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LEARNER AUTONOMY: BUILDING A CURRICULUM AROUND AUTONOMOUS LEARNING WITH EXCLUSIVE REFERENCE TO THE UNIVERSITY OF SINDH PAKISTAN.

Byline: Ambreen Shahriar Habibullah Pathan and Ayesha Sohail

Abstract

This paper discusses the Significance of learner autonomy in English language learning process and explains the importance of understanding learners' needs. It aims at building a curriculum around autonomous learning with special reference to the University of Sindh. The need for introduction of autonomous learning at the University of Sindh is explained through reference to the situation in the context. After providing an overview of literature on learner autonomy transfer of roles role of teacher and learner and the strategy training for the development of autonomy we relate it to the prevailing conditions in the target situation.

An important section is based on practical implications followed by suggestions for teacher and learner training. The teachers have special significance and their role is equally important if not more in autonomous learning. There is a need for a special curriculum designed for autonomous learning. We have presented some practical suggestions on the number of classes per week the duration of each class types of tasks and activities to promote autonomy. Autonomous learning needs to keep the attitude and capability of learners in context. Following the understanding of theory and the target situation we present a curriculum built around autonomous learning which can be implemented at the University of Sindh Pakistan. The paper discusses its purpose and applicability in detail.

Keywords: learner autonomy facilitator counselor self-confident learner learning strategies

1. Introduction

Progress and achievement depends on independent (autonomous) activity. Cotterall (1995 p.223)

Learner autonomy is taking an active role in the process of learning by deciding objectives behind learning and planning and performing in a way to achieve those objectives. It is as Oxford (2001) defines "conscious control over ones learning processes". And more comprehensively in the words of Little (1991 p.5) Essentially autonomy is a capacity - for detachment critical reflection decision-making and independent action. It presupposes but also entails that the learner would develop particular kind of psychological relation to the process and content of his learning.

Holec (1981) notes that acquiring autonomy is one of the two equally important objectives of foreign language learning the other being acquiring linguistic and communicative abilities. He defines autonomy as moving from a dependent to an independent position.

By now we have explained what we meant by "autonomy." In the next section we are discussing the problem with reference to the University of Sindh Pakistan and the need for introduction of learner autonomy there. Then we will turn towards the theoretical issues related to learner autonomy discussing the varying views of scholars on autonomy transfer of roles in autonomous learning role of teacher and learner and the importance of strategy training for the development of autonomy. The following section will present the relevance of those theories with the target situation (University of Sindh) and provide the practical implications. Suggestions are made on teacher training and learner training. Before the conclusion we present the curriculum built around autonomous learning with a focus on the conditions in the University of Sindh. The purpose of the curriculum and steps towards implementing it in the classroom besides other aids are then presented.

Overall the paper presents some practical proposals on learner autonomy. Finally the conclusion summarizes the argument.

2. Background to the Problems in the University of Sindh Pakistan

The University of Sindh is a public institution with not very favourable language learning conditions (see Siddiqui 2006; Soomro 2012; Rind 2012 2013; Bughio 2013; Pathan 2013; Shahriar 2013a 2013b). A language teacher standing in front of a class of approximately 60-80 (sometimes even more) silent learners giving lecture with either a black or a white board as his only teaching aid besides the textbook is the only picture of language learning process going on in the university.

Such a class is taken thrice a week for two years. Not only are the classroom practices unsatisfactory but also the syllabus which does not fulfill the requirements of the learners (Shahriar 2011 2012). Therefore the learners do not pay attention to the learning. But when they step into practical life they realize that their counterparts from private universities with better English language take hold of all the good opportunities (Shahriar Pathan Man and Umrani 2011; Pathan Shahriar and Man 2010).

In such circumstances the learners should be made to realize their role in the learning process. They should be allowed to decide what they want to learn in accordance with their future needs. They should be helped to plan and practice the ways they want to learn it. They should be allowed to be answerable to nobody else but themselves. They should be taught to monitor their progress and self-assess themselves. They should be advised on the available resources for their future consultation.

3. Literature Review

The previous section highlighted the problem confronted in the target situation. We also tried to explain why we need to introduce autonomous learning in the target situation. In this section we wish to overview the literature on the learner autonomy transfer of roles in autonomous learning role of teacher and learner and the importance of strategy training for the development of autonomy. Firstly we will present the historical overview on learner autonomy.

3.1 On Learner Autonomy

The term Autonomy is associated with complete freedom self reliance self fulfillment (with no limits and no authority) due to which it is considered to be culturally Western Littlewood1999; Marshall and Torpey 1997 cited in Littlewood 1999; Aoki and Smith 1996 cited in Littlewood 1999; Ho and Crookall 1995 cited in Littlewood 1999 and Jones 1995 cited in Littlewood 1999 mention this to be widely believed notion in East. Contrary to the mentioned idea about the term `autonomy' Nunan (1997) challenges the view of existence of a fully autonomous learner. He points that learning `independently of classroom teacher or textbook... is an ideal rather than a reality'. Therefore the idea of relating autonomy to West is no more a question.

One of the common and widely accepted definitions of autonomy is that learner should take the responsibility to learn and work on his own. He does not always need a teacher to tell him what to do or to help him. The purpose of an autonomous learner is to learn by all means. Scharle and Szabo (2000) favour this view. They view that the teacher cannot teach everything in the class or even through homework. If a learner wants a continuous improvement he is required to take a continuous effort inside and outside the class. Similarly Littlewood (1999 p.73) clarifies that no teacher can accompany his learners throughout life therefore autonomy as independent learning is an undeniable goal of all learning.

On the other hand Holec's (1981) views on autonomy touch extremity. He completely disregards the physical presence or absence of a teacher. His view is sustained by Richards (1990 cited in Voller 1997) who supports designing `teacher-proof methods' of language learning. Further Holec defines autonomy as the learner acquiring the ability to "hold the responsibility for all the decisions concerning all aspects of learning." He replaces the term Autonomy for Self-directed learning following which every learner develops his own `idiolect'. The learner will be choosing and changing his objectives according to his personal criteria.

Holec's radical views on autonomy are not very popularly accepted by the majority of scholars. Pemberton (1996 p.3 cited in Lee 1998 p.283) draws slight differences between autonomy and self-directedness as the former being a capacity and the latter a way of organizing learning. Yet both Pemberton and Lee use the terms interchangeably. At the same time both of them (unlike Holec) affirm that learner autonomy is both individual and social. Lee (1998 p.283) quotes Dam (1995) and Pemberton (1996) to support his view that interaction negotiation collaboration etc. are important factors in promoting learner autonomy.

Littlewood (1999) echoes Lee (1998) and quotes Little (1994 p.435) "learner autonomy is the product of interdependence rather than independence." Ryan (1991; cited in Littlewood 1999 p.75) takes into account many of his own and others' studies showing that `autonomy and relatedness' do not oppose each other instead autonomy grows quite successfully in an `interpersonal environment which supports it'. Breen and Candlin (1980 p.100 cited in Voller 1997) Boud (l988 p.29 cited in Voller 1997) and Bruffee (l993p.63 cited in Voller 1997) see "interdependence" as essential and unavoidable.

Autonomy is not self-instruction or self-study. After interviewing teachers on independent learning in one of his research projects Macaro (1997 p.175) finds that the most often mentioned definition of the term `independent learning' are in the following order:

Advancing at the learner's own pace.

Separate activities - e.g. going to a resource centre etc.

Independence from the teacher.

Home learning.

Giving pupils time to think about what they are doing.

Working independently is not synonymous with working

individually.

Learner ownership of materials.

Choice of activities.

Esch (1997 pp.165-6) however clarifies that autonomous learning does not mean `learning in isolation' but learning on one's own free will without external authority.

There is a varying range of the degrees of autonomy supported by the scholars. Some follow complete freedom without any external help and support while the others believe in a support in teaching the strategies methods and techniques. Nunan (1997) proposes that there are varying degrees of autonomy which depend on psychological educational social and cultural factors. While Benson (1997 p.19) says that autonomy has three different versions: technical (related to goals methods etc.) psychological (related to learner's attitude abilities efforts achievements etc.) and political (related to social issues structural frameworks etc). Littlewood (1999) makes a distinction between proactive and reactive autonomy. He defines the former as the learning process completely in charge of the learner (most writers accept this as the only type of autonomy) and the latter as following directions of the teacher the learner works on his own.

Autonomy is defined variedly by various scholars. The ratio of autonomy granted to the learners also varies from scholar to scholar. Usually all scholars however agree with the common features of autonomy:

Learner takes responsibility of his learning.

Sets goals and objectives.

Plans methods of learning.

Performs and practices the tasks.

Evaluates his progress.

3.2 On Transfer of Roles

The learners and the teachers have been performing the roles of receiver and transmitter ever since. That is why Cotterall (l995 p.23) writes that the teachers must be skilled to shift the responsibilities to learners gradually and through individual counseling. Cotterall accepts that in this way the work load on teacher in large classes increases. But even then she sticks to points of slow and gradual shift of power. Scharle and Szabo (2000) echo Cotterall and write that all students have more or less the same level of sense of responsibility but cultural differences don't allow them to think autonomously. In such circumstances transfer of roles should be gradual.

3.3 On Role of Teacher

Teachers play a significant role in autonomous learning. Riley (1997) mentions that due to the changed role of the teacher during the last fifty years a number of terms has been suggested which include counselor helper facilitator knower mentor advisor consultant but none is being agreed upon because the new role of the teacher is not decided yet.

In order to develop an autonomous learner the collaboration between the teacher and the learner is required. Holec (1981) mentions that the role of teacher changes (in the process of creating autonomous learners) from an authoritarian teaching machine (which is replaceable) to one whose role in the process of learning is irreplaceable (a much strengthened role which demands greater competence creativity and training). Hence the teacher who promotes autonomous learning needs greater effort and expertise.

Different scholars present their views on the role of the teacher in an environment of learner autonomy. Breen and Mann (1997) present three attributes to a teacher of autonomous learners - self awareness (of his role) belief and trust (in the ability of each learner) and desire (to develop learner autonomy). They describe his classroom performance as a resource decision sharer a facilitator in collaborative procedures who provides support and manages risks. Whereas Yalden (1987 pp.63-64 cited in Voller 1997) reduces a teacher to a part of instructional resources for an autonomous learner. But Rubin (1987) clarifies that the introduction of successful strategies to the learner and providing alternative strategy (in case some strategy is not suitable for a learner) are important in development of autonomy. She also believes that learner's critical faculty should be trained by the teacher to keep monitoring himself.

Hence the most important qualities of a teacher in this new role are bringing a realization in the learner that his efforts can make a difference and showing him the direction to make efforts in.

3.4 On Role of Learner

A teacher cannot force a learner to learn unless he is willing to learn. Holec (1981) writes that acquiring learner autonomy is possible only if the learner is willing and capable of assuming responsibility. While defining the role of the learner Holec (1987) allows the learner to either accept the existing learning process or to choose one for him and in either case he should be free to follow an instructor or self-instruct.

The new role as independent self-reliant and self-confident learner allows him enough freedom to plan monitor evaluate and assess his learning. Scharle and Szabo (2000) note that the realization of the language process learner's role in it and practice to perform his role effectively are three requirements of an autonomous learner. Cotterall (1995 p.219) quotes Boud (1988 p.23) that autonomy allows responsibility of learning to the learners.

The learner must realize the importance of his goals to take efforts to achieve them. Breen and Candlin (l98Op.95 cited in Cotterall 2000p.lll) comment that a learner can't learn until he does not know what he wants to learn or tries to learn. Besides Rubin and Thompson (1994) write that if the learner determines his goals and objectives in advance he will be in a better position to select or modify his course material. And Dickinson (1992 p.l7) finds:

The early research on language learning strategies carried out by such researchers as Rubin (1975) Stern (1975) and Naiman et al. (1978) indicated that good learners have an active involvement with language learning that they have clear ideas about the best ways of going about language learning and they set up their own learning objectives in addition to the teacher's.

Autonomy develops interest of the learner. This as Littlejohn (1985 cited in Cotterall 1995) suggests increases his motivation. Scharle and Szabo (2000) in support of this view point out that the learner will learn more enthusiastically if he will be made to judge his own work objectively. Once he will set his targets he will try to achieve them himself. Also Knowles' (1975 p.14 cited in Dickenson 1995 p.165) claims that proactive (completely autonomous) learner learns with greater motivation and determination and therefore learns more efficiently than reactive (partly autonomous) learner.

Thus in autonomous environment the learner learns with greater determination and fulfils his requirements through the methods he wants.

3.5 On Learning Strategies

On the importance of strategy training 0' Malley (1987) writes "Teachers should be confident that there exist a number of strategies which can be embedded into their existing curricula that can be taught to students with only modest extra effort and that can improve the overall class performance." And Rubin (1987) notes that learner strategy training is important so that the learner should know what results are expected he could manipulate the strategies according to his needs and he could use them in the absence of a teacher also.

Strategy training has a role to play in the development of learner autonomy. Oxford (2001) mentions "All language learning strategies are related to the feature of control goal-directedness autonomy and self- efficacy." Cohen (1998 p.70 cited in Chen 2007 p.21) remarks that learners hold authority of the learning process through strategy training which in turn makes them autonomous self-directed and responsible.

According to Cotterall (2000 p.111) autonomous learning is only possible if variety of learning tasks and strategies are introduced and their uses are known to the learner. Where Cotterall talks of introducing the available strategies Dickinson (1992) emphasizes on training of the learner to develop such strategies himself. Thus a learner should be trained on the existing strategies and also on the development of new strategies so that he could create or choose as suits him the best.

Dickinson (1992) and Wenden (1987) are of the opinion that some of the time of the training should specifically be given to strategy training. These two scholars are of the view that learner should also be informed that they are learning such and such strategy so that they could use it even at other times. Wenden (1987) and Dickinson (1992) also prefers "informed training" (teaching the knowledge of a strategy and its use) over "blind training" (following the instructions of the teacher) for effective learning. Dickinson further mentions that learners should also be taught the ability to assess the effectiveness of a strategy along with its use. She calls it self-controlled training. Her self-control training involves a "Decision Circle" and a series of questions.

Wenden continues that both the cognitive and metacognitive strategies are interrelated. She discusses further that every problem is solved through the process of metacognition but in the beginning of the process the problem is identified and a particular cognitive strategy is applied to it.

Learner's strategy training is thus considered as an important part of the content of the course on autonomous learning as it can help improving the overall class performance.

4. Implications

This section is expected to expose the practical implications on promoting autonomy in my target situation. But before that we would like to explore the relevance of existing theories (mentioned in the last section) to the target situation.

4.1 Relevance of Theories to the Target Situation

The most important problem in the University of Sindh is the lack of understanding of the learner needs (Man Pathan and Shahriar 2011; Shahriar 2013a 2013b). As a result the learners lose interest in learning. But Holec (1981) and Esch (1997) clarify that through autonomy learner can learn on his free will. This will of course enhance his interest in learning.

We also mentioned that the present learners in the university are silent and passive. They do not have enough interest in the language learning because either they are not taught what they want to learn or not taught in a way they want to learn in. Knowles (1975) Dickenson (1995) Scharle and Szabo (2000) Cotterall (1995) and Littlejohn's (1985) suggest that autonomy increases motivation. When the learner will decide the content and process of learning they will be more at ease with it.

We now wish to propose practical implications. In order to promote learner autonomy in language learning the two important suggestions are the proper training of the language teachers (before the language course starts) and the proper education of the language learners.

4.2 Teacher Training

In the process of learning a teacher has an undeniable significance. The misconception that teachers lose importance under autonomous learning has no footing. Voller (1997 p.107) notices that learning independently of a teacher is taught to learners by a teacher. Therefore the role of the teacher becomes more significant and needs greater effort and expertise.

First of all workshops and seminars for the training of language teachers on the need for development of autonomy will be arranged.

The teachers will be trained on the needs and demands of the learners. They will also be trained to develop respect for each learner to understand the needs of individual learners and to try to make the learners autonomous by allowing them to take their decisions.

4.3 Curriculum

Curriculum outlines the basic requirements of a course. It answers what a certain course should offer and will offer.

The curriculum to develop autonomous learner should primarily focus the needs of the learner because the learner will move towards autonomy and independent learning only if he finds such learning desirable and needful. For the success of a curriculum it is always important that the teachers as well as learners are motivated and determined to perform their roles.

STATEMENTS ABOUT THE PURPOSE OF CURRICULUM

- Goals to be achieved are made transparent to the learners.

- Provide basic understanding of language learning process.

- Perform skills and tasks to be encountered in real life.

- Develop besides encouraging attitudes and efforts towards modifying adapting and creating goals and content of the course.

- Equip learners with a range of learning strategies

- Develop learners skills to self-evaluate and self-assess

4.4 Context

Instead of taking a class of sixty students together for an hour per day for three days per week one class of twenty students per week should be taken to give them tutorials and guide them. This class should be conducted for an hour focusing skills which learners are interested in most. During this one hour there will be:

Discussions with peers on problems and successes in attaining

oals.

Pair work or group work on some task.

Session with teacher on a particular problem faced generally.

Tutorials on assignments and projects.

Feedback by teacher on checked assignments.

Learners will be provided with resources and they will be allowed to choose. They need to be self-disciplined determined and highly motivated (the degree of motivation may vary). Collaborative learning will be supported.

4.5 Learner Training

The learners will be trained to improve their learning skills which include developing their attitude to support autonomous learning strategy training and knowledge of language learning process.

Attitude towards autonomy is the willingness on the part of learner to take responsibility and the self-confidence to do so. Wenden (1991 p.58) outlines the attitudes about learners' role and capability as learners in the following table:

Developing the personality of learners is a goal to be achieved through the course. They will be encouraged to set realistic goals and time frame. They will be assisted in identifying their preferred ways of learning (see Appendix A). They will not only be allowed to decide the content of the course during the term time but also the content of the term exams (in University of Sindh assessment is done through exams). Since much of the learning takes place through formative assessment therefore summative assessment is only a formality. Besides the learners will feel confident to realize that nobody else will be affected by their hard work and they are not answerable to anyone.

With the beginning of the course learners' self-awareness will be focused. Learners will be able to set their own goal only if they know where they stand what and how they want to achieve (see Appendix B). The goals of the course will be clarified to the learners in the beginning and they will be frequently reminded of them. Learners will be trained to set target objectives for each task they start. They will be given the knowledge of the learning process (see Appendix C). They will be introduced with the contents of the course and the aims and methods of the content. During the course of their study they will at times be put into the situations they think they will encounter in future to use English (not any unrealistic situations like talking to a bus driver in Pakistan in English.). They will use the target language through role play; for example giving a job interview.

They will be provided with a range of activities so that they could choose the one that suits their temperament (see Appendices D and E). Learners will be allowed to mould the course material and methods to their purpose. This will increase their motivation. They will be trained to choose and develop strategies (guessing searching doze tests repetition dictation prediction note-taking resourcing cooperation self-questioning) to perform tasks. They will be trained to keep a critical view on their learning and to reflect on their progress.

4.6 Steps Towards Implementing Autonomy r in Classroom

- One-to-one personal meeting between teacher and learner (introduction setting goals attitude towards autonomous learning).

- Introductory class on language learning (discussion on key concepts time allocation amount and type of input).

- Developing learners awareness (particular skills that need improvement see Appendix F).

- Introducing goals and content (learners are allowed to perform in their preferred learning strategies). -- Performing tasks similar to situations faced with in real life.

- Second one-to-one meeting (assessing and discussing progress) - Before this meeting learners will be given a scale to assess their effort and interest level (see Appendix - G).

- Follow-up on common problems faced (discussions and activities).

- Offering a range of goals to choose from.

- Providing content and tasks on the chosen goals.

- Self-monitoring in a personal record book.

- Modification and adaptation of the goals and content and eventually the tasks by the learners.

- Independent study:

- Allowing learners to choose the material and time.

- Providing material and specific time.

- Self-creating the tasks by mentioning the objectives and reflecting on the achievements.

- Discussion on the available resources in the target language to approach after the class and especially after the end of the course (techniques to find and exploit the resources).

- Last meeting on teacher's advice for future study of the language.

We find it essential to point out that the above steps need not necessarily be followed in the sequence they are mentioned. They may be followed suiting circumstances and the needs of the learners.

To help reduce the chances of failure the following steps will help:

- Learner strategy training

- Appropriate counseling by teachers

- Proper choices provided to learners

- Peer support

- Willingness on the part of learners

- Supportive environment

5. Conclusion

Autonomy as discussed in this paper is a power of critical reflection on the process of learning and decision-making. The review of the literature offered the detailed discussion on autonomy and various related aspects as scholars see them. Through historical overview of the literature we found that the role of teacher strengthens and demands greater competence creativity and training. And the new role of the learner allows them to plan monitor evaluate and assess their learning themselves. The importance of strategy training is then discussed.

We discussed the unsatisfactory conditions in the University of Sindh and mentioned that the prevailing circumstances are responsible for lack learners' interest and a sense of responsibility. We therefore suggested the development of learner autonomy. Teacher training on learner autonomy one class of twenty students per week to give them tutorials and guidance learner training and certain other suggestions are given for implementing learner autonomy. A curriculum is provided with statements on its purpose and certain steps that could be followed in the classroom to reach learner autonomy effectively.

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