Thursday, October 11, 2007

EFL teacher’ perceptions of student resistance and learner autonomy

Keiko Sakui, Kobe Shohin Women’s university
Neil Cowie, Okayama University

Neil began the session by talking about using narratives for research purposes. Often during interviews researchers do not get the full story and there are advantages for choosing narratives as a data collection tool. When investigating teachers’ perceptions, narratives are often a starting point for deep reflection. In fact they can effectively be used as a form of teacher development either directly or vicariously.

Neil shared three definitions of the term “resistance” in the context of student behavior. McVeigh (2002) claims that it doesn’t mean directly challenging the teacher, but “scorning the system”. Escandon (2004) describes seven patterns of resistance including sleeping in class, being late or absent and pretending that you don’t know the answer to a question. The Sakui & Cowie definition is simply “when students don’t do what teachers want them to do.”

Keiko came in at that point to give a narrative of a teaching situation that she experienced while teaching English to a class of non-English majors at a women’s university in Japan. The students demonstrated a number of examples of resistance such as sitting at the back of the class, acting bored before the class had even begun, fixing their make-up and talking. At first, Keiko felt negative emotions such as shock, fear and depression and she described how she tried to stay positive and “perky”. Understandably she dreaded going into class each time. Keiko tried different strategies in order to get through to the students and to gain their trust. She adapted her teaching and learned more about her students’ interests and attitudes to English. They had a very low level of English and claimed that they hated English, in particular grammar. One of the first things Keiko did was to assign them each with a notebook. This is a seemingly simple action, but it helped to make their progress visual and tangible and gave them a guided framework in which to begin to record what they had learned. She also focused on the area of vocabulary and did not teach grammar at all. Keiko continued to encourage them and began to focus on raising their self-confidence above teaching English. She revisited the literature in relevant areas such as learned helplessness in order to understand what her students might be going through. The students gradually opened up to Keiko and she learned a lot from them. In fact, this class became her favorite class.

Neil took over once again to relate the tale back to the literature. He talked about the stages that Keiko went through as a teacher. Initially she felt shock, fear and depression. This was followed by discovery, enlightenment through reading the literature and eventually satisfaction. She remained “perky” throughout which is an example of a functional response to a hostile situation. She also shared what she was going through with other teachers. Students took responsibility for their own learning in small ways initially through the notebook. There was some discussion by the audience about whether such a guided, teacher-initiated exercise could promote learner autonomy. The learners perceived themselves as failures so they needed very structured lessons initially in order to give themselves a sense of progress and success. Keiko used the metaphor of a ladder. The highly structured classes gave the students a foundation on which to build, enabling them to climb the ladder towards autonomy. As a result, the resistance diminished.

By reading relevant research, Keiko learned more and realized that she was not alone. She understood the situation from a wider sociological perspective. Students have their own motivations and lives outside the classroom. It is important for a teacher to see the whole person.

To read more about Keiko’s experience with this group of learners, see her article in the JALT Learner Development SIG publication Learning Learning (reference and link below).


Escandon, A. (2004). Education/Learning Resistance in the Foreign-Language Classroom: A case study. AIS St Helens Centre for Research in International Education, Research Paper Series, Working Paper No. 5. (Download PDF)

McVeigh, B. J. (2002). Japanese higher education as myth. Armonk, NY: East Gate.

Sakui, K. (2006). Student resistance: Is it a reflection of students’ lack of motivation? Learning Learning, 13(2), pp17-23. (

Sakui, K. & Cowie, N. (2008). “Learning English is tedious”: Narratives of student resistance in Japanese EFL classrooms. In P. Kalaja, V. Menzes & A.M. Barcelos (Eds). Narratives of EFL Teaching and learning. Baisingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

1 comment:

Rose Woodford said...

Dear Keiko and Neil,
I am sorry I missed this session. It seems as though it raised some very interesting points about situations that almost all teachers have experienced. I liked the way you used your own experience and challenges to illustrate the session. I am sure that would have helped to engage the audience and encourage them to be honest and sharing among themselves. How refreshing for the presenter not to pretend to be the expert! If only we all had the confidence to do this....
Thanks very much for posting this blog and making it available to those who were not able to attend the conference.
Thank you! Rose