

Auerbach's article in the TESOL Quarterly 27 suggests that this approach may not be suitable for students in Japan: "The key tenet of participatory education, based on the work of Freire (1970), is that marginalized people (such as immigrants and refugees in adult ESL classes, who often have the worst jobs, if any, and the poorest housing conditions) will only be able to effect change in their lives through critical reflection and collective action....Thus changes in teacher-student roles are not an end in themselves but a rehearsal for changing power relations outside class."

September 21, 2004

Links between Critical Pedagogy, CD and Autonomy

To tie up the threads from the last post:
I think there are connections and similarities between CD (Collaborative Development), Critical Pedagogy and Autonomy in language learning.

First, there is the fact that the AYA writers chose to collaborate on their anthology, and some are actively engaged in CD (and mention it in their articles). Some of the contributors also included excerpts from their dialogues/emails with their collaborator(s) in the body of their articles, and some even brought this exchange to the forefront.

Tim Murphey suggests in the AYA book that teachers who have an ongoing dialogue with colleagues about teaching, learning, language-learning, etc., tend to be better teachers. Without looking at the evidence, my experience and instinct would support that. The AYA book is an excellent example of teachers doing just that.

The kind of dialogues that Tim Murphey means, and which is so well exemplified in the AYA book is not just an exchange of information, but a dialogue that involves a constant questioning of assumptions, givens and attitudes. Collaborative partners, dialogue partners question and help uncover hidden assumptions and points of view in each other. This attitude on the part of the "teacher" seems crucial to critical pedagogy (see Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning referred to previously, especially the final chapter, the one by Alastair Pennycook).

Autonomy, as I mentioned in the previous post, has several radical elements, or perhaps I can say that there is a radical version of autonomy, and various non- or lesser radical versions (see Edith Esch's chapter in Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning by Phil Benson and Peter Voller (Longman 1996)).

And it seems to me that this radical element is connected with, supported by, the questioning, critical form of dialogues entered into by the contributors to the AYA book.

September 19, 2004

Losing the radical element

Edith Esch, in a chapter in Benson and Voller's 1997 book on autonomous language learning, suggests that some practitioners of automous language learning (ALL let's call it, eh?) are losing sight of the radical element in autonomy, whether by accident or design.

I was reminded of this when I read Nunan'a article in the same volume, and again when I read Steve Brown's article in AYA! (2003) on stereotypical views of language learners and of autonomy (ALL). Steve's article seemed to me to touch on something important, but I felt he hadn't quite got to the nub of it. Dick Allwright's comment on the article re-inforced this impression, especially his doubt about the effectiveness of Steve's questionnaire.

This prompted me to reflect further on what the radical element of autonomy is (or was). I begin to see several radical elements, basing myself on Holec's 1981 definition of autonomy as the ability to self-direct one's own learning:
1) it challenges the accepted notion of learning, namely that it is the product of teaching
2) it challenges the accepted notion of a teacher, namely someone who knows (an expert) transmitting information to someone who doesn't know
3) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as a transmitter of information and/or knowledge
4) it challenges the accepted role of teacher as central to the learning process
5) it challenges the accepted notion of learner as someone who is incapable of learning without a teacher, who is not central to the learning process

These challenges came about as the result of a number of crucial discoveries of theories in the field of learning, psychology and in particular SLA (for details see Holec 1988).

An important aspect for me in developing my understanding of autonomy has been having the opportunity to exchange ideas, bounce ideas off of other people, especially people who are equally interested and ideally more experienced than me in ALL. The first major opportunity came when a new colleague joined Tezukayama University. He was the first full-time colleague (and I include the Japanese staff in that) I could really talk to about teaching, learning and EFL (as well as a whole bunch of other things like music and love).

The second major opportunity was the Les Brunets seminar on autonomy, led by Henri Holec himself, and hosted by Turid Trebbi of the University of Bergen, Norway, in July 2004. This led me to read a lot more about autonomy, including re-reading things I'd read 4-5 years previously, and to discuss them with my colleague.

A third opportunity was less directly, through reading the AYA book, JALT's Learner Development SIG's collaborative effort. This introduced me to the idea of Collaborative Development.

It is this idea which I now think is central to the radical-ness of autonomy.

One major lesson I learned from the Les Brunets seminar was the power of negotiation: the teacher's role in developing autonomy is more like a psychologist/counsellor, helping the "patient" find their own solution to their own problem. This process includes discovering (with the patient's help and participation) how the patient sees the problem. This is what is important; not the expert psychologist's view. The psychologist's role (I'm referring here to what I know of Gestalt psychology) is to help the patient re-frame the problem. Sometimes that's all it takes.

In a similar way, the teacher's role in helping students develop autonomy is to ask them questions, to find out how they perceive their needs and wants, how they think those needs/wants can be fulfilled, what materials or methods they think are necessary or helpful.

A story to illustrate. Turid told of a boy she was talking to about what he wanted to do in English class. He said, listen to songs. She then asked him what exactly he would do. He said, translate the songs into his native language. Turid doubted the value of this; it sounded like an activity the boy came up with because of his past experience of foreign language classes, i.e. an outdated method based on now superceded understandings of SLA. But she said nothing, allowing the boy to find his own way. Some time later she met him again and looked at what he had done. He had pasted the song lyrics on 1 side of the page, and on the other written his own translation. But then he had gone further, and marked arrows here and there on both pages. Looking closely, Turid noticed the arrows pointed to grammatical elements, and illustrated discoveries the boy had made about English word order and syntax. Turid had learned a valuable lesson: her decision to override her initial instinct to dissuade the boy from his chosen course of action had been a good one.

The point I'm trying to make here (I think!) is that there are teachers who have reached a stage of humility, a stage where they realize that although they know a lot, it is the learner who needs to discover rather than be told, and so the teacher's role becomes one of a counsellor asking questions that seem pertinent but in the spirit of exploration rather than teaching or guiding.

It is this spirit I feel is absent in the writings of Nunan and some others. It is this spirit I feel is present in the writings of Holec, Esch and others such as John Holt.

This spirit of humility, this decision to "teach" by exploring together with students, not as a clever technique but because the teacher has come to the understanding and realization that this is in fact a better way to teach; the understanding that the teacher's knowledge cannot be most effectively transferred directly, but instead can be put to best use by helping the learner to learn, to discover, is key, I think.

It is similar to the position of some people in the field of critical pedagogy. It is highly illuminating, for instance, to compare some articles in AYA (e.g. Andy Barfield's) with, for instance, Alastair Pennycook's chapter in "Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning" (Norton & Toohey, 2004). There is the same questioning, the same "skeptical self-direction" (Barfield, 2003: 53).

The questioning approach is supported, I think, by the collaboration between people, both in the projects and action researches, and in the writing process, and later in the post-writing (the critical comments inserted after each article in the AYA book). This collaboration seems to me a natural extension, or rather a counterpart, to the back-and forth exchanges between teacher and learners in, what are to my mind the most interesting and impressive, examples of language advising or autonomy "guidance".

The above perhaps also explains my instinctive suspicions of the various "learner training" ideas, including those of Joan Rubin, Wenden, Chamot, Uhl, Robbins and the CALLA gang. The idea of "learner training" immediately suggests a trainer or leader or teacher who knows. How different this is to the attitudes of Holec, Esch, Benson, Barfield, Pennycook: they know they don't know and that they need to discover. We don't know how language is acquired, so we need to discover the process. Perhaps the process is unique to every learner, in which case we need to discover it, or help each individual discover it, on an individual basis.

Not long ago, my colleague commented on something he'd read in Robert Kiyosak's book "Rich Kid, Smart Kid". Kiyosaki wrote that he had learned to be humble when teaching or giving seminars: "If I think I know more than the students, then I know I'm in for trouble" (or words to that effect). My colleague's comment was, if he doesn't know more than his students, what's he doing leading the seminar? I think I can now answer the question: Kiyosaki may know more about finance and about money, but he doesn't know more than his students how to learn about this. I think this is what Kiyosaki was talking about.

Many years ago, I practiced Aikido, and did some research on the founder of modern Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. One of the things that struck me about him was how he was always discovering amazing things. He did not seem to be a man who set out to master supernatural powers, they just seemed to come to him. Those who knew him, at least towards the end of his life, seem to agree that he was a humble man who maintained a sense of wonder and of discovery. A master swordsman once challenged him to a duel (Ueshiba was always getting such challenges). Finally, Ueshiba assented. They were both in the dojo. The swordmaster was ready, but Ueshiba took up no defensive stance, and did not even pay much attention to the other. He pottered around his dojo, watering some plants, re-arranging things, humming to himself. The swordsman was completely nonplussed and found himself quite unable to raise the necessary agression - how could he attack this old man who wasn't even looking at him? Instead of being angry that Ueshiba wasn't giving him a proper challenge, he recognized the superiority of the other, and asked Ueshiba to accept him as a student.

"Don't look into the eyes of the other; don't be influenced by the intention of others. I don't look into the eyes of others. I simply put them all into my belly. Then agressors fall all by themselves. That's the best way." He also said, "We should leave everything in the hands of God."

I'm still not completely clear why I have put in here these quotes and anecdotes of Ueshiba, but I feel they are relevant in some way.

Perhaps it comes down to the old adage: the fools think they know, whereas the wise know they don't know and try to learn more. We (SLA researchers, EFL teachers) simply don't know enough yet about how language is acquired to be able to lay down the law to learners. Lots of practice is obviously necessary, but what kind of practice depends on many variables that the teacher does not know: the purposes of the learner, the past experiences that have moulded the learner's attitudes, motivations and beliefs.

Perhaps it is time to jettison the word "autonomy". I'm beginning to feel it is getting in the way.

Autono Blogger - blogging autonomous EFL learning

First post (ta-tarraa!) for Autono blogger, blogging autonomous EFL learning in an Asian country.