Sunday, October 14, 2007

Autonomy in language learning: a pedagogical revisiting of a pedagogical approach

Professor Henri Holec
CRAPEL, University of Nancy II, France

Henri Holec began by apologising for the repetition of the word ‘pedagogical’ in his title, expaining that his intention in his talk was to focus on the teacher’s viewpoint. He started by clarifying some of the concepts in the field which are often used ambiguously.

Firstly, he noted that when teachers describe a learner as autonomous, they may be referring to an ability/capacity or to the particular way he learns. Holec sticks to the distinction that:

‘autonomy’ refers to a learner’s ability to self-control his learning and an autonomous learner is one who knows how to control his learning, whereas

‘self-directed learning’ refers to the type of learning and a self-directed learner is a learner who learns in a self-directed way.

He went on to point out that there is a similar ambiguity in the meaning attributed to ‘learn’ and ‘learning’. It is often used to include two ideas: that of gaining knowledge or skill and the way this is achieved (by study, practice, being taught). Holec prefers to use the term ‘acquire’ and ‘acquisition’ for the covert, unconscious cognitive process by which one internalises knowledge, while ‘learn and ‘learning’ refers to the overt and conscious behaviour used to acquire knowledge. Learning can also be instructed on non-instructed.

Holec claimed that there are two sets of principles - ‘states’ - which govern the various learning environments often referred to as implementations of ‘autonomy’.

State 1 can be described as instructed learning with a degree of learner participation. The focus is on the development of the self-direction of learning and their autonomy becomes a form of side-effect acquisition. The learners are gradually allowed to take part in the decision-taking process and the end-result is independent but not fully self-directed learners.

State 2 is a much more fundamental shift in perspective than State 1. Language learning here is non-instructed learning which is entirely placed under the control of the learner. Thus the focus is on the decision-taking and not on the ways/activities. The learner decides of his own free will, although not on free options of his own. There are no free options because the needs and objectives always affect the required skills. The focus is on the development of learner autonomy (the ability to self-direct) and the aim is to produce autonomous learners by providing learning conditions which integrate language learning and learning-to-learn environments.

State 2 may come after State 1 or it may be in place from the start. State 1 is more common because it is less demanding and often satisfies institutional demands for more independent language learning.

Holec then went on to describe the particular features and requirements of a State 2 implementation. Primarily, learners need varying degrees of help in order to acquire learning ability. Learning ability Holec defined as involving both knowledge and know-how. Knowledge refers to the internalised representations of language and language learning culture which help the learner when making learning decisions and acting upon them. This knowledge is operationalised into the know-how, ie, the definition of learning objectives, the selection of resources, the setting up of scenarios and the evaluation and management of learning

State 2 also requires specialised teacher training. Holec described a new breed of teacher who has three roles: the role of learner-educator, training learners to be aware of their learning etc; the role of materials provider, using materials that are adaptable but not pre-adapted: the role of manager of change. The teacher has to manage innovation processes at the initiation stage, the implementation stage and the integration stage, in order for the change to remain permanent.

Henri Holec’s talk undoubtedly set many of the teachers at the conference thinking about their own contexts and where their own implementation of ‘autonomy’ stands in relation to the two states he described. As he pointed out, there are many examples around the world of ‘autonomous’ learning – but how often do we stop to think deeply about the concepts and principles that we believe are guiding us?


Koos said...


I see the difference between the states of learning. I feel this is the same difference as formal/informal learning settings.
Thus, I do not agree with the comment that state 1 is much more common then state 2. Why?
Think of the vast amounts of people emigrating from one country to another and learning to speak a new language while they're at/in it (me currently learning to speak Scottish-Glaswegian ;) There is a lot more learning going on outside formal education settings!
The time people spend outside their formal education in a language learning centre, or school (possibly state 1) is much more then in one. How much time did you spend on holidays abroad? Watching movies in a different language? Reading articles in antoher language? How does that compare to time spent on state 1 learning?

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