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Self-directed learning

August 08, 2009

Hello again,

What is your school’s view about the learning process? Do you believe that a teacher must be in charge of all the learning activity? There can be strong pressures that reinforce this view: in some cultures learning is seen...

... as being passed from those with knowledge, wisdom and experience to the next generation; in private schools, fee-paying students come with an expectation that a teacher will direct everything. Yet the reality is that learner autonomy is crucial for lifelong learning, essential for the sustainability of the learning process. Just as babies have to be weaned for independent feeding, so learners have to be weaned towards independence.

I am not suggesting anything drastic. But if, for example, your students are preparing to study at a western university, they will need to acquire independent learning skills, as they will be expected to conduct their own research, read up to augment their understanding and be able to select and collate ideas to produce their own original essays. The skills required here can be very daunting for students who have never been self-reliant but have always been spoon-fed by a teacher.

The first question an organisation needs to consider, then, is: are our types of student likely to benefit from self-directed learning or will they be deterred by this approach?
If you can identify groups who would benefit from more autonomous learning, the next step is to devise a plan for implementing it. You need to consider how to prepare teachers; how you will explain and discuss the issue with students; how much of a lesson or a course will be devoted to learner autonomy; how you assess effectiveness and how you handle problems.

# Dam, L (1995). Learner autonomy. 3: From theory to classroom practice. Dublin: Authentik Language Learning Resources.
# Dickinson, L. (1987). Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
# Jones, J.F. (1995). 'Self-access & culture: retreating from autonomy'. ELT Journal. (vol 49, no 3, pp 228-234)
# Pemberton, R. (et.al.). (1996). Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
# Sheerin, S. (1989). Self-Access. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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  1. Drew Ward Says:

    Good topic Brenda...

    I actually delivered a teacher training in-service at a university ESL centre yesterday in which I gave the instructors (whom I had observed previously) a slight scolding regarding the role of study materials in the classroom.

    As I told them, the course book is for the students. It's filled with exercises and activities for them. It's a major fallacy to think that the teacher's job is to simply go page by page and exercise by exercise through the text in class. We could simply place a tape recorder in the front of the room with an automated message if that were the job of a teacher.

    I explained that the purpose of an ESL text and the exercises in it (and also of self-directed or online exercises) is not to teach anything, but rather to create confusion for the student. The students encounter forms and constructions they are unfamiliar with in the text.

    It's this usage of something new and the confusion that creates that leads the students to ask their teacher for clarification or explanation. THIS is the role of the teacher.

    Any activity, be it a website, a video, a coursebook, workbook, or handout is intended to get the student thinking -- to cause him to ask why? It's the willingness and ability to affective answer those why questions about the language that separates an effective teacher from as page-turner.

    Running a class is all about encouraging production, and facilitating understanding. The books, exercises, and any student activity are just a resource for making this happen.

    So in reality, the teacher is never in charge of the learning process, the student is. But, the teacher must organize the course in a way that both challenges and supports the student so that effective learning is encouraged and practical use of the language results.

  1. Eileen Yeager Says:

    I couldn't agree more! I currently teach fifth grade. It's so interesting to see how each student learns; sometimes, when we THINK we've been very clear, or that an exercise is self-explanatory, the students don't "get it." At other times, when we anticipate there may be a comprehension issue, they DO "get it" - loud and clear. It is definitely the role of the teacher to be there to answer questions, encourage further discussion and generally assist in any way possible.

  1. Froukje Matthews Says:

    Hello there.
    Interesting topic, I agree!
    It is a very Western European style of learning this question-and-answer-and-research type of learning. Asian students, and I mean pretty well everywhere in Asia, are used to be given the lessons,the correct answers and memorize. Rote learning may be OK in some instances, but if it isn't backed up by understanding, which comes from self-directed learning and learning from mistakes, it won't lead to creativity innovation and an ability to cope well with change.

    I think it's cultural; a)the elder (re.; teacher) is supposed to have the answers/wisdom, b)it's impolite to question what someone older than you says or does, c)making mistakes is associated with 'loss of face'...all this results in a learning style that is very authorative and set in its ways.

    Good luck to those who don/t give up and try to break that pattern!

  1. Sajid Qureshi Says:

    I agree to some extent. I have been teaching English in Pakistan for quite many years. I am attached to ICE system and try to make my students develop their creative thinking through giving them complex challenging tasks.
    However, It does not always work well.
    As for vocabualry learing is concerned, students cram words, spelling and meanings etc. and score well in exams.

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