Teachers' and learners' perspectives on autonomy

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In the literature on language teaching and learning, there are many variations upon the basic idea of autonomy. The problem is to explain how these different ways of representing autonomy and putting it into practice may be linked to broader political, ideological or philosophical outlooks. In previous work, for example, I have suggested that we might speak of ‘technical’, ‘psychological’ and ‘political’ versions of autonomy linked to ‘positivistic’, ‘constructivist’ and ‘critical’ outlooks (Benson, 1997). In this chapter, I want to explore this issue from a somewhat different point of view, by asking how the idea of autonomy may appear differently when viewed from a teacher’s or learner’s perspective and how this basic difference of perspective may be related to the three versions of autonomy mentioned above. The basic idea that I want to develop here is that of ‘perspective’, a term I use to refer to a way of viewing a phenomenon that is conditioned both by an individual’s position in a power-inflected role relationship (in this case the teacher-student relationship) and by the experience that the individual acquires within this relationship. The underlying assumption is that teachers and students view the processes in which they are mutually engaged from very different perspectives and that this is likely to influence the ways in which they make sense of a notion such as autonomy. My argument is that, from the teachers’ perspective, autonomy is primarily concerned with institutional and classroom learning arrangements within established curricula. In other words, from the teachers’ perspective, autonomy tends to imply the learner taking control of arrangements whose underlying legitimacy is unquestioned. From the learners’ perspective (which I view as tangential to, rather than opposed to, the teachers’ perspective) autonomy is primarily concerned with learning, in a much broader sense, and its relationship to their lives beyond the classroom. I will illustrate this argument with a theoretical model and empirical data. In conclusion, I will also discuss its relevance to important issues in our field, such as learner resistance to autonomy and the concept of teacher autonomy.


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