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  • Fostering the process of teacher and learner autonomy in foreign language

    classrooms through inquiry-in and -on practice

    Alice Micallef

    A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Doctor of Education


    The University of Sheffield School of Education

    October, 2016

  • Dedication

    I would like to dedicate this thesis to my family who has supported me throughout my


    I wish to thank you Marcelle for finding the patience to act as a sounding board within this

    journey and for sustaining me at all times.

  • Acknowledgements

    I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor Terry Lamb, for the insightful feedback on my

    work that enhanced my understandings of the journey embarked upon in the study, and

    that enabled me to work my way through and reflect on the pathways I undertook to arrive

    soundly at the destination.

    Thanks to the three participating teachers in the study, for their collegiality and openness,

    to discuss and collaborate during the two years of the study, for their dedication to work

    within the challenging situations and winding roads of practice, their will and enthusiasm to

    educate and help learners find pathways of learning, and their readiness to portray the

    realities behind the doors of their classrooms.

  • Abstract

    Nurturing teacher and learner autonomy is a prerequisite to foreign language development within

    institutionalised settings. This necessitates a process whereby teachers themselves become authors

    of their own pedagogical practice to experience and nourish their autonomy, critically reflecting on

    and flexibly managing processes that challenge and enable learners to develop competences as

    language learners and language users. The study portrays the notion of teacher and learner autonomy

    as two sides of the same coin, illustrating a process that enabled three teachers of German as a foreign

    language to inquire into the fostering of learner autonomy in secondary schools in Malta. Through a

    process grounded within a collaborative and inquiry-oriented approach, enacted through meetings

    and discussions with teachers, and the teacher inquiry with their learners in class, the study created

    the conditions that sought to help teachers to navigate through and gain insight into the process of

    fostering learner autonomy. The aims of the study, embedded within the two aforementioned

    processes, led teachers to problematise areas within their practice in relation to the development of

    learner autonomy in language learning and language use and looked into internal and external

    constraints and possibilities within this process. It furthermore analysed benefits that emerged from

    practice in this regard. Implications of this study call for the integration of inquiry-oriented processes

    in the foreign language classroom sustained by the collaborative space that fostered the conditions

    for inquiry through teachers’ own lens of pedagogy for autonomy. It illustrates how a process of

    teacher inquiry and reflective practice bring together the voices of all participants involved in the

    study; teacher, learner and myself as researcher, to work towards the vision of fostering autonomy in

    foreign language teaching and learning. The study furthermore serves to portray illustrations of

    practice to provide insight into the underlying factors and various facets of such a process within the

    Maltese context.

  • 5

    Table of Contents

    List of Figures 10

    List of Tables 11

    Glossary of Terms 12

    Chapter 1 – Introduction and overview 13

    1.1 Introduction and background 13 1.2 Aims of the study 19 1.3 Significance of the study 21 1.4 My experiences in foreign language teaching and learning - positionality 22 1.5 Thesis structure 27

    Chapter 2 – Literature Review 29

    2.1 Introduction 29

    2.2 Why learner autonomy in foreign language teaching and learning? 30

    2.2.1 Development of a critical inquisitive mind and reflective faculties 31

    2.2.2 Development of personal autonomy and the social context 32

    2.2.3 Constructivist learning 33

    2.2.4 Cultural aspects of autonomy 35

    2.3 Learner autonomy and foreign language learning 36

    2.3.1 Active involvement in learning: responsibility and control over learning 37

    2.3.2 Autonomy of language use and language learning 39

    2.4 Learner autonomy and motivation in language learning 40

    2.5 Differentiation in teaching and learning 41

    2.6 Social constructivist views of learning 43

    2.6.1 Social constructivist perspectives: interaction and interdependence

    in language learning 43

    2.7 Metacognition in foreign language learning 45

    2.7.1 Metalinguistic talk 47

    2.7.2 Affordances in learning 48

    2.7.3 Addressing internal and external constraints 49

    2.8 Teacher autonomy 49

    2.8.1 Direction of the pedagogical journey and the fostering of foreign language

    learner autonomy 50

    2.9 Pedagogy for autonomy 52

    2.9.1 Critical and reflective practice 54

    2.9.2 Critical perspectives and the teacher’s role as educator and language

    teacher 56

  • 6

    2.10 Teacher inquiry and teacher and learner autonomy 57

    2.10.1 Collaborative inquiry - researchers, teachers and learners 59

    2.11 Conclusion 60

    Chapter 3 – Research methodology and implementation 62

    3.1 Introduction 62

    3.2 Rationale for research approach 64

    3.3 The research design 65

    3.3.1 Position, organisation and data sets of the study 70

    3.4 Methods of data collection 71

    i. Individual and group meetings: the interviews 71

    ii. Semi structured interviews 72

    iii. Teachers’ written reflections 73

    iv. My own observations and reflections 75

    3.5 Research procedures – selecting and gaining access to the participants 75

    3.6 Methods for data analysis and synthesis 76

    3.7 Ethical considerations 77

    3.8 Issues of trustworthiness 80

    3.9 Limitations of the study 81

    3.10 Conclusion 83 Chapter 4 – Presentation of findings 84 4.1 Introduction 84 4.2 Background to the local educational system: locating the study 85 4.3 The context of teaching and learning: background to classes taught 87 4.3.1 Ben: teaching the ‘weak and unmotivated’ 88

    4.3.2 Juliette: teaching small groups of learners in a ‘mixed-ability’ setting 91

    4.3.3 May: teaching across the spectrum of small and larger groups

    of learners in mixed-abilityand streamed classrooms 94

    4.4 Research Question 1: what aspects of teaching and learning did teachers problematise in relation to the fostering of learner autonomy during the course of the inquiry and what understandings were gained? 98 4.4.1 Shifting responsibility for learning from teacher to learners 99 i. Trusting the learners ‘to do the learning’ 100 ii. Participation and collaboration in learning 102 iii. Enabling learners to take risks in learning 104 4.4.2 Addressing diverse levels of learner autonomy and learning needs 105 i . Respecting and supporting levels of learner autonomy 105 ii. Supporting the weaker learners 106 4.4.3 Decisions on content and process of learning 109 i. Offering choice in learning