I think what I'm aiming for, my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is genuine learning, rather than "autonomy". Trying to teach autonomy has made me question my aims, think about what students are really doing in class, and helped to make me more aware of "the central place of the learner in the learning process", as Holec put it.
This has opened a Pandora's box of different issues: leaving students to their own devices, giving them choices and letting them take responsibility for them, brings up the issue of motivation, because once the teacher stops telling students what to do and directing their actions in the classroom, students tend to flounder. So what is the motivating force? Curiosity? Interest? A desire to learn? If students have these, then they can start to become autonomous.
But if they don't? If their motivation is simply to pass the course, get the credits? Then, once the teacher stops telling them what to do and leaves them free to choose, they are in a quandary: how to pass the course while doing the minimum work? It's far easier if the teacher does not try and foster real learning, but just sets hoops for students to jump through: "Do the activity on page 38. Memorize this dialogue and act it out. Learn these vocab items for a test next week." etc, etc.
But when the teacher says, "Here are some materials. You can choose what you do, and work at your own pace," the hoop-jumpers are in trouble; they flounder. They sit at their desks, slumped over, eyes wandering; they look around, play with their cell phones, perhaps do homework for another teacher's class, chat with friends, look over a newspaper or magazine. Waiting. Waiting to be told what to do.
The ones that want to learn soon pick up the reins: they call me over, ask me questions like how to pronounce a word, how a word is used, or ask me to explain in more detail what the options are - can they do this? What about that?
In one class, which has a majority of real learners, I've been able to go around and talk to the "slumpers", the "waiters", the "tell-me-what-to-do" crowd. I ask them questions about their interests, their part-time jobs, and from what they tell me I suggest topics they can write about or talk about. For the most part this has worked.
In another class, which has only a small number of real learners and a majority of hoop-jumpers, I feel I've run into the sand. I gave them the same amount of choices and freedoms, but it didn't work. Too much freedom? Too soon?
I'm reminded of A.S.Neill's Summerhill school: Neill got a lot of delinquents; classes were of the regular kind, but none were compulsory; all students got counselling by Neill, himself a qualified psychologist. I feel like some of my students have been so "schooled" that they've had their curiosity and desire to learn kicked out of them. They need freedom to run around and do what they want for a while. They're not ready for real learning.
Or do I give up, and just make those hoops for them to jump through? Is worksheet wonderland the answer? "OK, do 50 of these and you pass."