It involves knowing what language is appropriate for use in a given situation—sociolinguistic competence—and how appropriacy differs from one culture to another—inter-cultural competence. This paradigm is not without its problems, of course, but it will do for the purposes of the present study. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF) provides important insights into the range of different competences drawn upon in learning a language, which, at least in theory, extend the range of teaching practices beyond the narrowly linguistic. More specifically, these competences include:
- pragmatic competences: the user’s knowledge of the principles according to which messages are:
--organised, structured, and arranged (discourse competence)
--used to perform communicative functions (functional competence)
--sequenced according to the user’s internal models of how communication takes place (design competence)
- sociolinguistic competence: the knowledge and skills required to deal with the social dimension of language use
- intercultural competence: knowledge, awareness, and understanding of the relation between the user’s world and the world of the target language users
- strategic competence: being aware of the communicative process and being able to “manage” it
- existential competence: the user’s personality features, motivations, attitudes, beliefs, and so on.
(from Heyworth, F. “Why the ECF is important,” in Insights from the Common European Framework. 2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press).
A question germane to our discussion is, “Who is called on to develop these competences?” In other words, who is expected to plan, monitor and evaluate his or her learning with the aim of achieving the abovementioned educational goals? The answer is simple: the learner, the autonomous learner, who will take control of his learning and will be able to learn how to learn, once teaching stops.
As society is becoming more complex and knowledge quickly obsolete in a highly technological era, there is a greater need for learners to be able to make sense of their environment. Conditions of learning are required to provide students with the opportunity to select data, and assimilate them in a way that gives them the opportunity to challenge misconceptions and create new accurate conceptions. This cannot be done if the curriculum or the methodology of the school is so rigid that students are only presented with data without being able to make sense of it. Therefore, syllabuses must become more flexible and be negotiated by both teachers and learners. It stands to reason that current educational goals and methodological practices should become increasingly learner-centred. It is learner’s individual needs that have made educational programmes flexible in terms of time, location, method and materials, and have led to the emergence of tailor-made and self-directed learning schemes, seen as necessary alternatives to traditional teaching. Furthermore, information technology has offered the necessary tools (video recorders, satellite television, Internet) and materials (audio and video tapes, CD-ROMs) to set up self-access centres, and to implement other self-instruction learning schemes, including distance and open learning programmes.
Against this background, language learning could not but reflect the social and technological changes that have taken place worldwide. Consequently, learner autonomy has become a major concern of the Council of Europe. Work by Henri Holec and Mats Oskarsson has been seminal in the field and is still often cited. ‘Ideal autonomous learners’ assume full responsibility for their own learning: they are able to determine what, how, when and with whom to learn; become aware of their individual needs and set objectives accordingly; and monitor and evaluate their progress. Moreover, by learning how to learn, they ensure life-long learning, which allows them to learn independently from teachers, specific methods or materials. Undeniably, learner autonomy is not only a major goal, but also a social and educational priority.
According to CEF (p. 142), autonomous learners are able to ‘make choices in respect of objectives, materials and working methods in the light of their own needs, motivations, characteristics and resources’. Such learners are a rare species, of course, but language instruction and learning should aim at fostering learners’ predisposition to knowledge and development. In what follows, we will discuss students’ learning patterns as a medium for individual change honing the ability to ‘learn how to learn’, which will in turn inform teaching methodologies with a view to fostering learner autonomy.
If lifelong education is our major goal, then learning how to learn should be one of its premises. Long past is the era when language learning—and learning, in general—was equated with the accumulation of sets of fixed items of knowledge; in the past decades, what seems to have gained ground is the ability to change, adapt and update these items of knowledge according to the needs of the individual learner and the requirements of the contexts in which knowledge needs to be used (Mariani, L. “Learning to Learn with the CEF,” in Insights from the Common European Framework. 2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press). Learners’ ability ‘to learn how to learn’ can be broken down into four areas:
- Language and communication awareness (becoming aware of what languages are, how they work, how they are used, how they can be learnt and taught).
- General phonetic awareness and skills (being able to discriminate and articulate sounds, as a general skill, not with reference to a specific language).
- Study skills (or being able to use the learning opportunities offered by teaching contexts).
- Heuristic skills (or being able to use new experience by applying higher-order cognitive operations and to find and use new information).
The ability ‘to learn how to learn’ cuts across declarative knowledge (knowing things—cognition), skills and know-how (knowing how to do things—conation) and existential knowledge (knowing how to be—affectation). The terms ‘cognition’, ‘conation’ and ‘affectation’ are used by Johnston (1996) to form the Interactive Learning Model, with the aim of unravelling how these processes converge in observable patterns of behaviour during the learning process to constitute an individual’s disposition as a learner. The interplay of cognition, conation and affectation forms four patterns of learning behaviour, namely sequential, precise, technical and confluent.
Sequential learners seem to follow a plan, seeking step-by-step directions. They organise, plan work carefully and like to finish assignments from beginning to end. Precise learners look for and retain detailed information. They read and write in a highly specific manner and ask questions to find out more information. Technical learners prefer working on their own, reasoning out technical ways of doing things. They like to learn from real-life experiences. Their motto is, “Let me Learn!”. Confluent learners avoid conventional approaches, seeking unique ways to complete any learning task. They are ready to take risks, to fail and start all over again. For Camilleri (see http://www.letmelearn.org/research/camilleri.html), those whose preferred pattern is sequential and/or precise prefer to write rather than to speak, while those whose preferred pattern is technical and/or confluent prefer to speak rather than to write.
It is understandable that teachers need to have a solid grasp of what patterns their students can use before setting the expectations for course work. What is most important, though, is for learners themselves to become aware of their own learning habits and strategies, so that they can better plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning. ‘Autonomous learning can be promoted if “learning to learn” is regarded as an integral part of language learning, so that learners become increasingly aware of the way they learn, the options open to them and the options that best suit them’ (CEF, 2001: 141). Autonomous learning, however, begs the question of whether it is a viable educational (and political) condition without the presence of autonomous teachers. Teacher autonomy is a necessary condition for learner autonomy, but how does this assumption square with reality? Teachers feel pressure from peers or from the institution that questions their practices, and as such can never be autonomous. How can teachers move themselves and their students in the direction of real autonomy if they do so within the “clutches” of convention and tradition? (Barfield, A., Ashwell, T., Carroll, M., Collins, K., Cowie, N., Critchley, M., Head, E., Nix, M., Obermeier, A. & M.C. Robertson. Exploring and defining teacher autonomy. Forthcoming. In Developing Autonomy, Proceedings of the College and University Educators" 2001 Conference, Shizuoka, Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Association for Language Teaching). ‘Teacher autonomy is a socially constructed process, where teacher support and development groups can act as teacher-learner pools of diverse knowledge, experience, equal power and autonomous learning’ (ibid.).
- Camilleri, A. http://www.letmelearn.org/research/camilleri.html. Date of access: 10/11/2004.
- Council of Europe. 2001. Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Heyworth, F. “Why the ECF is important,” in Insights from the Common European Framework. 2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Johnston, C. 1996. Unlocking The Will To Learn. California: Corwin Press, Inc.
- Mariani, L. “Learning to Learn with the CEF,” in Insights from the Common European Framework. 2004. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Barfield, A., Ashwell, T., Carroll, M., Collins, K., Cowie, N., Critchley, M., Head, E., Nix, M., Obermeier, A. & M.C. Robertson. Exploring and defining teacher autonomy. Forthcoming. In Developing Autonomy, Proceedings of the College and University Educators" 2001 Conference, Shizuoka, Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Association for Language Teaching.
Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas