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Commandment 7 – Promote Learner Autonomy

I hope you’re all settling in to the new school year. It is the perfect time to try something new in your classroom!

This Commandment comes to us from Alex, an ALT at a high school in Kyoto. He and his co-ALTs and JTEs have been doing some fantastic things to promote learner autonomy. Hopefully you can implement some of these ideas too.

Learner Autonomy

Learner autonomy is the hotness right now in education. But, if you’re like me, you’ve looked at countless websites and articles describing the Platonic ideal of a classroom with students radically taking charge of and executing their own education plans, and you drolly thought to yourself, “Yeah, sure, this is helpful. ‘Cause Japanese schools are famous for their flexibility and willingness to try new ideas…” 

In all seriousness, trying to incorporate student-centered and self-directed learning into a traditional classroom can be a daunting task – especially for an ALT with limited control. However, there are things we can do to incorporate some ideas in effective ways. I’m far from an expert in autonomous learning strategies, but for the past few years I’ve been working at the high school level to make lessons that are in line with these ideas – and been fortunate enough to be at a school that is willing to try new things. What I hope to offer here are a few strategies and ideas, and a few mistakes to learn from, that teachers and ALTs can use in their own classes.

Project-Based Learning

I’m a big proponent of project-based lessons as one of the easiest and most effective ways to empower students to take charge of their own learning. The conceit is simple: students are more invested in talking/writing about something when it’s their own idea, and they will use the resources they have to figure out the right English to use on their own. So give them some project, be it a presentation or an essay or a speech or whatever, and turn them loose. Sounds simple, right?

My first time trying a project like this on my own, I remember gleefully telling the students they could do a presentation in English on any topic that they wanted, visions of them finally unrestrained, boldly and proudly unleashing their unique ideas upon the world… only to be met with a sea of faces as blank as the untouched pages they stared into for the length of the class. Okay, it seems obvious in retrospect, but I had to learn the hard way. Even with the idea of “learner autonomy,” they’re kids and they need some guidance. For my money, what they need is some kind of a push, and some kind of a goal.

The push is just something to get them started. In inquiry based learning, you might hear it referred to as an “engage.” An overarching theme, and maybe some examples to get them started. I’ve found it’s really helpful to have some options for students to choose from. For the kids who would love to work on their own original ideas, having a few examples to draw from helps them narrow their ideas down. And for the rest of them who can’t (or don’t want to) think of their own ideas, at least giving them the choice is some degree of empowerment.

In one lesson, I had the students do an English slideshow presentation in groups of four on some environmental or social issue of their choice. As a precursor, I had them work in their groups to discuss the issues they thought were most important and write them up on a shared Google Jamboard. All these issues, that they decided were important on their own, later became the topics their group could choose from for their presentations.

As for a goal, I think rubrics are one of the most effective tools you can use. The students need to know what is expected of them in clear, objective terms so they know what they have to work towards. However, they should still have a lot of freedom in how they achieve those goals. To me, the project and the rubric go hand-in-hand. 

With these bookends in place, then you can let them run free. You’ll be amazed the first time you see them scouring websites and their dictionaries and their books, finding information, and figuring out the right way to express the ideas they want to share. But don’t forget you still have a job to do! Check in on them, help them find the right resources, help them refine their English, but do so with a light hand. You are a facilitator; you are just another resource for the students along the way, but it is their journey, mistakes and all.

Don’t trick yourself into thinking your students aren’t good enough to do this kind of thing. Your students don’t have to be doing long presentations on difficult issues. A half-minute English speech about their favorite food or their best memory will have the same effect, and it’s something just about anybody can do. Which leads me to my next point: keeping the material relevant to the students.

Relevance is King

Many resources on learner autonomy talk about the importance of using material that is engaging and relevant. Again, the reasoning for this is simple: students want to talk about the things they want to talk about. One challenge here is that a class is, of course, not some monolithic hivemind, it’s a collection of individuals with their own wants and needs and interests, and you’ll never please everyone all the time. But in broad strokes, try to think outside of school life. Your students’ interests and hobbies go far past those four walls, and they’re much more aware of what’s going on in the world than you might give them credit for. 

That’s not to say you should avoid discussion topics like, “Do you like school uniforms,” but by the time they reach high school at least, there’s a good chance it will be nothing new to them and you’ll hear a lot of parroted talking points without much thought put into them. I’ve had a lot more success getting spirited, genuine conversations with things like “Do you believe in ghosts,” personally. These young people love to talk about their favorite books and bands and Youtubers and games, but also as their level improves, social issues, environmental problems, and all manner of Important Things that will leave you awestruck by their awareness… if you give them the chance.

If you can’t change the content to connect with the students, consider changing the context. “Write 150 words in English describing your school” gets you exactly what you expect: a stack of half-hearted essays using safe, soulless canned language (especially if the implied result is that you’re just going to deface it with a red pen and dump it unceremoniously back on them). If instead your assignment is, “You’re going to do presentations in groups introducing your school, make sure to use lots of good pictures, oh and, by the way, in two weeks you’re going to give your presentations online to a bunch of American high schoolers who are going to ask you questions, so good luck,” you’ll see exactly how fast your kids can work making the best English they can. The right context can produce strong intrinsic motivation. As a plus, when students reflect on situations like this, they will naturally identify the points that are weak for them, and are important for them to improve – being conscious of your own output leads automatically to self-correction.

But, really they can do it

Even now, I hear you cry: “There’s no way my students can do this.” I ask – have you tried? No, really. Outside of the most basic of beginners, if your kids can put together a subject and a predicate they can start talking about things they’re interested in, even if it’s basic. You don’t have to throw them in the deep end, but they gotta get in the water if you want ‘em to learn how to swim.

Last but not least. Let’s say you can’t change the lessons. You’re not allowed to try different formats. Your school won’t permit international exchanges. “There’s no time.” “They need to focus on examinations.” “The students aren’t good enough.” Your hands are bound. Where do you turn? In these moments, don’t forget your ultimate resource in perpetuity: YOU. 

The difference you alone can make

Talk with your students. Communicate with them, even outside class. Get to know them, and show genuine interest in what they like. This is a kind of learner autonomy too, free from rubrics and projects and grades. Most of these young people have had English classes since elementary school only to see English as a way to pass tests and nothing more. To realize that English is in fact a way to make connections with people, to share ideas and interests, to feel validation, is an important moment in an English learner’s life, and many students are going to want to work harder all on their own to get more of that feeling.

I can’t tell how many students have told me they practiced English just to talk with me. They didn’t like English before but talking to a native teacher made them enjoy it. There are few things in the world as special as seeing a student’s eyes light up when you tell them that you’re interested in the same things as them, and you make that connection that makes them want to talk more, even if at first it’s as simple as, “Wow! Me too! So cool!” For a start, it’s not much, but for some students it can be just the spark they need to start their self-guided journey through English. They’re just dipping their toes in the water of autonomous learning, but in this all-too-often suffocating system of entrance exams and rigid lectures, I’d say that’s a step in the right direction.