Promoting learner autonomy through the curriculum

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  • 1.Promoting learner autonomythrough the curriculum:principles for designing Language courses.Sara Cotterall

2. Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais Ensino de Lnguas Mediado por ComputadorDisciplina: Ambientes Virtuais de Aprendizagem Professora Dr: Jnia Braga Grupo Unidos VenceremosParticipantes: Daniela Valim, Dagmar Dutra,Gilmar Leal e Isabella Gregrio. 3. This article argues that fostering learnerautonomy is an important and appropriategoal in language course design, but thatprinciples to guide the design of suchcourses are currently lacking. 4. Many language teachers are convinced of theimportance of incorporating principles of learnerautonomythe ability to take charge of ones ownlearning (Holec 1981: 3)into their practice. This article argues that learner autonomy should not beseen as a goal only for highly committed studentscompleting optional courses, or for students operatingwithin selected educational or cultural contexts. Rather,it should be seen as an essential goal of all learning. 5. Littlewood (1999: 73) comments: If wedefine autonomy in educational terms asinvolving students capacity to use theirlearning independently of teachers, thenautonomy would appear to be anincontrovertible goalfor learnerseverywhere, since it is obvious that nostudents, anywhere, will have theirteachers to accompany them throughoutlife. 6. Language courses which aim to promotelearner autonomy will incorporate meansof transferring responsibility for aspects ofthe language learning process (such assetting goals, selecting learning strategies,and evaluating progress) from the teacherto the learner. 7. The article proposes five course design principles for language courses which seek to foster learner autonomy. Each principle is discussed in relation to the experience of designing two skills- based courses taught within an intensive English language course. 8. The courses The courses were designed for a group of 20learners drawn from five classes of learnersenrolled on a 12-week intensive English languagecourse at Victoria University of Wellington, NewZealand. The learners attended class for three hours everymorning with their class teacher, and thenattended a course in an area of special interest (orneed) for two hours one afternoon each week forfive weeks in each half of the course. 9. Principle of Language course design:the theoryThe five principles which emerged from the course design process relate to:(1) learner goals(2) the language learning process(3) tasks(4) learner strategies(5) reflection on learning. 10. The challenge facing course designers who wishto foster learners ability to take charge of [their]learning (Holec 1981: 3) is to find ways ofsupporting the transfer of responsibility fordecision-making about learning from teacher tolearner. Each of the principles discussed herecontributes to that transfer of responsibility. 11. (1) Learner goals Any course designed to promote learnerautonomy must set out to achieve thegoals which the learners deem important.Decisions about language, texts, tasks,and strategies to focus on during thecourse are made in relation to the statedgoals of the learners. 12. (2) The language learning process A basic understanding of the language learningprocess is essential for anyone who wishes tomanage their own learning. Learners can only be autonomous if they are awareof a range of learning options, and understand theconsequences of choices they make. Armed with a model of language learning, learnersare able to question the role of input texts andtasks, to trial alternative strategies, and to seekfeedback on their performance. Without access to such a model, learners areforced into the role of consumers of languagecourses. 13. (3) Tasks This principle is related to the first one. Learnersenroll in language courses in order to improvetheir performance of certain L2 tasks. Their goals and needs must therefore beparamount in the design of any course whichseeks to develop their ability to manage their ownlearning. This means that the tasks in which the courseprovides preparation, practice, and feedbackshould be those in which the learner willparticipate in the future. Such transparency of course content is thehallmark of courses designed to foster learnerautonomy. 14. (4) Learner strategies At the heart of learner autonomy lies theconcept of choice. This principle relates particularly toextending the choice of strategicbehaviors available to learners, and toexpanding their conceptual understandingof the contribution which strategies canmake to their learning. 15. (5) Reflection on learning. The potential for learner autonomyincreases as an individuals learningawareness grows. Therefore activitieswhich prompt learners to reflect on theirlearning aim to enhance learners insightinto their learning processes. 16. Principle of Language course design:the design In the initial session, learners were asked tospecify detailed reading or speaking goals, toidentify appropriate resources, and to formulatemeasures for determining when their goals hadbeen reached. The peer interviews revealed that few learnershad experience of goal setting or of monitoringor evaluating their learning, and that they wereunlikely to acquire this without extensivesupported practice. 17. Both courses integrated activities which requiredlearners to reflect on their learning, such asdiscussion of the goal-setting process, analysisof task types, and experimentation withstrategies to monitor progress and evaluatepersonal learning. Awareness-raisingoccurred both in thediscourse surrounding each task:Why are we doing this?How will it help?What makes it difficult? And also in the feedback at the end of eachsession. 18. Learners were asked to complete a journalentry each week recording their answersto questions such as:1 What did you do today?2 What did you learn today?3 What are you going to do differently as aresult of todays class? 19. Learners submitted their journals at theend of each session and had themreturned with teacher comments at thestart of the subsequent session. Sessionsfrequently began with activities inspired byissues raised in learner journals, such asbrainstorming solutions to problemsencountered in authentic communicationsituations. 20. Conclusion: More specifically, observations of learnersperforming course tasks,learnerscomments in their journals, and the resultsof a written evaluation, suggested that theinclusion of tasks related to learners goals(Principles 1 and 3), resulted in anunprecedented level of motivation. 21. Without reflection, learners cannot assesstheir past learning or plans for futureaction. Therefore courses designed to promotelearner autonomy must encouragelearners to set personal goals, monitorand reflect on their performance, andmodify their learning behaviouraccordingly. 22. These two courses aimed to provide asupportive environment in which learnerswere encouraged to take decisions abouttheir language learning. That environmentintegrated goal-settingactivities,discussion of the language learningprocess, modelling of strategies, taskpractice, and reflection on experience. 23. In ordertoimprove individualperformance, whether it is teaching orlearning, we need a sense of ownership,and power, driven by an exploratoryattitude and working within a curricularframework that is flexible and dynamicenough to allow for individual explorations.(Cotterall and Crabbe 1999: 141)