Autonomy in the Algerian Higher Education: is it a Reality or a Striving goal?
Department of English, Faculty of Letters, Languages and Arts
Univeristy of Djilali Liabes University
Fawzia BOUHAS BENAISSI
Department of English, Faculty of Letters, Languages and Arts
University of Djilali Liabes, Sidi-Bel Abbés, Algeria
Autonomy is a desirable goal in language education since 1981. Algeria, like other countries in the world, has adopted new approaches to foster learner autonomy. The aim is to make learners responsible about all decisions concerning their learning and cope with the demands of modern education. However, it seems really easy said than done in practice. In this line of thought, the present paper is part of PhD thesis; it attempts to describe what happening in the Algerian EFL classroom context in terms of practices and attitudes. Data were collected through participant covert classroom observation. It aims to examine the extent to which theory is met in reality and to identify the factors behind whether or not learner autonomy is applied effectively in real context. The results have shown that there is a huge gap between theory and practice and that traditional classroom practices are still dominated due to lack of both learners’ awareness with regard to their expected roles and responsibilities and teachers’ knowledge about how to foster autonomous learning, as well as lack of adequate materials and mechanisms.
Key words: learner autonomy, the Algerian context, classroom practices
Traditional mode of teaching gave more emphasis to the teacher as key factor in constructing transmitting, and explaining knowledge, on the other hand, the learner was a passive member in the classroom, receiving and memorizing knowledge. This is why, in the last thirty years, a great deal of attention has been devoted to learner autonomy in language learning and teaching. The shift of focus from teacher-centeredness to learner autonomy gives more emphasis on what learners need to learn rather what teachers have to teach. i.e. the ability to make learners take charge of learning is prerequisite to effective teaching in modern classrooms.
While this is the case, Algerian curriculum designers have decided moved towards adapting learner-centered approach. Among its principles is the promotion of learner autonomy. Life-long learning, holding responsibility and developing self-reliance are major goals, learner autonomy comes to encourage in modern classroom as well as to make a link between what is learner learn in schools to real life situations where learners live. However, within the Algerian higher education, and after more than fifteen years since the adaptation competency based approach and learner-centeredness (since 2004/2005), it seems that we are faced with contradictions when trying to make a link between the theoretical principles of autonomous learning and its practical implications in real situations in the classroom. In this respect, and after serious of reforms and changes, we must wonder, is learner autonomy a reality or desirable goal in the Algerian higher education?
Henri Holic contribution
Originally, learner autonomy was first introduced in the field of learning and teaching in 1971 through the council of Europe’s’ and Modern Languages Project and Henri Holic was the first to talk about learner autonomy in language education in his seminal report in 1976 entitled: “self-directed learning and autonomy”.
Learner autonomy is one of the most complicated concepts to define. In the same line of thought, Benson and Ushioda (2009) describe learner autonomy as a “multifaceted” concept. Many scholars and researchers have contributed to make sense of it and give it a clear precise ground; however the debate over what learner autonomy really means is still on going.
Holic (1981:03) defined learner autonomy as learners’ ability to take charge of learning. This ability includes, determining objectives, defining content, selecting methods, techniques and materials, and evaluating progress and determining strength and weaknesses. Many researchers view Holic’s definition to be more general and vague because it only stresses the technical perspective of autonomy, while he ignored the psychological, social and cultural perspectives. More importantly, neglecting the teachers’ roles in lunching learners with the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to be responsible over their own learning.
Sinclair’s contributions on learner autonomy
Sinclair is one the scholars who thoroughly debated the concept of learner autonomy and examined it from different angles and spheres. He took into account all factors and characteristics shaping the autonomous learner. Below are thirteen definitions stated by Sinclair (2000) as cited in Borg and Al-Busiadi (2012: 5)
Autonomy is a construct of capacity
Autonomy involves a willingness on the part of the learner to take responsibility for their own learning
The capacity and willingness of learners to take such responsibility is not necessarily innate
Complete autonomy is an idealistic goal
There are degrees of autonomy
The degrees of autonomy are unstable and variable
Autonomy is not simply a matter of placing learners in situations where they have to be independent
Developing autonomy requires conscious awareness of the learning process – i.e. conscious reflection and decision-making
Promoting autonomy is not simply a matter of teaching strategies
Autonomy can take place both inside and outside the classroom
Autonomy has a social as well as an individual dimension
The promotion of autonomy has a political as well as psychological dimension
Autonomy is interpreted differently by different cultures
Sinclair (2000) argues that learner autonomy an acquired capacity; and he examined it from a diverse range of perspectives, individual, social, cultural, and political dimensions.
Different terms and appellations are used in the literature to refer to learner autonomy such as: self-directed learning, independent learning. On the other hand, the concept of learner autonomy is also confused and misinterpreted with other terms like: freedom of learning, self-instruction, and individualism, however, each of these terms stand on its own as a distinct concept differing in meaning from autonomous learning.
Characteristics of Autonomous Classrooms
The uniqueness of autonomous classroom lies in its focus on the development of communicative proficiency and learners’ sense of responsibility. In this context, Little (2017: 4) argues that this proficiency includes, proficiency in language learning (learning management) and proficiency in language use (language communicative use).
As for responsibility, Little (2017: 4) claims that there are two essential features of autonomous classroom. First, in the environment where learners are responsible about learning management in terms of setting goals, making choices, taking decisions, monitoring progress and evaluating outcomes. And second, in autonomous classroom, the more learners develop their autonomy, the more they get involved in classroom interaction with their teacher as well as with the other learners, ultimately, they become more proficient in the target language.
Learners’ Roles and Responsibilities
The traditional teaching/learning styles view the role of the learners as being only restricted to listening to the teacher, passive recipient of information, attend classes and taught by the teacher. Learners were considered to be empty vases should be filled with knowledge. Autonomous instruction, on the other, looks at the learner as an active participant in the process on learning and teaching.
What is the Teachers’ Role in the Autonomous Learning Environment?
Modern way of teaching focuses much more on the way learners learn rather than how teachers teach, this new philosophy in education did not emerge to eliminate and belittle the role of the teacher as many people may think, conversely, today’s education is expected the teacher to create an autonomous supportive learning environment where learners take the initiative to be in charge of their own learning therefore sharing responsibility with their teachers.
The role of the teacher has shifted from totally knowledge provider, dominator, and whole class teaching to more as a facilitator who is likely to help learners achieve learning objectives, and a manager in which he/she controls and organizes the students in groups, giving instructions, evaluating and providing feedback. And finally as a resource where necessary, the teacher helps learners understanding technical terms and concepts and suggests resources to consult out-side the classroom. In this juncture, Little (2004) in which he views “teachers as managers, facilitators, counselors, and a resource”.
Based on the literature review on learner autonomy, the current students’ questionnaire was developed. It takes into account the different technical perspectives of learner autonomy such s learning management and language course decisions: setting goals, selecting learning materials, monitoring progress and evaluating outcomes (Derived from Holic (1981), cited in Bennaisi 2015: ). We also reviewed some previous studies such as Borg and Al-Busiadi (2013) on “teachers’ beliefs and practices regarding learner autonomy” from which we adapted some questions related to learners’ and teachers’ roles, their background knowledge about learner autonomy, classroom environment and activities. The questionnaire consists of 10 open-ended and closed-ended questions administrated to 11 teachers of English at the department of English at Ahmed Zabana University Centre-Relizane- Algeria.
The questionnaire was analysed using SPSS statistical system, , the aim was to fully describe teachers’ background about learner autonomy and the strategies used to foster it as well as to examine the extent the ways in which these strategies are applied in the real classroom context.
Learner Autonomy: Theory and Practice in the Algerian EFL Context
Classroom Observation: Analysis and Discussion
Classroom Environment and Activities
The classrooms observed are often quiet, calm and less competitive and less cooperative, the learners usually discuss the answers in groups though still the teacher who tries to push the learners towards active participation in the classrooms.
The dominant classroom activities used are written projects, oral presentations and group-discussion. At first glance, it seems a real intention and a good initiative from the part of teachers towards fostering autonomous learning through collaboration and projects, as it shows that teachers are quite aware of the fact that collaboration is one way to develop self-reliance and interdependent learning. However the ways in which these activities were managed is purely traditional. After checking some projects, it was very clear that leaners have only copy some ready-made information available in the internet, as far as the way projects were presented, one can say that there was no leaner cooperative work, but rather each learner has memorized the content and present it.
While attending and observing some Algerian EFL classrooms, the first impression one may have is that it is no difference between teacher-centeredness and learner-centered approach in terms of the role of teacher. The latter is still the dominator of the class and talking time, he/she is the only one who asks questions, correct mistakes and praises correct answers. It is also worth mentioning that the teacher only interacts with those who are seated in the front positions, however, learners at the back are absolutely not engaged in the classroom interaction.
5.6 Learners’ role
The frequent role which has been repeatedly observed is “listening to the teacher”, learners seem to be reticent and quite reluctant to talk and take the initiatives, note-talking was absolutely absent which means that learners are either waiting for the teacher to dictate or give them handouts. This attitudes show the learners’ traditional beliefs about themselves and their roles which are highly restricted to attending classes and listening to the teacher.
What was unplanned to be observed, however it was noticeably and repeatedly marked is that learners, by the end of each session, check the time, and remind her/his teacher that she/he has exceeded the time required (1hour and 30 minutes) saying “the time is up”. This attitude shows clearly the learners’ states of being bored, restless, lack of concentration and attention. This is due to their lack of active participation, feeling of being marginalized and not involved in the learning process.
Findings and deductive thoughts
Based on the classroom observation and the learners’ questionnaire analysis, results have shown that:
All indicators, classroom activities and environment, and both teachers’ role, learners’ role show that it is actually teacher-centered approach dominating EFL classrooms. As a result, Algerian higher education classrooms are far to be autonomous.
Learners are not yet introduced to modern classroom principles and learner autonomy.
Learner autonomy principles are not yet clearly understood for learners though they are well-aware of its importance and effectiveness.
Both teachers and learners are not yet ready to take that responsibility because they lack the required skills, strategies and knowledge. nor have they been trained to cope with the new educational reforms and changes.
Teachers still preserve traditional classroom beliefs, experiences, roles and practices since they have been raised in the traditional learning paradigm and have been teaching in parallel to its principles for a long time.
Learners rely heavily on their teachers and think that their teachers are responsible for the teaching/learning process.
Learners are not aware of their expected roles and responsibilities.
There is no clear transition between one approach to another and both teachers and learners have not been prepared for such changes.
There was no stocktaking to the current educational situations taking into account all its the different social and cultural dimensions.
Imported methodologies, approached and methods are devoid from all its authentic materials, equipment and devices.
Imported methodologies are not pre-tested before being applied but rather have been blindly adopted and adapted.
Implications and Concluding Tips
Policy makers should first examine any imported methodology, approach before adopting it;
They should provide training to teachers to develop autonomous teaching before fostering learner autonomy.
They should equip the classroom with the necessarily materials to promote autonomous learning.
Learner autonomy should be introduced at early stages of education.
Policy makers should look upon the fact that teacher/learner training is an essential step forward effective promotion of autonomous learning.
Teachers should first start by themselves trying to understand what learner autonomy really means before trying to promote it.
Teachers should talk to their learners about learner autonomy and explain its principles.
Teachers should raise their learners’ awareness regarding their expected roles and responsibilities.
Learners should be aware of their learning styles and informed about objectives
Learners should take the initiatives identifying their learning goals and selecting appropriate materials and activities.
Learners should collaborate with their teachers and with others
Learners should change their traditional beliefs and practices.
After more than fifteen years since the latest reforms, It might be surprising, however to say that learner autonomy is still a striving goal in the Algerian context. Despite the massive reforms the Algerian educational system has adapted, it is seems that the change touches theory but not practice and that there is a clear mismatches between theory and real classroom situations. Moving towards autonomous learning environment is a prominent goal, educational policy-makers and teachers are working to make it happens. Shifting from learner autonomy as a theoretical claim to practice is a demanding task. It requires a “let go” from the part of teachers and a “stand on their feet” from the learners’ side. While this is the case, it is illogical to expect both learners and teachers to take part of their own learning/ teaching process if the whole educational system itself is not autonomous in creating approaches, and designing curriculum which suit better their educational needs, and take into account the social, cultural and political aspects in which learning takes place.
To this end, it is actually a shared responsibility of all stakeholders; they should first show a real intention to make learner autonomy a reality not a delusion. Policy makers and curriculum designers should focus on teacher professional development starting by teacher autonomy, and providing all the equipment needed to cope with the current reforms and changes. Teachers should start by themselves developing autonomous mode of teaching in their profession and learners should change their mindset and step forward self-reliance and responsibility.References