The picture we have so far been painting has been one of some—perhaps many—learners engaging and maybe developing their autonomy in out
-of-class language learning in situations where schools and teachers are struggling to cope. We now look at the frequently very challenging circumstances of classroom learning in developing country contexts, and at how a pedagogy
of autonomy has, in some cases, been found to emerge as a kind of ‘rescue solution’ (Fonseka, 2003).
Difficult Circumstances for Classroom Learning and Teaching
The state of formal
teaching and learning in developing countries is certainly not optimal from participants’ points of view, as revealed in a candid account by Lie (2007). Like those in so many developing countries, Indonesian educators face numerous structural problems:
A rapidly expanding and increasingly diverse pupil population: Lie (2007) compares the privileged students of high-quality schools in metropolitan cities like Jakarta and Bandung to their counterparts in ‘the jungles of Kalimantan and Papua’ (p. 10) and asks how any centralized curriculum could be expected to meet needs in both settings. Indonesian state school classes typically have around 40 pupils, presenting a wide spectrum of proficiency levels and making it difficult for teachers to establish close relations with individual pupils.
Pay and conditions for teachers have improved over recent years, but this has followed decades of underinvestment in education, and in teacher professional development in particular (Chang, Shaeffer, Al-Samarrai, Ragatz, de Ree and Stevenson, 2014). Language classroom methodology remains largely traditional, with teacher-centred, textbook-based lessons aimed at the staged learning of grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension, while oral practice is limited to rote repetition of textbook dialogues and teacher-pupil question and answer routines (Marcellino, 2008).
A third major constraint that Lie (2007) identifies in the formal language education system is a lack of resources, for example in terms of available textbooks, audio/visual materials and ICT support. Although other contexts in the developing world may be much worse off, she argues that the EFL setting, where English is rarely used in the social environment, makes the lack of attractive supplementary learning resources relatively acute. In fact, this situation is changing rapidly, as English is increasingly used in public advertising and signage (Chern & Dooley, 2014) and mobile phone-based internet services spread rapidly through the country (see above), but teachers are not trained to exploit this material and may feel that venturing into these unfamiliar domains could undermine their authority as the fount of language knowledge.
The British educationalist Michael West (1960) coined the phrase ‘teaching in difficult circumstances’ in relation to settings like these, which are prevalent across the developing world but which have tended to be neglected by language teaching theorists and researchers. This neglect has, indeed, been ‘dysfunctional’, if we consider that most teaching in the world occurs in such circumstances, as argued by Smith (2011). Of course, classrooms in the public sector in developing countries vary in many ways, but they also tend to share sufficient similarities (relatively low resourcing, large classes, etc.) to be comparable across contexts and to benefit, for now, from their specificities being highlighted with the catch-all term ‘difficult circumstances’.
At first glance, the difficult circumstances of teaching and learning in classrooms in the developing world such as those we have described do not seem promising territory for the promotion of learner autonomy. With regard to African contexts, it has been suggested (e.g. by Ampiah, 2008) that because of resource challenges and a lack of appropriate and sufficient training for most teachers in rural communities, transmission-oriented ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogies are the norm, rendering the notion of autonomy distant from local realities and, potentially, a culturally alienating one.
Indeed, for those who view the concept of learner autonomy as essentially a European one, the very notion of promoting autonomy in developing countries might appear culturally imperialistic, or even neocolonialist, in inspiration—akin, perhaps, to the kind of inappropriate, paternalistic development initiatives described in Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo’s (2009) Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is Another Way for Africa. Such concerns may have been one reason why, in one of the few articles to consider learner autonomy in relation to an African context, Sonaiya (2002) described it as a form of individualism which was typically western and incompatible with the community-oriented cultures of the Yoruba people.
We now wish to show, though, how the above propositions can be turned on their head. In fact, we shall argue, it is precisely because the teaching and learning circumstances in developing countries tend to be so challenging that engaging and developing learner autonomy can be a pressing priority for participants concerned.
Practical Reasons for Engaging and Developing Autonomy
On a dark, chilly evening in November 1812, the Yorkshire mill owner Joseph Rogerson recorded in his diary: ‘Mr Humphreys at my father’s tonight talking on the best way of establishing a School on the Madras System at Bramley’ (cited in Crump, 1931). Mr Humphreys, the pastor at Bramley chapel, was, like many of his contemporaries, struggling to devise a way to teach ever-increasing numbers of children, as the urban population of England surged. The Madras system that he was thinking of importing into his chapel school may have had its origins in a traditional Tamil form of literacy teaching, where a master would instruct older children in how to draw letters and words in sand, and they would then help younger children to write and pronounce them, thereby enabling far more children to learn to read and write than would be otherwise possible. By 1820 there were over 12,000 schools in England using the Madras system, and the man who popularized it, Andrew Bell, has a tomb in Westminster Abbey.
There are many aspects of this system which today we would find oppressive—Bell’s primary aim after all was ‘instilling principles of religion and morality into the minds of the young’ (1797, p. 6)—but the notion that children might learn more from active collaboration with their (near-)peers than by listening in obedient silence to their teacher was one that impressed early-nineteenth-century educators in Britain. In a chapter in which we argue for the importance of learner autonomy in developing country settings, it is worth remembering that the exchange of educational ideas has a long history and is two-way; in fact, as Thompson (2013) points out, in the globalized twenty-first century, it is ongoing and multidirectional, whether it involves ‘a Nigerian educator recommending presentational strategies to teachers in the UK or a Brazilian practitioner explaining Freirean approaches in China’ (p. 48). Within most global societies there exist diverse, competing agendas for education, and we should not be any more surprised to find evidence of relatively learner-centred
pedagogy being practised in African settings, for example, than we would be to hear a British minister of education advocating the return of more teacher-centred whole-class learning (Department for Education, 2013).
Indeed, as Smith (2002) has previously written, autonomy can take different shapes in different cultures and historical contexts, and ‘teaching students to learn’ is not simply the latest language teaching fashion but can be related to deeper, older educational conceptions and traditions. He cites, for example, Quick (1890, p. 421):
The highest and best teaching is not that which makes the pupils passive recipients of other peoples’ ideas (not to speak of the teaching which conveys mere words without any ideas at all), but that which guides and encourages the pupils in working for themselves and thinking for themselves.
In the history of western education, then, a focus on developing learner autonomy is not as new as is commonly supposed, nor should we be surprised to find cases of teachers outside western countries engaging and/or developing students’ autonomy without having been influenced by the post-1970s ‘learner autonomy movement’.
As the early-nineteenth-century example at the head of this section also shows, in developing country contexts where education is in a rapid state of development and where teachers and physical resources are in short supply (in these respects, England was at the time, after all, the epitome of a ‘developing country’), teachers may actually need to tap into and engage the existing autonomy of students to a greater extent than in better-resourced settings. Indeed, certain educationalists have previously highlighted the particular relevance to large classes in developing country contexts of what we might nowadays recognize as an autonomy-oriented approach. Michael West himself emphasized that:
the larger the class and the more difficult the circumstances, the more important it is to stress learning as the objective. And the higher the elimination [i.e. ‘drop-out’], the more necessary it is to do so: if a pupil has learnt how to learn he can go on learning afterwards. (1960, p. 15)
Thus, engagement of learner autonomy can be seen as an eminently appropriate approach in difficult
circumstances, for example, large classes with diverse student needs (see Smith, 2003) and/or few resources (see Fonseka, 2003). With regard specifically to problems posed by large classes, Zakia Sarwar has emphasized the value of group
work and project-based learning in Pakistan (see Sarwar, 2001; Smith, 2008). Latterly, she explicitly came to ally this approach with the autonomy movement, as has Amritavalli when describing a successful practice of ‘maximising learner autonomy’ by enabling choice of extensive reading materials in the ‘deprived circumstances’ of an Indian primary school (Amritavalli, 2007). As what he calls a ‘rescue solution’ in a situation of lack of printed materials, Sri Lankan educator Gamini Fonseka (2003) also came to theorize from an autonomy perspective his experience of getting children to memorize songs and work with these as a source of language learning input.
As documented and discussed further in Kuchah and Smith (2011), the practical worth of an autonomy-oriented approach is borne out by the experience of one of the authors of this chapter—Kuchah Kuchah—in Cameroon. Sonaiya’s (2002) argument about the incompatibility of autonomy with an African ‘communal aspect of learning’ (cited above) was disproved in this experience, since it was precisely via a collective effort that Kuchah and his students were able to develop autonomous learning as a rescue solution to the challenges they faced, namely, large classes of more than 200 teenagers in temperatures above 46 °C and with almost no textbooks to rely on. Students were enabled to work with learning materials they had helped provide as well as with negotiated pedagogic practices that helped them and their peers to attain learning objectives that were both relevant to them and consistent with the syllabus requirements.
Thus, a number of educators familiar with the difficult
circumstances of classrooms in developing country contexts have, at different times, developed and advocated autonomy-oriented practices as a way to overcome practical difficulties, even though they were not, in most cases, actually inspired by learner autonomy theory. Thus, they were engaged in pedagogies of autonomy though not for autonomy, according to the distinction made by Kuchah and Smith (2011).
It is probable that there are many other such cases, yet to be described and identified, whose documentation would be of great use within the kind of context-sensitive ‘enhancement approach’ to teacher development described in Kuchah (2013), advocated by the Teaching English in Large Classes research and development network (bit.ly/TELCnet-home) and promoted in the current University of Warwick ‘Teacher-research for difficult
circumstances’ impact initiative (warwick.ac.uk/trdc). Along with Kuchah (ibid.), Smith, Padwad and Bullock (forthcoming) provide examples of how stories of success can usefully be shared in a teacher development workshop situation, while Lamb and Wedell (2013) have highlighted the value of capturing and sharing the experiences of what they term ‘inspiring teachers’ in China and Indonesia.
Taken together, these concrete examples constitute a firm argument against the idea that autonomy-oriented pedagogy is inappropriate in developing country contexts or that it is necessarily an imposed western ideal—in fact, we have seen the argument reversed: a pedagogy of autonomy can be very appropriate indeed, precisely because it works with the ‘social
autonomy’ (Holliday, 2003) that learners bring to the classroom. Thus, a pedagogy of autonomy can be viewed as a kind of ‘becoming-appropriate methodology’ par excellence, as Smith (2003) has previously argued.
To be quite clear, we are not advocating any specific form of pedagogy. Subscribing to the contextualist paradigm of educational
reform (Elliott, 2014), which emphasizes the cultural situatedness of all educational practices, we are well aware of the difficulty in transferring teaching approaches from one context to another, and indeed of the long history of failure in the export from the west of ‘learner-centred’ educational approaches (Schweisfurth, 2011). Rather, we are suggesting that autonomy—as the ability to take control of one’s own learning—is an essential characteristic of all successful learners and can be found everywhere if we know how to look. A previous volume (Palfreyman & Smith, 2003) showed how learner autonomy can and does take varied forms in different national, institutional or sociocultural settings, and can be cultivated in diverse institutions and classrooms. As Holliday (2003, 2005) points out, however, it is often missed by educators, especially those looking with western eyes, because it may not be displayed in forms that they recognize (e.g. assertive expression of personal ideas), or in the educational contexts that they expect (e.g. classrooms), nor articulated in the same terms by teachers. Sometimes it can be seen outside the classroom as countering what goes on in the classroom (as in the preceding section), but it can also be tapped into within the classroom by certain educators, as we have illustrated in the present section.
Research Priority 2
There is a need for more research into and sharing of success stories of teaching in low-resource classrooms, to assist in building appropriate metho
dology from the bottom upwards. Cases of successful teaching should be viewed and analysed on their own terms, but can also provide fertile ground for understanding how ‘social a
utonomy’ can be engaged in particular contexts.