Most people don't like being bossed about - no matter how old they are or what they're being instructed on.
When it comes to being told what to do, there isn't much difference between the toddler who insists on picking out her clothes and the micromanaged employee who just wants the boss to back off a bit. They both get frustrated - but at least the toddler has license to get vocal about having all the choices made for her.
If we accept that as true, how is it that we routinely subject our students to the type of one-way instruction that we disdain?
The answer is a bit convoluted but the question itself explains the current revolution in educational philosophy.
Your Superprof wants to give you a head start on the not-so-new developments in education that are only now coming to classrooms everywhere, starting with autonomous learning.
First, A Bit of Background
The idea that every student is a blank slate waiting only to be written on - a tabula rasa, in Aristotle's time, has somehow survived for centuries. At some point fairly recently, the slate became a vessel, as in 'students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge' but the basic idea remained the same.
Worldwide, schools built entire curricula around the idea that knowledge flows one way - from teacher to student. Teacher training programmes everywhere focused on the teacher-led instruction model.
Today, the 'empty vessel' theory provokes a great deal of outrage.
Isn't it demeaning to assume that every child enters the classroom for the first time devoid of any intellect? With absolutely no power to reason things out for themselves? Without any idea of what s/he likes or finds satisfying and exciting? With no passion or curiosity to discover and learn?
As 17th Century philosopher John Locke advocated, students should be guided in their learning but be given autonomy over what and how they learn. Despite the overwhelming clamour from teachers who embrace Locke's philosophy for new ways to educate, still today, teachers are trained to lead the learning.
The irony of mainstream educational philosophy is that it strips students of their natural intellectual curiosity. They are kept within the confines of the curriculum we deliver and, boy, society is paying for that. Studies show that students at virtually all levels lack critical thinking and problem-solving skills; abilities most desperately needed in the workforce today.
Fortunately, the concept of autonomous learning has gained (most of its) momentum in recent years.
In 1981, Frenchman Henri Holec coined that phrase 'learner autonomy' to describe the shift of focus from teaching to learning. He is widely regarded as the ‘father’ of this concept despite his relatively narrow scope - he phrased it strictly in the context of language learning (where the origins of the phrase are rooted).
Still today, the term is used and debated almost exclusively in the contexts of language learning, homeschooling and higher education.
There have been – and remain – many definitions of the term and many variations of autonomous education initiatives but, in general, it means a student takes responsibility for and ownership of their learning.
What Autonomous Learning Is... and Isn't
Autonomous learning shifts the focus from teaching to learning.
It does not mean that the teacher becomes redundant, abdicating control over the learning process or classroom management.
It means that students make decisions about what and how they learn with the teacher’s role being to provide support, encouragement and advice/knowledge when asked.
In the autonomous learning model, teachers help their students accomplish things they want to achieve. There are, of course, a few caveats. For example, students can't simply say "I want to fold origami cranes" without that stated goal having anything to do with learning.
Don't count on Teacher running off to find suitable paper, either. Autonomous learning revolves around students learning to be responsible for themselves. The teacher might direct that origami-craving student to a paper supply cubby but choosing which colour paper and how much of it is entirely up to the child.
As the folding paper metamorphoses into cranes, Teacher might point out the ratios and proportions (fold the paper in half, now make a 45-degree angle...), ask open-ended questions designed to encourage critical thinking (why don't your cranes have any legs?) and demonstrate proper folding technique (to build fine motor skills).
By this example. you can see that autonomous learning in the classroom changes the relationship between students and teachers. The teacher becomes a supportive, helpful resource guiding learners to achieve their goals, rather than somebody who is going to lecture, judge and test them.
Everyone finds their place in society by measuring themselves against those in their circle and society at large. Students learning autonomously need not only a great deal of support and co-operation but also assessment from their peers.
Our self-image reinforcement systems work a lot like a GPS: we triangulate between our subjective self, objective self and our environment. Continuous peer assessment allows us to maintain our self-validation which, in turn, builds our self-esteem and self-confidence - all of which leads to a sense of mental and emotional well-being.
Much of that is way over the average autonomous learner's head; suffice to say that, without any peers reflecting one's self-image, autonomous learning cannot be successful.
For it to work properly, students must first identify what they need and want to learn, how they will learn it and how they will evaluate and use what they have learned. They need to have well-formed concepts of what learning means, apply a range of learning approaches and be disciplined, resourceful and organised. It (almost) goes without saying that they must be well motivated to learn!
If you can't imagine that the youngest school students are capable of that level of intuition and insight, think again...
The Montessori Method
By all standards, Maria Montessori was a maverick.
Born in Italy in the latter part of the 19th Century, she chose to attend an all-boys school so she could learn engineering when she was just 13 years old. She continued her technical studies at the Leonardo da Vinci Institute, earning praise and high grades especially in maths and science.
Her engineering aspirations would have been remarkable enough but, immediately after being handed her technical degree, she set herself to learning medicine. If a female engineer were unusual for those times, a female physician was unheard of. She was strongly discouraged from studying medicine at the University of Rome, where she nevertheless passed exams in botany, experimental physics, organic chemistry and anatomy.
The discrimination and hostility she laboured under while learning how to doctor were profound. It was inappropriate for men and women to be together in the presence of a nude cadaver so she had to practice dissection and surgical techniques after hours, alone. When she took up smoking to combat the smell of formaldehyde that sickened her, she suffered even more brutal bullying - smoking was a males-only pursuit.
You might wonder why, after enduring so much, she pivoted away from practising medicine and ended up the educational pioneer she's known as today.
Her first medical practice was working with developmentally delayed children. Her personal experiences - first as an engineering student and then as a physician - led her to tackle educational issues confronting women and disabled children in her spare time. She was widely published, becoming well-known in international academic and medical circles.
She developed a unique teaching philosophy based on her work with developmentally delayed children. It encouraged learners to pursue topics of interest to them within an educational setting. It was a resounding success; soon, she grew keen to try her educational philosophy with students who were not incapacitated. Here, too, her methods were overwhelmingly acclaimed.
Casa dei Bambini, the first learning centre she oversaw, presented students with a blend of practical activities - sweeping and cleaning the room, dressing and undressing themselves and gardening, and intellectual pursuits based on the curriculum and materials she had created.
Her most startling observation was that the learners preferred learning and the practical activities over playing with the toys scattered throughout the room and offered sweets.
She realised that children were more motivated by the opportunity to learn, exercise what they've learned and otherwise being productive. Soon, she noted that her students demonstrated self-discipline; rather than running wild, the kids were letting their curiosity run free. It took them to amazing destinations.
By 1915, the Montessori method of learning was a worldwide sensation. Ms Montessori herself spent time in the US, advising proponents of the technique and helping to establish learning centres across the country. She spent 20 years in Spain, overseeing the development of centres there and visited the UK in 1919, where she basked in a warm and enthusiastic reception as she worked to train teachers in the proper way to guide their students as autonomous learners.
Today, Montessori schools flourish around the world. They were and still are the leaders of the autonomous learning wave that is washing over our educational shores.
Parlez-Vous 70 Languages?
Within the context of language learning, old practices of classrooms where foreign languages are taught have given way to self-access learning centres around the globe. These include SALC in Japan, the ASLLC in Hong Kong and ELSAC in New Zealand.
Closer to home - here, in the UK, you’ll find such centres in universities including London, Bath, Newcastle, Reading and many more, with new labs popping up regularly.
At such centres, students can access a myriad of reading materials in scores of languages. Specialist software is available to help them understand grammar rules, practise pronunciation, study spelling, and work on their speaking and listening skills.
Students find exercise sheets and answer keys to put into practice what they've just studied. Usually, subtitled TV programmes in many different languages are available for viewing and, at some campuses, students may check out films and DVDs in their target language.
The structure of these centres ranges from completely student-directed work to programmes which provide primarily tutor or instructor-guided work with self-study back-up.
Autonomous Learning in Higher Education
According to Sheffield Hallam University, conceptualising learner autonomy involves two factors.
Firstly, that an autonomous learner has developed the capacity to take at least some control over their learning. Secondly, that the learning environment must provide opportunities for each student to take control of their learning.
In addition to the rather more recognised skills needed by autonomous learners, the University promotes the concept that learning is a social activity. By socialising their learning as they are required to do, students to recognise and understand the benefits of working with other learners and having to share and negotiate with them.
Newer terms for these principles are collaboration and cooperation. You may have heard of or read about collaborative and/or cooperative learning initiatives during your continuing development training workshops.
Meanwhile, The Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) in London describes the seven pillars of information literacy as the ability to:
- recognise a need for information
- distinguish ways to address an information ‘gap’
- construct strategies for locating information
- locate and access information
- compare and evaluate information obtained from different sources
- organise, apply and communicate information to others appropriately
- synthesise and build upon existing information, contributing to the creation of new knowledge
These points reflect the educational philosophy Maria Montessori espoused a century ago. They are just as fundamental to the learning experience today as they were in her fledgeling Casa dei Bambini.
Five Tips for Successful Autonomous Learning
Before we leave you with any secrets for success, let us point out the difference between an autodidact, a self-learner and autonomous learning. They all address learning - not teaching as the central tenet of education but there are subtle differences that distinguish them.
An autodidact is someone who seeks learning opportunities - from books and/or by doing new things and drawing conclusions. You might say that a guitar player who has never taken formal lessons; who learned chord progressions by reading about them and practising on their own is an autodidact.
A self-learner is someone who learns independently of anyone else. To an extent, every student is a self-learner; s/he may attend lectures but then study more in-depth by reading their textbook and completing review exercises.
We've described autonomous learning in great detail but, for comparison purposes, we say again: these learners pursue their intellectual curiosity within an educational framework, guided by a teacher.
Now that you know the different shades of learning, you may apply these tips to make you successful in your studies.
1. Check your understanding. Ask yourself questions about what you have read or listened to with the book closed, the CD player off or your laptop lid down.
2. Paraphrase: recite what you have learned but using different words and expressions. It’ll make you think, rather than repeat by rote.
3. Embrace mistakes. They are not failures, they are opportunities to learn and to understand where you need to study more.
4. Try online tutors for areas you need particular help with: you can dip in as and when you need help as they’re more flexible than face-to-face tutors, who tend to work to regular sessions.
5. Keep your focus on the end result. Autonomous learners desire to increase their knowledge and skills rather than just pass exams. So keep your goals front-of-mind at all times to help maintain your motivations.
You’ll also find plenty of helpful information on our website. In particular, have a read through our ‘homeschooling’ blogs. If you’re learning a language, try connecting with a native speaker. Superprof likely has tutors who are native speakers of the language you want to learn.
Above all, enjoy your studies.