Sunday, October 14, 2007

Learning beyond the classroom: theorising the field

Phil Benson, Hong Kong Institute of Education

Benson made an interesting and entertaining presentation (wearing a very good shirt!).

For the journal Language Teaching Benson wrote a state-of-the-art article published in spring 2007. In this article he had divided autonomy into autonomy in the classroom and autonomy beyond the classroom. In this presentation he was looking at autonomy beyond the classroom. In his state-of-the-art article this area included: self-access, CALL, distance learning, tandem learning, out of class learning, and self instruction. He chose these areas because they were areas which had literature to be reviewed. He didn't have a section on naturalistic learning, because he was not aware of any published research on this in the period covered by his article (post the year 2000). He explained that he is returning to learning beyond the classroom in this presentation for two reasons. Firstly, because he was dissatisfied with this part of his review. He said that he thinks learning beyond the classroom is much bigger and more diverse than his review section suggested. And secondly, he felt he had merely given a list of areas and not really said much about them, particularly about learning beyond the classroom in a holistic sense.
As a starting point, he suggested that we look at out-of-class learning in the same way as we look at in-class learning (though he said that he will disagree with this later in the presentation).
He divided his talk into three sections:
  • the difficulty of conceptualising learning beyond the classroom in its own terms (that is, without using the word "classroom")
  • the difficulty of conceptualising learning beyond the classroom independently of particular settings and modes of practice, for example a self-access centre
  • the relationship between the classroom and the world beyond the classroom

  • Benson then looked at some quotations about classroom research and extracted the following useful ideas:
  • the focus of classroom research seems to be on what happens in the classroom.
  • a theory of beyond the classroom learning would cover a whole range of different topics.
  • the classroom is the setting for classroom research.

  • He raised three problems with this, which mean that, basically, classroom research as presently theorised, does not leave much room for us!.
    The first problem is to do with the definition of the classroom. He pointed out that Van Lier’s definition of the L2 classroom would also include situations such as an advising session, which Benson would rather consider as learning beyond the classroom.

    The second problem is involved with the goals of classroom research. Benson showed a quote from David Nunan, which says that classroom research can focus on developmental aspects of learner language, learning strategies, and learning styles. Benson asked why this should belong to classroom research. He also said that it is not only Nunan, but it is common for authors to focus on language learning, but actually they are considering it as classroom research. He pointed out that, understood in this way, the scope of the field actually goes well beyond the focus on the classroom itself. There is the danger of confusion between learning strategies in the global sense and learning strategies in a classroom setting, and that this can happen, for example, when a learning strategies questionnaire is handed out and completed in the classroom, and there is not the corresponding type of strategies research which is carried out beyond the classroom.
    The third problem is really a combination of the first to, that is the idea of “capturing” learning for the classroom and distinguishing it from learning beyond the classroom.

    Benson feels that beyond-the-classroom learning is always defined in terms of not being something else, and he sees this as privileging the formal classroom context and as suggesting that learning takes place predominantly in the classroom. He showed a slide with contrasting pairs of terms which illustrates what he means:

    School learning versus out-of-school learning
    Classroom learning versus out-of-class learning
    Instructed learning versus non-instructed learning
    Formal learning versus informal learning

    He feels that studies of classroom learning are often looking at all learning and not distinguishing themselves adequately from out-of-class learning; they are, he feels, trying to “muscle in” on out-of-class learning.

    He now looked at settings and modes of practice. Settings, he feels, should involve not only place but also time. A mode of practice, in contrast, is what actually happens in the setting i.e. the kinds of routine activities that go on in that setting which, it is important to realise, take place at particular times and have histories as well. For example, a self-access centre is a setting, and the mode of practice is what takes place in that setting. A teacher could take students to the self-access centre and give them activities to do or a programme to follow, or very differently, students could just wander in and be doing different things and so there are different modes of practice possible in the same setting. For this reason Benson is very sceptical about such notions as “self-access learning” because this could cover many different modes of practice. It will be necessary, he says, to look at out-of-class learning not only in terms of the setting but also in terms of modes of practice.
    The distinction between out-of-class and in-class learning is a very fuzzy one as, for most types of learning (for example, CALL, tandem learning, study abroad, blended learning), it is impossible to categorise them as either exclusively out-of-school or exclusively in-school. Similarly, most types of learning can be both out-of-class or in-class, formal or informal, non-instructed or instructed. They do not fall neatly into one category or the other – it depends on the specific circumstances. The most marked case he finds is naturalistic learning, which he thinks answers “yes” to all the contrasted pairs of categories and never “no”. This indicates that these are not real contrasts.

    Benson’s third issue brings in the area of out-of-school literacy. He notes that there has been very little research which challenges the focus on the classroom as being the main area of foreign language learning. The history of research in autonomy began in the 1960s and the whole point of it was looking at different ways of learning beyond the conventional classroom. In the 1990s there began to be a focus on autonomy in the classroom, which was fine and inclusive. But, now this has moved on to become a kind of mantra, i.e. that learner autonomy depends on teacher autonomy, which Benson utterly disagrees with because it would mean that in order to become autonomous as a learner you would have to have a teacher.

    He takes as an example of this literacy. Literacy practices are changing, for example, due to globalisation and new technology. Literacy is becoming a much more complex construct – there are many types of literacy which don't involve reading or writing, different types of media literacy, for example. These new types are developing primarily outside school, and if you look at learners ethnographically or biographically you find that they are actually much more literate than was thought. Is this true of second language learning, he asks. We don't really know, because we don't have a new literacies field in second language learning. Benson uses some research by Martin Lamb to look at this. Lamb did some research in Sumatra with 11 and 12-year-old children. He found that most of their English language learning was out-of-school, and in fact their teachers said they were not learning very much in school.
    Benson had three comments on this research:
    First, for the individual learner, the setting is actually very complex and not a particular setting, such as the classroom, the home, and so on. From their perspective there is one highly complex setting.
    Second, the configurations of the settings seemed to be very highly localised both in terms of place and in terms of time. Also, everything is changing quickly, so older and younger learners have very different experiences which are localised in terms of time and place.
    Third, the experience of learning is co-constructed by the learner, the teacher in school, the teachers in the private schools, parents at home, and so on, and this all becomes interwoven together.

    Benson concludes that the kind of research we should be doing does not look at categorising, and contrasting in-class and out-of-class learning. We need to look at the everyday world of the student, because within the everyday world of the student there are multiple settings, multiple contexts, and multiple modes of practice all mixed in together.


    Lamb, M. (2004). "It depends on the students themselves": Independent language learning at an Indonesian state school. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 17 (3). pp. 229-245. Page 239.

    Nunan, D. (1990). Second language classroom research, ERIC Digest, ERIC Document Reproduction Service.

    Van Lier, L. (1988). The Classroom and the Language Learner. Ethnography and Second-Language Classroom Research. Harlow: Longman.Page 47.

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