Learner Autonomy

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What is Learner Autonomy and How Can It Be Fostered?

Dimitrios Thanasoulas

The Internet TESL Journal

2. What is Autonomy?

For a definition of autonomy, we might quote Holec (1981: 3, cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 1) who describes it as 'the ability to take charge of one's learning'. On a general note, the term autonomy has come to be used in at least five ways (see Benson & Voller, 1997: 2): • for situations in which learners study entirely on their own; • for a set of skills which can be learned and applied in self-directed learning; • for an inborn capacity which is suppressed by institutional education; • for the exercise of learners' responsibility for their own learning; • for the right of learners to determine the direction of their own learning. It is noteworthy that autonomy can be thought of in terms of a departure from education as a social process, as well as in terms of redistribution of power attending the construction of knowledge and the roles of the participants in the learning process. The relevant literature is riddled with innumerable definitions of autonomy and other synonyms for it, such as 'independence' (Sheerin, 1991), 'language awareness' (Lier, 1996;James & Garrett, 1991), 'self-direction' (Candy, 1991), 'andragogy' (Knowles, 1980; 1983 etc., which testifies to the importance attached to it by scholars. Let us review some of these definitions and try to gain insights into what learner autonomy means and consists of. As has been intimated so far, the term autonomy has sparked considerable controversy, inasmuch as linguists and educationalists have failed to reach a consensus as to what autonomy really is. For example, in David Little's terms, learner autonomy is 'essentially a matter of the learner's psychological relation to the process and content of learning--a capacity for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action' (Little, 1991: 4). It is not something done to learners;...
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