Learner’s Autonomy! Is it for all learners? 

Mark Van Doren quote: The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.
image source: Flickr-Venspired

As an ESL teacher with over a decade of progressive teaching experience, no notion in English language pedagogy was as mindblowing to me as the idea of learner autonomy. The way that learning and learners are seen as autonomous has always resonated highly with me; I always thought if anyone masters independent learning, they can learn almost anything with joy and efficiency. Recently, however, I’ve been thinking differently about this. Not because I am now a skeptic of this approach, but because I have been wondering if all learners want to be independent learners! Based on my recent encounters and experience at work, I now think maybe there are some learners who learn best without being independent. In this blog post, I’d like to share my own experience with this type of learner.  

As a teacher, I encourage autonomy in my classroom, meaning I provide stress-free learning environments for all learning styles and allow learners to discover how they’d like to master what they’re learning. I don’t generally promote the idea that there’s only one way to accomplish a certain task. For example, for writing a problem-solution essay, I don’t ask all students to follow a certain procedure and consider it as the most accurate or the only one. Instead, I walk them through the essential steps of how a well-written, coherent, and organized essay is expected to be written. Then I let them devise their own essay format freely and creatively based on the research they do, their inspirational ideas, and experience.  

Meeting Resistance

This method has appealed to many learners who claim that they’re learning at their own pace and in their own personal way once the lesson makes sense to them. Learning, for these students, happens in an innovative, seamless, and fun way. On the other hand, in the same learning environment, I have seen some learners feeling totally intimidated, reluctant, and at times unable to take the initiative and discover what works best them.  

Here I need to make clear that as a teacher I make sure that I provide guidance, advice, and instruction before leaving students on their own with their tasks and I am mindful of the complex and complicated parts of any lesson. My point is that I wouldn’t prescribe or force one way of learning as the only way. I want students to discover learning on their own. Having said that, some learners are still reluctant to take on the challenge of being proactive and embark upon the journey of independent learning. They simply told me that this way scares them, and they can’t figure out their own way.  

My first approach to fixing this problem was to explain how to overcome this fear and to help them to see the benefits of becoming autonomous learners. They resisted, however, saying they don’t want to do it independently and they want a knowledgeable instructor to tell them exactly how to do what they’re supposed to do!  

For some time, I resisted this idea and felt the duty of raising their awareness on this important matter which is helpful not only in the classroom but also in their future life. However, after seeing their firm resistance, I noticed that because of my approach, learning is now completely blocked, and these learners aren’t likely to take anything whatsoever from the lessons.  

So, I reflected

I reflected on this idea of whether autonomous and independent learning should be promoted for all learners since there are some learners who may not be ready. They still want to stay in their comfort zone of being lectured and taught without applying a greater measure of critical thinking skills. 

To be honest, I haven’t yet arrived at a satisfying answer for this. As much as I am a firm believer in learner autonomy, maybe it isn’t a good idea to try to force all learners towards independent and autonomous learning! 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on teaching critical thinking and creativity?  

Greetings from the bottom of the heart of an educator. I’m Setareh and I have tried to be an agent for change through being an EFL/ESL instructor for over ten years now: change from uncertainty to assurance. I studied English Literature and went on to continue my studies in TEFL. As a learning facilitator, trying to empower learners and helping them get control over their learning pursuit is what I feel passionate about. I like sharing my teaching and learning experiences with my passionate fellows through writing as well. My area of professional interest is writing- be it blogging, short story, translation, or content writing. I see writing as a blue bird of some sci-fi movies with many wings. My writing wings are amazing books, moving movies, great company, healthy food, and physical and mental exercise.


6 thoughts on “Learner’s Autonomy! Is it for all learners? ”

  1. Thank you for your deep reflections on learner autonomy Setareh. Learner autonomy is a “sacred” concept in education, and one that I think is often misunderstood. It has morphed into a “customer service” approach of “whatever the learner wants”. I strongly believe in learner autonomy but one that is always accompanied with ACCOUNTABILITY. It is like with citizenship: with rights come the responsibilities. To be an autonomous learner, the learner must be fully responsible for their work, for monitoring their progress and for ensuring their success.

    1. Thank you, Hanna, for your comment.
      You have shrewdly pointed out one essential idea of learner autonomy: accountability, without which learner autonomy would tremendously lose its value.

  2. Dictatorship of a Methodology

    I start reacting to your writing by quoting your statement in which I completely agree with.

    “My point is that I wouldn’t prescribe or force one way of learning as the only way.”

    Once in a while educators come up with a new methodology which seems to be working for the most part, but those approaches do not work for everyone. Independent learning is useful as long as the students know what they do and have a skill to do what they are expected to accomplish. Some students prefer and benefit from teacher-led learning. As your students mentioned it, some of them find it intimidating doing it autonomously as they expect their teachers to help them.

    “They resisted, however, saying they don’t want to do it independently and they want a knowledgeable instructor to tell them exactly how to do what they’re supposed to do!”

    Where I was working a few years ago, the school adopted student-centered approach. There was a great deal of emphasis on fostering group work. Although it benefited many individuals in a group especially a weak one, there were clearly students who did not want to be restricted by the group and preferred to do it their own way “independently”. I noticed that they were much more productive working individually.

    Teachers should adopt varying teaching approaches in a classroom considering their students’ personality, cultural background and learning styles.

    1. Thank you, Karim, for sharing your thoughts.
      I also agree that only because a teaching method seems glamorous, it’s not a recipe for success for everyone.

  3. This topic was also the same topic of a recent blog post of mine, looking at student-centered vs. teacher centered approaches. I was writing specifically about the literacy level, which requires a mostly teacher centered approach, and lots of scaffolding. Generally, though, learners/students should become more independent as they advance up the levels.

    Along the way, students should be learning how to learn for themselves, becoming more autonomous as they grow in their skills, mastery, confidence, and fluency. In the classroom, however, the teacher is the leader, no matter the level. It’s our job. We are the experts, and are paid to pass on our knowledge to them.

  4. Thank you, Derek, for sharing your thoughts.
    Yes, I highly agree that, as teachers, we’re the leaders, and we need to lead the team of students to excel at their journeys in their own ways.

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