Saturday, 24 March 2012

Baby birds, giving birth and learner autonomy

Baby birds waiting for their parents to drop food into their open mouths... Is this how we see our students - or how our students see their role as learners?

I always knew that the best thing I could do for my students was to lead them to take responsibility for their own learning - to 'feed' themselves - but it was only when I did my MA in TESOL that I was able to give that a name - learner autonomy.  Learner autonomy is all about encouraging our students to develop the skills they need to find out new information, test it against what they already know, and incorporate it into their existing repertoire to enable them to become more and more effective language users.

Today I came across a phrase by the Vietnamese Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh, which describes the concept of learner autonomy beautifully:

   A teacher has to give birth to the teacher within his student....

This image resonates with me in that giving birth involves effort and pain, and it is sometimes very difficult to help learners become independent and self-reliant - indeed, some may misinterpret what we are trying to do and may feel that we as teachers are abdicating our responsibility to them, neglecting our duty or letting them down.  However, if we are able to teach our students the skills they need to teach themselves, we ensure that the learning process is enabled to carry on outside the classroom and indeed long after our students have stopped taking lessons with us.

Just as it was much quicker, cleaner and easier for me to hold the spoon when feeding my son when he was a toddler than to let him hold the spoon himself, so it is often tempting to spoon-feed our students the vocabulary, grammar, essay ideas or exam techniques they want to know.  I do believe there are times when it is expedient to just hand over the information - pre-chewed, if you like - but most of the time the lessons will be better learned if they have had to struggle to work it out for themselves.

So, while the baby birds in the nest may prefer to rely on Mum or Dad bringing the juicy worms to the nest and dropping them into the hungry little beaks, eventually the time will come when they must try out their wings, leave the nest and find the food for themselves.  The same applies to our students - the sooner they learn to 'fly', the better - not least because we cannot do their IELTS exams for them!

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