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What is learner autonomy & how can it be fostered by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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3. Learner autonomy and dominant philosophies of learning
In this section, three dominant approaches to knowledge and learning will be briefly discussed, with a view to examining how each of them connects up with learner autonomy. Positivism, which reigned supreme in the twentieth century, is premised upon the assumption that knowledge reflects objective reality. Therefore, if teachers can be said to hold this "objective reality," learning can only 'consist…in the transmission of knowledge from one individual to another' (Benson & Voller, 1997: 20). Congruent with this view, of course, is the maintenance and enhancement of the "traditional classroom," where teachers are the purveyors of knowledge and wielders of power, and learners are seen as 'container[s] to be filled with the knowledge held by teachers' (ibid.). On the other hand, positivism also lends support to the widespread notion that knowledge is attained by dint of the 'hypothesis-testing' model, and that it is more effectively acquired when 'it is discovered rather than taught' (ibid.) (my italics). It takes little perspicacity to realise that positivism is incongruent with, and even runs counter to, the development of learner autonomy, as the latter refers to a gradual but radical divorce from conventions and restrictions and is inextricably related to self-direction and self-evaluation.
Constructivism is an elusive concept and, within applied linguistics, is strongly associated with Halliday (1979, cited in Benson & Voller, 1997: 21). As Candy (1991: 254) observes, '[o]ne of the central tenets of constructivism is that individuals try to give meaning to, or construe, the perplexing maelstrom of events and ideas in which they find themselves caught up'. In contrast to positivism, constructivism posits the view that, rather than internalising or discovering objective knowledge (whatever that might mean), individuals reorganise and restructure their experience. In Candy's terms (Candy, 1991: 270), constructivism 'leads directly to the proposition that knowledge cannot be taught but only learned (that is, constructed)', because knowledge is something 'built up by the learner' (von Glasersfeld & Smock, 1974: xvi, cited in Candy, 1991: 270). By the same token, language learning does not involve internalising sets of rules, structures and forms; each learner brings her own experience and world knowledge to bear on the target language or task at hand. Apparently, constructivism supports, and extends to cover, psychological versions of autonomy that appertain to learners' behaviour, attitudes, motivation, and self-concept (see Benson & Voller, 1997: 23). As a result, constructivist approaches encourage and promote self-directed learning as a necessary condition for learner autonomy.
Finally, critical theory, an approach within the humanities and language studies, shares with constructivism the view that knowledge is constructed rather than discovered or learned. Moreover, it argues that knowledge does not reflect reality, but rather comprises 'competing ideological versions of that reality expressing the interests of different social groups' (Benson & Voller, 1997: 22). Within this approach, learning concerns issues of power and ideology and is seen as a process of interaction with social context, which can bring about social change. What is more, linguistic forms are bound up with the social meanings they convey, in so far as language is power, and vice versa. Certainly, learner autonomy assumes a more social and political character within critical theory. As learners become aware of the social context in which their learning is embedded and the constraints the latter implies, they gradually become independent, dispel myths, disabuse themselves of preconceived ideas, and can be thought of as 'authors of their own worlds' (ibid.: 53).

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