November 01, 2004

Reflections on a class observation

Last Tuesday I had the chance to observe a class. Not an autonomy class, but it gave me plenty of food for thought, like why and how I implement autonomy. The teacher of that class has students keep diaries in which they record what they did each class and their comments. Some students wrote that they wanted to speak to me, or hear me talk about my native country, or teach them something, and the teacher forwarded their comments. I wrote him a reply:

"It might be interesting to find out (e.g. the one that wanted to hear about England), why didn't they ask me? As I'm sure you know, in Japan/Japanese, such a question is usually a rebuke in disguise, so they may not realize you are ACTUALLY EXPECTING AN ANSWER!! We might learn something about some of the "representations" (as Holec calls them) that get in the way of these students being autonomous.

I don't share your somewhat gloomy expectations of your students' abilities, either in English or in autonomy, and I felt there is a lot of potential for autonomy in that class, and many things you could easily do (without requiring a new room or major equipment). Someone once wrote that they would like to see less theory and more practical suggestions or descriptions of autonomy. As someone once said "there is nothing so practical as a good theory".

1) Autonomy is the ability to self-direct one's own learning. Holec talked about mental representations, concepts, habits, that get in the way of this ability, and which need to be addressed and if possible replaced with more accurate and useful ones. This applies to teachers as well, of course. One big one is that it's the teacher's job to make all the choices. What other representations do you and your students have that might be getting in the way of developing autonomy?

2) Autonomy is not just freedom of choice, but REASONED choice. The aim is for learners to be making choices and to be able to say WHY they are making these choices. In other words, they need to develop criteria for setting objectives, selecting materials and methods. For instance, if learners don't know the difference between "studying" English and "learning to use" English, how are they to choose between a reading text and a listening exercise? Can they even recognize that one of them IS a listening exercise? Do they know what the PURPOSE of a listening exercise is? Do they realize WHY listening exercises are provided? Do they know what listening IS? (What IS "listening"?) (Hint: it's not translation!) (Left to their own devices, most Japanese students will revert to translating everything in sight. Don't take my word for it, try it!)

3) Learners need a little bit of the expert knowledge of the teacher; those bits of knowledge about language and about language learning that the teacher uses when making decisions and choices about texts, activities, learning objectives. If the teacher makes all the choices, obviously learners don't need to know this, but if the aim is to help learners make the choices.... And without this information, learners will not be able to make decisions; they won't be able to self-direct. My colleague and I have seen this with our "autonomy class" students: many of them gravitate to the reading cards, probably because that is closest to what they have habitually done. I'm sure that they would translate these if comprehension questions were not provided. So, what kind of knowledge and information do YOU use, that the learners might need in order to become more autonomous?"

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