EFL 4 Digital Natives Part V: Accentuate Autonomy

autonomy31When I was about 12 years old, on those weekend afternoons when it was too cold or wet to play outside, I would pass the time by dipping randomly into a volume of my father’s encyclopedia and reading any entry on the page that caught my imagination. There was no method or logic to it, no pedagogical “thread” I was following, but I think I learned more on those quiet winter Sunday afternoons than in all my middle school classes.  No doubt had the exercise been imposed on me (“..and now look up The Great Depression!”) my recollections (and retention) would no doubt be different today.

Today’s digital natives have the equivalent of thousands upon thousands of encyclopedias available to them, not in volumes on a shelf but in terabits at the edge of their fingertips. They know the ease with which they can access knowledge; and they value the serendipitous pleasure of stumbling upon items of information or entertainment over the course of a seemingly aimless browsing session, whether scanning videos on YouTube, seeing what they people they “follow” are tweeting, or glancing at their friends’ wall posts on Facebook. News items, movie clips, bloopers, music videos, jokes, personal photographs, quotes, poll results: all of this comes at them, all the time, from all directions. But far from being confused by this avalanche of input, they quickly learn how to construct their personalized filters, both technical and mental, and to make sense of these myriad digital streams according to their own interests and values.

Our general approach to education, however — including language instruction – is still pretty much is based on a linear model, one exercise / page / chapter / level following the previous one, marching on in a neat, organized, sequential universe imposed from above and bearing no resemblance to the real, inter-connected, messy and incredibly varied world inhabited by our learners. By and large, if you are a language learner today you continue to be “assessed,” you are “started off” at a level someone believes you should begin at; and from there on in your are literally railroaded on your way to an educational “destination.” All aboard, we reach the next station in three chapters.

Is this the best we can do? Do children and teens learn anything else this way, be it sports, games, gadgets or how to achieve increasing sophistication in their L1 communication? We know by now that they don’t read sequential instructions (or any instructions for that matter), that they get to grips with anything new essentially by futzing around with it until they get the hang of it. Because they can. Because the nature of the interaction with the new subject allows them to address the challenge from whatever starting point suits them best, at their own pace, in the sequence that works best for them as individuals. By learning-by-doing, they remember more of what they learn and thus they achieve proficiency faster. And this freedom to make mistakes, to experiment, to find their own way to their own desired end-point, is what motivates them to keep trying new things and to keep learning about the world around them.


We should bear in mind that there is a very good reason as to why these digital natives prefer autonomy and DIY as an educational method: they understand that the future can no longer be planned, and nor can the narrow skills required for that future be predicted. This generation has seen, and continues to see, the world change around them at breathtaking speed: business models and financial systems becoming more volatile, more uncertain; technologies within their life-to-date experience disappearing almost overnight (“What’s e-mail?”) with new ones taking their place just as rapidly; elders – fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles – suddenly ejected from their lifetime jobs with big corporations; and new global superpowers just yesterday considered “developing nations” suddenly dominating world politics and economics. The digital native is no fool: he or she knows that the only way to stay ahead of the curve is to absorb everything that’s new, see if it sticks, and get to grips with it quickly if it does. No teacher can do that for them, they have to do it themselves: they have to learn autonomously.

Researchers like Ablard and Lipschultz; Corno and Mandinach; Risenberg and Zimmerman; Zhang and Li; and above all Philip Benson (his 2001 work Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning is a recommended read) have explored the relationship between learner autonomy and language proficiency, coming down pretty firmly on the side of a positive correlation. Although autonomy in the field of language learning is habitually sub-categorized into concepts like setting goals, self-reflection, identity, and self-assessment, with respect to this generation of learners — those born after 1990 — we need to put freedom and choice first and foremost, for these are core values they have been brought up to seek and to expect.

For the past few months, in connection with another project, I’ve been tracking Italian students on Twitter who happen to mention the subject of English in their tweets. And every day, I see dozens of messages shouted out to the world to the effect that for these learners, most between the ages of 15 and 20, English is a vehicle to freedom – freedom to travel, to understand popular culture, to work abroad and to make friends from around the world. At the same time, they employ freedom in a spontaneous, unstructured way to accelerate their learning of the language. They download (mostly illegally) US television series so they can watch them in the original English; they seek Facebook and Twitter friends with whom they can practice their English; and they work collectively to decrypt the lyrics of songs by Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers, fully aware that in doing so they are improving their English language skills. In their tweets about learning English, they mention employing just about any tactic other than attending class and learning through traditional learning materials. No doubt at least some of these kids are the very same ones who lurk at the back of the classroom, seemingly disengaged and staring off into space, the very antithesis of the “autonomous learner” according to our traditional understanding of the term.

Putting autonomy-defined-as-freedom at the heart of our educational approach to teens and young adult language learners is not to belittle or devalue the role of the teacher in encouraging natural curiosity and educational self-reliance: on the contrary. The teacher’s challenge is not to hide behind a textbook or “teaching approach,” but rather to use it, at best, as a “home base” from which to venture forth as often as possible to explore the forests, deserts, and mountain ranges of possible inputs together with his or her learners, and above all to encourage in the learner a love of learning, which will, in some learners at least, itself lead to greater autonomy which in turn can have a beneficial effect on self-confidence. My point is that, for this generation, developing that love of learning very much depends on the richness and variety of the materials that they can choose from in order to feel closer to the target language, to make it significant for them, to feel involved with it. And teachers can play a central role in pointing these learners in the right direction in this regard.

As researchers Good and Brophy wrote in 2004, “The simplest way to ensure that people value what they are doing is to maximize their free choice and autonomy.” Today we have, at last, the technological means to provide that free choice and autonomy to a generation that values it almost beyond anything else, including in how they want to learn. To fail to put together the two parts of that equation, no matter what a teacher’s attitude to technology, would be to miss out on a powerful accelerator of motivation and, ultimately, language proficiency.

One Response to EFL 4 Digital Natives Part V: Accentuate Autonomy

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-10-06 | MYAM's Blog

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