The papers in this book originated at a conference held in June 2010 at Zirve University, in Gaziantep, Turkey. The title of the conference, If We Had to Do It Over Again: Implementing Learner Autonomy in the 21st Century, was remarkably insightful as it hints at a “passing of the torch” moment in the field of autonomy in language learning. The combined age of the plenary speakers would be too frightening to calculate but it is probably safe to say that the majority of us have more years of working with learner autonomy behind us than ahead of us. This is a good thing because it represents a maturity in the field which is witnessed by the quality of the academic and professional work being undertaken and by the increasing literature. The conference served its purpose beautifully by juxtapositioning young and old, old and new, looking back and looking forward. This allowed the lessons of the past to be reviewed for the benefit of those who are relatively new to the field and the exciting new prospects of the future to be reviewed for those who may not yet have seen them coming. This book captures the diversity of the conference with papers ranging from those based on a career of experience to others reporting relatively modest experiments with learner autonomy and everything in-between.
Tempting as it might be for readers to see which of the authors in this book are “passing the torch” and which are receiving it, I have not arranged the papers in that way for three good reasons. Firstly, I fear authors might be offended by being assigned either of those labels and may never speak to me again (and I would have to agree with them). Secondly, and more importantly, such grouping might suggest a priority of importance in the papers which would be inaccurate. All the papers selected for this book have their own importance whether written by veterans in the field or anybody else. Thirdly, I have grouped the papers in what I hope is a more significant way.
The theme of this book is fostering autonomy in language learning. The papers have been grouped into six parts each representing a different aspect of researchers’ and practitioners’ attempts to understand, explain, support and develop learner autonomy in language learning both within the taught curriculum and outside it. Part 1, Observing Learner Autonomy, contains papers describing situations in which evidence of learner autonomy can be seen in authentic contexts. These are important papers not only because they detail so carefully evidence of developing autonomy in individuals or groups but because they offer us, as readers, the opportunity to reflect on different facets of learner autonomy and, thus, think about ways in which it can be fostered. The papers in Part 2, Promoting Learner Autonomy, deal with approaches to developing learner autonomy in various contexts. There is considerable diversity in this section which is not surprising given the wide range of contexts in which the authors work and, indeed, this is representative of the widely ranging situations in which learner autonomy is promoted throughout the world. This is also the largest section in the book and this is, perhaps, not surprising given the ongoing preoccupation throughout our profession with how to promote learner autonomy. Part 3 of the book, Perceptions of Learner Autonomy, contains papers which look at aspects of learner autonomy from the viewpoint of learners. These papers look at what students say about autonomy, whether their behaviour shows signs of learner autonomy and how ready they are for autonomy. These papers allow us to see learner autonomy through learners’ eyes and also provide insights into the effectiveness of some attempts to promote learner autonomy. In Part 4, Teacher Education for Learner Autonomy, the authors deal with teachers’ or teacher trainees’ beliefs about and attitudes to autonomy, their level of preparedness for promoting it and whether they receive adequate training for that role. These papers are important for the ongoing fostering of learner autonomy if we accept that classroom teachers are the main promoters of it. Part 5, Self-Access Centres for Learner Autonomy, looks at how self-access centres contribute to promoting and supporting learner autonomy in various settings, the management of self-access learning and effective ways of coping with the difficult task of evaluating the learning in self-access centres. These are important issues given the considerable resources poured into establishing and maintaining self-access centres around the world. The better our understanding of the relationship between self-access learning and developing learner autonomy, and in particular the role of a self-access centre, the better we are able to foster autonomy. The final part of the book, Technology for Learner Autonomy, covers the use of technology for promoting learner autonomy in four very different contexts each of which has a story to tell about the power, and sometimes the pitfalls, of technology. Technology has been closely connected in many parts of the world with providing opportunities for independent learning and for accessing authentic language materials and thus has had an important role in language learning for many years but it needs to be understood to be used effectively.
Given the theme of this book, it will not be a surprise to readers to learn that more than half the papers in it refer to Henri Holec’s Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning (1981) which was the product of a study commissioned by the Council of Europe (published in 1979) with the aim of providing a “theoretical and practical description of the application of the concept of autonomy in the matter of language learning” (Holec, 1981, p. 2). Holec’s book is often seen as a starting point for the definition of autonomy in language learning. Holec’s definition, in its short form, is “the ability to take charge of one's own learning” but in its expanded form runs beyond 200 words. It will also probably be of no surprise to readers to learn that more than half the papers in the current volume also refer to the work of David Little who has researched, presented and published prodigiously in the field of autonomy in language learning. Amongst other things, Little has worked to refine the definition of autonomy in language learning. In his oft quoted book Learner Autonomy: Definitions, issues and problems (1991) Little lists what he believes autonomy is not and then attempts to define it but also cautions that “the concept of learner autonomy… cannot be satisfactorily defined in a few paragraphs” (p. 2). He picks up on and expands the notion of autonomy as a capacity of the learner but introduces a discussion of the importance of interdependence and its paradoxically close relationship with independence. True to his own statement of the importance of constant reflection and clarification through definition and redefinition of terms (Little, 1991, p. 1), Little has continued to refine his definition and has more recently made a distinction between learner autonomy and language learner autonomy (Little, 2007).
The extent to which both Henri Holec and David Little are referenced in the papers in this book and, indeed, throughout the literature in the field illustrates their importance. Perhaps it also relates to my suggestion of the arrival of a “passing of the torch” moment in the field. The field of autonomy in language learning clearly has, its own “sages”, a history, a literature, widely accepted and quoted definitions, a body of relevant research and, as evidence by the conference from which the papers in this book originated and the many other conferences in the field, an ever increasing community of practitioners determined to foster autonomy in language learning across the world.
Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and foreign language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press Pergamon. (First published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe).
Little, D. (1991). Learner autonomy 1: Definitions, issues and problems. Dublin: Authentik.
Little, D. (2007). Language learner autonomy: Some fundamental considerations revisited. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 14-29.