Curriculum Innovation, Testing and Evaluation: Proceedings of the 1st Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 11-12, 2002. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Institute of Technology.

Teaching autonomy: Exploring the paradox

by Stacey Vye, Jodie Stephenson, Eric Skier, Miki Koyama,
Rachelle Jorgenson, Hiromi Ishikawa, and Kevin Bodwell

Can teachers live up to curriculum demands and still maintain the spirit and practice of autonomy? We raised this question after becoming more aware of curricular restraints when attempting to introduce autonomous approaches into our EFL classes in Japan. In this paper we will first review researchers' observations on teachers trying to facilitate autonomy, fulfill curriculum requirements, and keep a balance between the two. Then, we will give a brief account of the activities in our workshop. Lastly, we will present some of the insightful concerns that were addressed and the conclusions reached through these activities.

Perceptions on autonomy, curriculum, and connections between the two

When researchers define learner autonomy, categories of learner responsibility, strategies, interest, self-choice, and ownership are often cited (Benson, 1997; van Lier, 1996; Scharle and Szabo, 2000).
Additional factors include control over content and control of the process of learning (Benson, 1997; Bloor and Bloor, 1988). Learner control over curricular content also involves students developing and exercising their rights to decide and implement personal learning goals. Cotterall (2000) observed that teachers who integrated learner goals with other language learning processes were able to support the transfer of responsibilities from the teacher to the learner throughout the curriculum.
How do teachers promote an autonomous framework in their specific context for learners in a curriculum with certain limitations? Do researchers need to focus more on the teacher's role in autonomy since teachers presumably have a louder voice in curricular development than students? This paper begins to explore those questions.
". . . there is a danger in curriculum planning that solely focuses on learners' needs without considering the shareholders . . ."

Mackenzie and McCafferty (2002, p.9) mention that because a shift in teacher roles is required in order to implement methods to promote autonomous development among students, teachers also need to focus on their own autonomy. And although researchers have clearly defined many aspects of learner autonomy, teacher autonomy requires a more focused and contextually sensitive definition (Barfield et al, 2002). These authors in a collaborative effort have constructed one definition of teacher autonomy. It is based on the recognition that because teaching is contextually situated, teacher autonomy is a process of inquiry into how teachers can promote learner autonomy through understanding and dealing with a number of external constraints and transforming them into opportunities for change. This requires that teachers develop institutional knowledge and flexibility within their individual teaching situation through critical reflective inquiry, empowerment, and dialogue.
Focusing on the learner is a crucial factor in developing learner autonomy. Benson (2001) suggests that curriculum-based approaches in autonomy stress learner control of the management of learning throughout the curriculum building process. However, there is a danger in curriculum planning that solely focuses on learners' needs without considering the shareholders who are: teachers, administrators, employers, institutions, societies, and even the nations that have influences on language learning (Brown, 1996).

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Because teachers have many factors to consider in a more autonomous curriculum, it is conceivable for teachers to become deadlocked in the curriculum planning process. Huebner (1997, p. 130) warns of the danger of teachers becoming indecisive in curricular development:
Why do we not act with courage – with awareness that creation requires risk taking as well as statistical evidence? Why do we not reflect more critically on what we and others do – to discover in our institutions, our bondage to others, and the bondages we impose? Is it because we are afraid to acknowledge that power makes up our center – a power that necessarily comes up against the power of others: principals, parents, kids, board members, text writers . . . It is far easier or safer to proclaim the individual and to then fit ourselves into a prepared slot: buy someone else's package of objectives, materials, and bets . . . Then if we fail, it is their fault, not ours.
Considering that teachers can fall into indecisive traps in curricular planning, how can English language teachers in Japan support independent learning and satisfy the requirements of our institutions without sitting on a fence in the autonomous curriculum decision process?

Participants' observations on individual teaching situations

First, we chose a workshop format so participants could discuss feasible teacher roles and responsibilities while achieving curricular goals. This also allowed for individual participants, who may have had time limitations, to drift in late or leave early. Due to the size of the audience and our time restraints, eight discussion groups were formed according to proximate seating arrangements. Moreover, Charles Kowalski played his flute impromptu to indicate when it was time to reconvene after the group discussions, which we were grateful for. One person from each group then volunteered to be the spokesperson for their group. The following general themes and possible solutions emerged from the discussion about individual teaching contexts:
  1. The teacher as victim, where a teacher may feel powerless in a certain setting. To remedy this phenomenon, the participants suggested that teachers should look from within for their own personal autonomy and deal directly with the outside forces in their own teaching settings.
  2. The disempowered teacher, where teachers who initially feel relatively autonomous become disempowered after stumbling upon various constraints in their teaching setting that may hinder hopes for curricular change. As Alan Mackenzie put it, "It's the lack of ability to do anything about anything despite your best efforts".
  3. The teacher who cannot see the road ahead, can apply to teachers (and not only students) who make decisions that may limit autonomous choices in the future both personally and professionally.
  4. Colleague/staff apathy that is a situation where a teacher may feel general apathy from fellow colleagues/staff about various concerns in the university setting.
  5. Lack of resources for teachers in some university settings. Building and sharing resource banks can alleviate some pressure from teachers with limited resources.
  6. Teacher's expectations of students was mentioned buy three group spokespeople. The general contention was that students rise to the expectations of teachers.

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Interestingly, one group reporter mentioned that at universities there could be a circle of declining expectations. Furthermore, this downward spiral-shaped direction of expectations may occur when students are perceived as not meeting the expectations of teachers. As such, the teacher lowers standards and the process then repeats itself.

Film clips and participants' observations

For the second half of the discussion section, participants viewed cinematic representations of a teacher inspiring students to learn for themselves. These clips were from the film Stand and Deliver (1988), which was based on the true story of Jaime Escalante, a teacher from Garfield High School in Los Angeles. We asked participants to note issues that came up as they were watching the outtakes, and then discuss the following questions starting with the one that was of most interest to them:
  1. Think about the most boring thing you have to teach. How can you make it more interesting/relevant to your students?
  2. What are your/your institution's expectations of your students? Are students meeting these expectations? Do you think you need to adjust your own expectations of students? If so, in what way?
  3. Sometimes students make seemingly "autonomous" choices (e.g. choosing to skip class, choosing not to study) not realizing that these actually limit their choices (and therefore their autonomy) in the future. Think of a student (or a class) that you teach that seems to be making choices that might limit their autonomy later in life. What can you do to help them realize the possible consequences of their actions?

Most of the groups focused on a single question for discussion after viewing the film clips. Similar to the format at the end of the first discussion session, one person from each group volunteered to be a spokesperson and shared these teaching issues:
  1. The boring things we have to teach was reported by at least four groups. Three spokespeople pointed out that often the textbooks and teaching materials are boring and have little interest to the students. To help make learning more interesting/relevant to students, teachers can use personal resources, supplement materials, and establish some kind of relationship with the students to find out what students are interested in. One group spokesperson mentioned that it was a challenge for students to create research papers according to APA-style format. Teaching the construction of the research paper by breaking down the parts of the paper into small sections over a substantial period of time is favorable for students who have no experience in writing APA-style research papers.
  2. Institutional expectations of teachers. One spokesperson mentioned that part-time university teachers often do not get necessary information from the full-time teachers. An antidote for this situation is creating an e-mail list where teachers can share institutional information. Another participant pointed out that CUE has also proposed the idea of CUDs: College and University Discussion self-help group where teachers share ideas and confer their concerns. Another spokesperson commented that the institutional requirement of entrance examinations to universities for students affects autonomous choices for students and teachers.
  3. Informed choices for students. One group considered this issue and their spokesperson pointed out that teachers cannot force students to change, as a person changes from within. However teachers can encourage students by presenting to students a variety of options they have available to them, and possibly some self-reflection or awareness raising activities.

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"By maintaining a balance of individual and peer support, teachers can create the kind of awareness and foresight that might reduce their inability to see the road ahead."

Concluding comments

From the onset of the workshop we asked, can teachers live up to the curriculum demands and maintain the spirit and practice of autonomy? After hearing participants' concerns about the paradox in teaching autonomy with curricular restraints the answer seems to be "No"; not if the teacher is attempting to develop their students' autonomy while at the same time not being aware of and/or working on their own personal autonomy, if they have a limited support group, and a rather unsupportive institutional environment. Teachers who work on their own personal autonomy should look from within and deal with outside forces in their teaching settings as one workshop participant eloquently conveyed. Moreover, teachers seeking support can either begin a dialog within their own institution or among peers from around the country and discuss and debate the various issues they face. By maintaining a balance of individual and peer support, teachers can create the kind of awareness and foresight that might reduce their inability to see the road ahead. After having read this account of our workshop, the last question to consider might be what is the road ahead for you?


Barfield, A., et al. (2002). Exploring and defining teacher autonomy: A collaborative discussion. In A. S. Mackenzie & E. McCafferty (Eds.) Developing Autonomy (pp. 217-222). Tokyo: JALT CUE SIG.

Benson, P. (1997). The philosophy and politics of learner autonomy. In P. Benson & P. Voller (Eds.), Autonomy & independence in language learning (pp. 18-34). London: Longman.

Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Bloor, M., & Bloor, T. (1988). Syllabus negotiation: The basis of learner autonomy. In A. Brookes & P. Grundy (Eds.), Individualization and autonomy in language learning (pp. 62-74). Hong Kong: Modern English Publications.

Brown, J. D. (1996). Testing in language programs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Cotterall, S. (2000). Promoting learner autonomy through the curriculum: Principles for designing language courses. ELT Journal, 54, 109-117.

Huebner, D. (1997). Poetry and power: The politics of curricular development. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.) The curriculum studies reader (pp. 130-136) London: Routledge.

Law, L. (Executive Producer), & Menendez, R. (Director). (1988). Stand and Deliver [Film]. (Available from Warner Brothers Home Videos, 4000 Warner Blvd. Burbank, California 91522-0001.)

Mackenzie, A. S. & McCafferty, E. (2002). Developing Autonomy. Tokyo: JALT CUE SIG.

2002 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

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