is learner autonomy & how can it be fostered by Dimitrios
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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