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Review of  Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning


Reviewer: Guido Josef Oebel
Book Title: Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning
Book Author: Philip Benson
Publisher: Pearson Linguistics
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Book Announcement: 12.2486

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Review:

Benson, Phil (2001) Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language
Learning. Longman (imprint of Pearson Education Ltd), paperback ISBN
0-582-36816-2, xi+260pp, GBP22.99, Applied Linguistics in Action.

Reviewed by: Guido Oebel, Faculty of Culture and Education,
Saga (Japan) National University

Synopsis in general

'Teaching and researching Autonomy in Language Learning' by
Phil Benson is another volume in the series 'Applied Linguistics in
Action'. As a strong advocate of action-orientation and learner-
centredness, both of which promote autonomy to a considerable extent,
I very much appreciate this publication. I regard dealing with autonomy
and simultaneously proclaiming its academic status, particularly within
the field of language learning, long overdue.

The book offers a comprehensive overview of educational practices
associated with the concept of autonomy currently becoming even more
relevant, i.e. the ability of learners to control their own learning.
Autonomy has increasingly become a key concept in language education,
thus influencing activities such as self-access, learner training,
classroom practice and curriculum design.

The author claims to achieve the four following purposes:

1. to detail the history and sources of the concept of autonomy.

2. to discuss areas of debate concerning its definition.

3. to review research on theoretical and practical applications.

4. to offer clear guidelines to educators on the evidence for the
effectiveness of practices associated with autonomy.

An additional section offers suggestions of issues for investigation,
advice on action research design and a listing of relevant internet
resources (highly appreciated and recommendable!). Furthermore
this section can even be found on the 'Teaching and Researching
Autonomy in Language Learning' companion web site
www.booksites.net/benson offering valuable teaching and
learning material. I may wish other publishers will take this
gesture as an example accompanying their own future printed
material alike.

In compliance with these main goals, the book is made up of
three main parts, accompanied by a fourth section offering
practical information and resources.

Section I 'What is autonomy' focuses on the origins and
development of the concept of autonomy in language learning,
definitions of key terms and research evidence enabling one to
describe autonomy in terms of various dimensions of control over
learning.

Section II 'Autonomy in practice' focuses on evidence for the
effectiveness of practices that have been claimed to foster
autonomy.

Section III 'Researching Autonomy' outlines key areas for future
research and presents six case studies of action research in the
field of autonomy -- in my opinion Benson's most successful
contribution!

Section IV 'Resources' lists resources of interest for and assistance
to researchers and practitioners in the field in question.

Synopsis in detail

Section I 'What is autonomy' contains six chapters (1. The history
of autonomy in language learning; 2. Autonomy beyond the field
of language education; 3. Defining and describing autonomy; 4.
Control as a natural attribute of learning; 5. Levels of control; 6.
Conclusion)

- describing the history of autonomy in language learning and its
sources in the fields of language pedagogy, educational reform,
adult education, the psychology of learning and political
philosophy;

- discussing definitions of autonomy and key issues in research

- explaining why autonomy is considered a key issue in language
education today.

Section II 'Autonomy in practice' contains eight chapters:
1. Fostering autonomy; 2. Resource-based approaches;
3. Technology-based approaches; 4. Learner-based approaches;
5. Classroom-based approaches; 6. Curriculum-based approaches;
7. Teacher-based approaches; 8. Conclusion.

- describing the main areas of practice claiming to foster autonomy in
language learning;

- discussing evidence for the effectiveness of each area of practice in
terms of autonomy and better language learning;

- explaining how practitioners and researchers can better
demonstrate the effectiveness of their work in the field of
autonomy.

Section III 'Researching Autonomy' contains three chapters:
1. Research methods and key areas of research; 2. Case studies;
3. Conclusion.

- describing potential areas for action research in the field of
autonomy;

- discussing six case studies of exemplary research on autonomy;

- explaining how practising teachers can contribute to one's
knowledge of autonomy and its implementation through action
research.

Section IV 'Resources' summarizes the various information sources
relevant to the study of autonomy in language learning, ranging from
printed material, bibliographies, references to conferences, workshops,
professional associations, e-mail lists, web sites to self-access
centres.

The book concludes with an appendix providing further references
(pp. 236-253), and author and subject indexes (pp. 255-260)

Critical evaluation

The importance of supporting learners become more autonomous
in their learning strategies has become a prominent topic as both
the theory and practice of language teaching enter a new era.
Critics of the concept of autonomy regard it as a merely idealistic
goal whose promotion distracts from the real business of teaching
and learning languages. Its advocates, like myself, consider
autonomy as a precondition for effective learning as learners
successfully developing autonomy do not only become better
language learners but also develop, as a kind of desirable side
effect, into more responsible and critical members of the community.

Fortunately, Benson does away with the widespread misinterpretation
about the nature of the concept of autonomy and its implementation,
such as the assumption that autonomy implies learning in isolation,
without teachers or outside the classroom. According to the author
these misconceptions result, at least partly, from a terminological
and conceptual confusion within this field itself, e.g. mixing up
terms such as independence, dependence and interdependence.

Benson's book successfully aims at clarifying and problematising
the concept of autonomy in language learning and its relevance to
the practice of language education. As he admits that autonomy is
in essence multidimensional-oriented -- taking different forms in
different contexts of learning -- his overall number one priority for
publishing this book is to establish what research does and not
tell the reader about autonomy. Thus those wishing to foster
autonomy among their learners should be encouraged in doing so
and are provided with resource tools in order to engage in
research and practice on an informed basis.

At the beginning, Benson broadly defines "autonomy as the
capacity to take control over one's own learning", understanding it
not as "a method of learning but an attribute of the learner's
approach to the learning process". He then takes the position that
"autonomy is a legitimate and desirable goal of language
education", among its claims Benson mentions the following three
as being equally important to theory and practice:

- "The concept of autonomy is grounded in a natural tendency for
learners to take control over their learning. As such, autonomy is
available to all, although it is displayed in different ways and to
different degrees according to the unique characteristics of each
learner and each learning situation.

- Learners who lack autonomy are capable of developing it given
appropriate conditions and preparation. The conditions for the
development of autonomy include the opportunity to exercise
control over learning. The ways in which we organise the practice
of teaching and learning have an important influence on the
development of autonomy among our learners.

- Autonomous learning is more effective than non-autonomous
learning, In other words, the development of autonomy implies
better language learning."

In the following Benson argues that these are merely claims
rather than facts and that before accepting or rejecting autonomy
as a legitimate goal of language education, one should examine
them carefully. According to the author claims can be
substantiated by research evidence, others remain open to
research and some are non-researchable -- yet. He also argues that
the best research on autonomy is often not research concerned
with "grand theory" but action research conducted by practising
teachers on the specific conditions of teaching and learning within
which they work and on the effects of changes to these conditions.
Teaching staff ought to make some attempt to foster autonomy
among the learners they work with in order to research it.
In doing so they will, according to Benson, frequently find
themselves in a position where they are able, through careful
observation and analysis of empirical data, to contribute to
theory.

Despite Benson's plausible argumentation throughout the book,
the gallery of prominent representatives of autonomy is short,
e.g. there is no mention of Steiner and Freinet and their
pioneering work advocating autonomy in teaching and learning.

Apart from this slight blemish, I am confident that present
sceptics and even those ignorant of the concept of autonomy in
(language) learning could change their minds by taking note of
Benson's claims and internalizing them. Other target groups --
whether yet familiar with the concept or not -- might feel
stimulated to carry on with their learner-friendly concept or find
their own autonomous teaching and learning concept corroborated
respectively.

Let me finish my review quoting Galileo on teaching and learning
(see Benson's quote 2.1 on page 23) explaining best the basic idea
of autonomy:

"You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it
within himself." -- I think that is what autonomy in learning is all
about!

Reviewer's Bio: Guido Oebel (PhD in linguistics) is a native
German and currently employed as an associate professor for
German as a Foreign Language (DaF) and FLL with Saga
National University and as a visiting professor with Kurume
University, both on the Southern island of Kyushu/Japan. His
main areas of research are: comparative language studies (Modern
European languages and Japanese), German dialects, socio-
linguistics, bilingualism, and adult language education.


 
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