The Price of Freedom: A Few Thoughts on Learner Autonomy

By Sharon Hartle

How autonomous do learners actually want to be?

Is the quest for learner autonomy like reaching for the stars or is it something that is both achievable and desirable? Is it something that should be explored purely outside the classroom or also in class perhaps together with teachers? Last week the TESOL Italy local group held a seminar in Verona on Learner Autonomy and Inclusiveness which raised one or two interesting questions related to my initial thoughts. The first one is the title of this post: what is the price of freedom? Or rather, how autonomous do learners actually want to be? The answers that were shared, even though this was largely on an anecdotal level, tend to confirm the idea that learners don’t actually know how to be autonomous and seek guidance. Jemma Prior began the afternoon by discussing negotiation in curriculum development and the way she does this in her Academic English courses at the University of Bolzano. One of the points that she underlined was Holec’s focus responsibility for learning lying completely with the learner:

“Learner autonomy is the ability to take charge of one’s own learning have, and to hold, the responsibility for all the decisions concerning all aspects of this learning…” (Holec 1981)

Hoping for learners to take responsibility of  ‘all the decisions’ is a tall order, particularly in a world where many constraints are imposed on both teachers and learners by institutions, exams and simply the reality of living in the real world. Jemma Prior, who was talking about learner autonomy and syllabus design, mentioned a project in Belgium where learners had been given the freedom to design and negotiate their own course, but which had actually had very negative results and which would tend to underline the fact that learners, just like all the rest of us, find it difficult to cope with complete freedom and  often choose to seek guidance. After all, the thinking goes, “I am paying to do a course so I expect some expertise for my money!” or, perhaps on a more humble note “I am not an expert so I need help from someone who is”. At the time that Holec was writing, however, I thought it worth mentioning, many institutions were introducing self access centres, perhaps believing that by allowing learners to ‘take responsibility for their own learning’ they could save money and provide self access rather than teaching. These self access centres were ultimately, like the project in Belgium, doomed to failure in most cases, precisely because most of us look for direction and guidance.

Autonomy or Self Instruction?

Self access centres are self instruction centres and learners need to be autonomous to want to use them but self instruction is by no means the same as learner autonomy. Autonomy could be considered a psychological quality or a behaviour but it starts with the individual rather than being a collection of resources for learners. This is also one reason why very few learners are able to follow online courses independently, or, for that matter, the sort of self access language learning courses that used to be available as cassettes with magazines etc. Nowadays we have a wealth of self instruction materials available in the shape of online courses, sites etc. some of which are more effective than others, but despite this array of potential sources of learning many learners still do not know where to start, or lack the motivation and knowhow to be able to use them well. The eighties s was a time when many were thinking about autonomy and what it meant, and that is even truer perhaps today, with the increased onus on learners to ‘take responsibility’ for their learning but the definition of what autonomy is is not such a simple matter and David Little in fact, calls it a ‘slippery concept’. For a concise review of some of the research see Little’s description here.

In our digital age this debate is becoming even more heated and urgent in education. One noteworthy case is Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments which in his case, came to the attention of TED among others, and which then led  to further investments and research.  What he did, basically, was to set up computers on street corners in under privileged areas of India, like our ‘hole in the wall’ cash machines. These were provided in bright colours and designed for children to be able to sit comfortably at. He then simply left them to it in attempt to remove the teacher and to prove that children learn more effectively when their learning is more self directed. In his plenary at Iatefl in 2014 this had an electrifying effect on the audience (most of whom were teachers) and the debate continued long after.  He seemed to be heralding self direction as something new, although, in fact, it was the self direction + technology that interested him, but I wondered what had happened a few years on and the results are, unfortunately that many of the ‘holes in the wall’ have been vandalised or are being used by older youths to search for all kinds of things that are not necessarily related to education. Mitra, in fact is more interested nowadays, it seems, in his school in the clouds, which is more about self direction within existing  educational frameworks. I have no doubt that much of what Mitra says makes sense, and many educators are already doing this, but once again providing children is not enough and it is certainly not a magic solution to the problems of failing education systems. Tom Bennet, writing for TES in 2015 bemoans the fact that so many fell for this apparently ‘easy solution’ which he describes in damning terms:

“It seems to me that the more outlandish the magic bullet  claim in education, the more someone is willing to pay to subsidise it – and the less critical people become of it. But Mitra’s work taps into zeitgeists that are very, very groovy indeed: student-guided learning, the perpetually-approaching-but-not-quite-yet tech revolution of education, and the need to replace the ossified dogma of factory-farm learning. It’s like Ken Robinson regenerated into the next Doctor and the Sonic Screwdriver became a laptop.”

Well, teachers feel threatened when self direction rears its head, but scaffolded autonomy within a specific learning framework , is, to my mind, part and parcel of respecting learners and their needs, and in fact nothing new. I have, in fact, frequently given learners a problem or a task and asked them to solve it in small groups with the use of digital resources, and this type of guided learner self direction when monitored closely but not invasively by an educator, can lead to exciting results.


Complete responsibility for learning, or to return to Jemma’s Academic English in Bolzano, course design, then, even if the learners did want it, is difficult to achieve as most institutions have certain expectations in the shape of standard exam requirements and standard syllabi.  Jemma, in fact, explained that much of her course is not ‘up for negotiation’ but one part that can be is the portfolio which counts for 25% of the final exam. Scaffolding learner autonomy to the level of task negotiation or topic choice etc. is much more realistic and ultimately rewarding both for the learners and the teachers. Learners, who are provided with clear guidelines, within an existing framework, are, in fact, often very happy to ‘take responsibility’ for certain aspects of their learning, and teachers are able to help them taking on increasingly the role of facilitators of learning rather than providers. This leads me on to the second theme that came up in our seminar, which was the need for scaffolding, which all of the speakers underlined in one way or another.

Ann Margaret Smith from Lancaster, who talked about learner autonomy and inclusive education as being two sides of the same coin, mentioned how splitting things into manageable chunks can help learners, telling them that they will be working on a 3000 word essay may be daunting whereas saying that the overall aim is to write an extended essay but that for the moment they would be focusing on ‘titles’ is much more manageable for learners. Elizabeth Beck from the British Council Milan, described their experiences in developing ‘learning to learn’ strategies with adult learners, and once again she mentioned that she had initially been quite surprised by the lack of awareness of how to go about studying, but was encouraged by the results achieved by integrating learning strategy work in class supported by separate clinics with materials developed to help learners navigate the world of language learning. I talked about using corpora in class, and once again stressed the fact that it is not enough to simply provide learners with tools. After all, you wouldn’t give a 17 year-old a car and say here’s the key, off you go, would you? Learners need to be provided with the right questions to ask, strategies to use resources effectively and also systems about how to motivate themselves.

Scaffolding, I strongly believe,  means providing the support for our learners to indeed be able to reach for the stars and actually be able to grasp them and even create their own starry firmaments. To reach these dizzy  heights one or two things that we can do to help is to provide the means for both learners and teachers to find out how to establish:

 • goal setting techniques

 • effective/ fun learning strategies

 • an awareness of the outcomes they would like to achieve

 • the motivation to keep up with it all.

 • what useful resources are available and how to use them one step at a time


What emerged from this seminar is that we look very much towards learner centred teaching and autonomy within frameworks as being the way forward. Expecting learners to be completely autonomous for every decision in their learning process, and giving them complete freedom is probably doomed to failure in the long run. Adapting Sugata Mitra’s idea of the ‘hole in the wall’ and using it to do web quests in class by providing learners with a selection of sites to explore and guided questions to help them is one such framework. I have found this type of work to be particularly suitable in my context. Learners are free to explore and to make some of their own decisions but they do not feel, in any way, that they have been abandoned to their own devices. Monitoring their progress while they do this and suggesting appropriate directions to take, reference materials to use and questions to ask is all part and parcel of the teacher’s job when it comes to encouraging learners to become more independent whilst not having to pay the price of being abandoned to their own devices.

Non embedded Reference:

Holec, H. (1981), Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning.Oxford: Pergamon.