How to Recognize an Autonomous Learning Environment by Leni Dam

18/01/2017 - 15:28

In the world of ELT and education overall, there has been a lot of discussion on developing Learner Autonomy: what it is, who does, and why. In this blog post by specialist on the topic Leni Dam, read more on the topic.

How to Recognize an Autonomous Learning Environment

Dr. Leni Dam was, from 1973 onwards, involved in the development of learner autonomy, partly as a teacher at secondary level in Karlslunde, partly as an educational adviser at the University College of Copenhagen. Together with Lienhard Legenhausen, Germany, she carried out the research project LAALE (Language Acquisition in an Autonomous Language Learning Environment) in the years 1992 – 1996. In the 1990s she was Co-Convener of the Scientific Commission of Learner Autonomy in AILA and since 2008 she has been Joint Coordinator of the IATEFL Learner Autonomy Special Interest Group. In 2004, she received an honorary PhD in pedagogy from Karlstad University, Sweden. She has written extensively on learner autonomy and related matters, such as differentiation, evaluation, teacher roles, learner roles, and recently also inclusion. Even though she is now retired, she continues to be actively involved in spreading the word about learner autonomy via workshops, talks, and publications.


What do I do?

Why do I do it?

How do I do it?

With what results?

These are the questions that every teacher asks himself/herself – or should ask himself/herself – when planning, carrying out, and evaluating a teaching/learning sequence in any educational context. This, of course, also holds true when the “what” is developing language learner autonomy:

Why is it important to develop learner autonomy in connection with education in general and in connection with foreign language learning in particular?

How is it possible to support the development of learner autonomy in foreign language education? How is it possible to get students actively involved in their own learning? How is it done? What are the basic principles?

With what results? What went well? Which things should be improved or changed? In general, what do we know about the results from an autonomous learning environment?

In the webinar on 24 January 2016 I shall give an introduction to the basic principles underlying an autonomous learning environment and give some practical ideas as to “how” to implement these principles in connection with foreign language learning (cf. “How do we recognize an autonomous classroom?”, Die Neueren Sprachen,93(5)).

The webinar can be seen as an introduction to my talk together with Lienhard Legenhausen, Germany, at the Antwerp Conference in March: “Language Acquisition in An Autonomous Learning Environment – research processes and results”. In other words, the talk in Antwerp in March will be covering partly “how it is done”, partly “with what results”.

This leaves the question: Why is it important to develop learner autonomy in connection with foreign language learning? Why try to get students actively involved in their own learning process? This blog is a brief account of why I, myself, began and why I continued the long journey towards learner autonomy – for me as well as for my learners.

It started in the mid-seventies when I was teaching English to a group of 14-year old mixed ability Danish boys and girls in a comprehensive school south of Copenhagen. As I describe in my book, Learner Autonomy – From Theory to Classroom Practice:

“I was up against the tired-of-school attitude this age group often displays, as well as a general lack of interest in English as a school subject. In order to survive I felt I had to change my usual teacher role. I tried to involve the students – or rather I forced them to be involved – in the decisions concerning for example the choice of activities and learning materials.” (Dam 1995:2).

Even though the students’ attitudes didn’t change immediately, the result was astonishing. Having had a say in planning the activities, led to active involvement during lessons. Furthermore, it was difficult for the students to be too critical about the outcome when they themselves had decided what to do. A good circle towards dynamic student participation in their own learning had begun.

Like all other teachers at secondary level I also had a group of parents concerned about their children’s schooling. Even though some of them had been very skeptical about the changes – this was not the way they had learned English – they sensed the changed attitude towards English in their children. When later on they realized that the changed teaching/learning environment also added to their children’s competence in using the language, they were all in favour of the “new” way.

Therefore, when arguing for developing learner autonomy – getting the learners actively involved in their own learning – I can mention:

positive and active learners

high level of linguistic competence

high level of self-esteem for all learners

the autonomous language classroom caters for all learners (inclusion)

satisfied parents because their children like the English lessons, they are good at English, and they feel good

it is satisfying for the teacher because of the above arguments and because the responsibility for learning is no longer only the responsibility of the teacher.

Apart from these arguments built on my own experiences from developing learner autonomy over the last 40 years, I continue to find the following arguments useful:

“The schools that children love have the quality of active learning environments, allowing students to become shareholders of their own learning.” (Rogers 1969:9)

“To learn is to develop relationships between [what the learner knows already and the new system being presented to him], and this can only be done by the learner himself.” (Barnes 1976:81)

“No school, or even university, can provide its pupils with all the knowledge and skills they will need in their adult lives….It is more important for a young person to have an understanding of himself or herself, an awareness of the environment and its workings, and to have learned how to think and how to learn.” (Trim 1988: 3).

Developing learner autonomy is a long and never-ending process, especially for the teacher.

Watch the webinar