A Brief Examination of Autonomy Beyond the Classroom

Response to Autonomy In and Out of Class

Autonomy is a topic that is frequently brought up and discussed among researchers, specifically in the field of second language learning as it is one of the major concerns for the instructors. A successful language acquisition is often dependent on a well-developed autonomy by the learner, and this development not only occurs inside the classroom but also beyond. The article, Autonomy In and Out of Class, by Phil Benson explores a few key issues related to this specific topic; misleading definition of terms in the research, overgeneralizations, and the vague distinction (or relationship) between in-class autonomy and out-of-class autonomy.

Benson starts his article with quotation from John Dewey, which clearly describes his major concern in the field: “…his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside of the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in the school”. In other words, the learner is incapable of taking full advantage of different learning methods in different settings, and rearrange them for his own benefit. A learner requires “a combination of instruction and exposure” in order to develop autonomy that could enable potential success in language acquisition.

In the article, the autonomy is described as “an internal capacity of the learner: the capacity to take charge of, responsibility for, or control over one’s own learning”. This development is not exclusive to a classroom, and there is an important aspect to its development process beyond the classroom as mentioned. Benson, however, notes that “one does not prioritize the other in terms of autonomy”. He also claims that there are three central issues about this particular distinction that need to be addressed.

“Learning Beyond the Classroom and Classroom Research”

It is stated “that research on learning beyond the classroom is concerned with the processes that take place when learners engage in language learning in settings other than the classroom”. Although it is possible to claim that classroom tends to be represented in one particular setting, the learning beyond the classroom occurs in multiple settings, which may or may not have general correlations among them. Benson believes that the singular setting of a classroom is what draws certain researcher to focus on as they conduct their analysis. Some researchers may attempt to distinguish the two fields by specific elements, but Benson makes an important note in the article that “it would be wrong to suggest the two fields can be defined by the presence and absence of teaching” as non-classroom settings may also include an instructor of sorts in a position that could serve as a guidance for the learner.

The classroom research is dependent on the setting itself. The interest of the researchers tend to lie “in the nature of classrooms and the kinds of processes they support”. Benson claims, however, that there are certain issues “in the conceptualization of classroom research”. One of them being the unclear definition of classroom. If one were to believe that classroom is simply defined by a gathering of an instructor and learners, then it would cause vagueness in applying a distinction between in-class and out-of-class fields. As it is obvious, online learning is a new but firmly established method that consists of gathering of an instructor and a learner, but it does not necessarily take place inside of a physical room. The other issue is apparently the certain traits of the classroom that are being investigated by the researchers. Benson believes that these particular traits, such as “learning styles and strategies used by different learners”, are not exclusive to the classroom setting. Instead, they could easily be investigated in and out of a class. The construction of the setting do not play a part in these aspects.

“Settings and Modes of Practice”

Here, Benson attempts to focus on two specific aspects on their own. The concept of setting has already been established but it is crucial to understand “the potential that a setting holds for different kinds of activities is a very different thing from the activities themselves”. That notion serves as a reasoning for placing emphasis on mode of practice.

Benson describes mode of practice as “a typical set of routine processes or interactions that deploy the elements of a particular type of setting and are characteristic of it”. He introduces the example of self-access centers and how they function to support that definition. Students have the opportunity to utilize the materials available in self-access centers with or without an instructor at anytime, and that routine process could be observed separately from the setting if needed. It is important to be aware “that any given setting is likely to support a number of
different modes of practice”, which makes certain terms, such as “self-access language learning or classroom learning”, unclear or misleading. Benson believes that this awareness is a key aspect “in dealing with questions about the effectiveness of learning in various settings beyond the classroom”.

“Language Learning in the Everyday World of the Learner”

It is mentioned that there appears to be a general tendency “for researchers to place the classroom at the center of the language learning endeavors of young people”. However, Benson asserts that “ethnographic and biographical investigations of out-of-school learning…show that young people are more literate, in both the traditional and new senses, than they appear to be in the classroom”. This may be due to the freedom that is available to the learner as opposed to the potential limitations of a classroom. If the learner is capable of utilizing that freedom for achieving an autonomous position, the learning possibilities could be endless.

Overall, it is clear to see that the development of autonomy is not exclusive to classroom setting. Instead, it is “the ecology of settings and modes of practices within the lives of language learners as they are lived in local contexts at particular historical moments” that is essential in acquiring it. As Benson suggests, examining the elements of both in-class and out-of-class fields in relation, as well as in contrast, with clear definitions could allow researchers to study autonomy under a better light.

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Benson, P. (2008). Autonomy In and Out of Class. TESOL Symposium on Learner Autonomy: What Does the Future Hold?, 08-19.

Can You Hear My “Voice” Coming from That Paper?

It seems that the topic of voice in writing is a critical one, especially in the field of rhetoric, as I keep reading about it over and over in articles, such as the one assigned for next class, in which it is presented as an ongoing (heated?) debate among literature experts. Even though I keep reading about it, I’ve yet to develop a firm stance on that said topic. I’d like to believe that establishing a voice in writing is crucial in developing a self-identity and individual flare, but at the same time the assertion from its critics about social and cultural influences, perhaps even the parental upbringing, on the writer does make total sense. It’s hard to present a strong rebuttal for it.

The article, Voice in Academic Writing: The Rhetorical Construction of Author Identity in Blind Manuscript Review, presents a study in which the participants review manuscript (as in the title) and analyze a voice in style. In the abstract, it is indicated that “the reviewers’ constructions of the author’s voice are related to their stance toward the author”. It makes me believe in the possibility that voice in writing not only defines the identity of the author, but by doing so, it also allows bias to come into the play. Criticism is obviously an inseparable aspect of literature —which should go without saying. How this criticism is constructed by the receiver is another story. The reader could intentionally overlook or over-dramatize an error simply because they disagree with the position or the attitude of the author toward a certain issue. Thus, it begs the question: “Is implementing a clear voice in one’s writing style contributing or simply detrimental in losing an audience?” I will not pretend to know the answer to it. I would, however, assume that the voice of the author could allow for a more selective, even exclusive, range of audience. Whether that’s a good thing or not is totally up to the author, I suppose.

Even though it was probably for a different class, I’ve already gone over the basics about the topic in one of my previous posts —since it can be easily accessed, I do not intend to simply copy-and-paste them here. Though, I’d like to spotlight two particular notions presented in the article; one being the “ideology of individualism” suggested by Ramanathan and Atkinson (1999), and the other being the “notion of collective or social voices” suggested by Matsuda (2001). Simply put, the concept of individualism is the moral stance and political philosophy of the author, along with the belief that these certain aspects are very important to establish in the writing. Going back to the reflection above, this ideology is the exact concern that I tend to have in relation to the topic of voice. I can’t help but contemplate if one establishes a uniqueness to their writing style or merely making themselves a target in the eyes of those who oppose their stance. I guess, it is not so far-fetched to believe that the intention of the author could very well be positioning himself/herself as the target of criticism as a way to counter and assert their ideological position in “the world” of literacy. In (somewhat) contrast, the concept of collective voice can be defined as being a representative voice for a specific community. In that case, the author claims the leadership position and assert notions in the benefit of the community represented. In comparison, this particular approach could place the author in a much stronger position, but at the same time one can’t help but wonder if the expected uniqueness in voice is still preservable? Both of these notions introduce many intriguing elements to ponder upon.

The article also mentions possible limitations when it comes to implementing a voice in writing assignments. The biggest obstacle is apparently being unfamiliar with the topic of the assignment that could potentially not only limit but also prevent the implementation of voice completely. The example given in the article is interesting. Apparently, a group of Chinese students were tasked with writing an argumentative essay for the following statement: “Canada should abandon its system of allowing refugees and family-class immigrants (e.g., retired parents) into the country since such new arrivals were a drain on the economy”. Since these students were academically successful and be considered “strong contributors to the economy rather than ‘a drain’”, they apparently struggled with the assignment. In my opinion, this particular argument for the limitation falls a little short of convincing. I wouldn’t necessarily call it “a weak argument”, but it isn’t a strong or compelling one either. It appears to be an exception at best, and exceptions should not be considered the norm. I would even make the argument that the statement that the assignment demands students to present a response to is specifically designed in order to thwart the capabilities of the writers. Is manipulation a good method of research? I’d like to think not. Another limitation is apparently the use of rubric in grading the written assignment. This was also something that I talked about in a previous blog post. The design of the rubric, and how it is utilized by the grader, is crucial in understanding of its potential limitations. If I recall, John Bean had proposed in one of his articles that the grader could utilize the rubric as a supportive element; make a personal decision on the grade, utilize the rubric that fits the conditions of the assignment, and then compare the two results for an adjusted outcome. I could see this method being able to overcome “the obstacle” issue of rubric-based grading on the voice aspect. So, are there limitations to the voice in writing? Sure, but the ones introduced here seem… weak —if that makes sense.

As the authors themselves admit repeatedly, the sample size introduced in the research is too small to make any strong claim on the issue. There are countless possibilities, and they only seem the be taking the first step and opening the door to other researchers to continue working on it. I wonder if I could do the same for my own research proposal(?). It actually sounds pretty efficient way to present it at the end, since we won’t be actually conducting the research and I won’t be able to put forth any concrete samples. Instead of pretending that it’s a full research, I might as well play it safe and revise the draft in the way this particular article is presented as. Speaking of being inspired by the article, another thing I noticed is the complete objectivity the authors seem to utilize in their approach. Neither of them tend to take a firm stance on the issue, but rather display all the previously done analysis on it as it is. This seems to be the best way to present my own research as it could go either way. Overall, it was a great article to read.

P.S.- This article also has phone numbers at the bottom. I really hope that it’s not a requirement for researchers in general. If so, I refuse to conduct an actual research in the future… Did I say the same thing in my previous post? Good. Repetition is key in establishing a firm ideal (…right?)

 

Reference:

Matsuda, P. K. and Tardy, C. M. (2007). Voice in Academic Writing: The Rhetorical Construction of Author Identity in Blind Manuscript Review. English for Specific Purposes, 26, (2007), 235-249.

Going Down the Memory Lane —Again

Our assigned article for the next week was EFL Writers’ Social Networks: Impact on Advanced Academic Literacy Development by Orna Ferenz. Simply by looking at the title, and the abstract, I’m thinking that perhaps I should’ve presented this article instead. It was an interesting read with a topic (somewhat) in relation with what I’m working on for the proposal. Before I get into the specifics, I have to ask, am I the only one who found it odd seeing a telephone number at the bottom of the page? That’s real confidence, I gotta tell’ya! Anyone who disagrees with the article can simply call the author and have an oral dispute… for hours if needed! I’m actually tempted to do it myself —if only I disagreed with the claim and the research results on the paper.

One of the reasons why I found the article interesting is because it reminded me of my own background. It delves into the notion that social range and attitude toward target language influence the language acquisition. That is something not only I personally experienced but also observed from my classmates, as well as my students in ESL classes. Starting off with the EFL angle, I’d like to recall some of my classmates from the first year of college which took place overseas. If anyone is wondering the difference between ESL and EFL, it is simply based on the setting; second-language learners in the United States (or Canada) are referred to as ESL learners and the ones overseas are referred to as EFL learners. Thus, the disadvantage the EFL students tend to have is being unable to exercise the target language skills outside of school setting, or in very limited capacity at best. That unfortunately slows down their progress in language acquisition significantly.

I might’ve mentioned previously (in another blog post) that I had lived in Canada for six years and attended high school there. Contrast to what I’ve mentioned above, I was able to develop a strong aptitude in speaking English as the opportunities were obviously endless in a country where it was the first language. Once I was back in my home country, that aspect became the thing that a lot of people would notice about me immediately, especially in education settings. When I enrolled in TESOL program in college, which was a Dual-Diploma program —and as I’ve mentioned the first year took place overseas, I noticed that my classmates struggled with the productive skills of English. Hence, I suggested that we should speak in English whenever we spent time together, even outside of campus. The idea was developing a social network in which we could practice speaking, which was not something readily available to them. I figured that I could also continue to keep practicing and keep my proficiency intact. So, it was a win-win (in theory). Oddly enough, most of our professors were reluctant to exercise speaking as I assume they were afraid to reveal that they lacked the aptitude. On paper, everybody is a “master” of a target language but unfortunately speaking is another issue. I should also mention that the reluctance of some of my classmates (as well as my future students) in that social network I attempted to create is what gave me the idea for my research proposal.

The attitude of my classmates toward the target language (English), as one would guess, varied from each other. I remember that some of them were actually interested in the culture and wished to learn everything about the language, including non-academic aspects of it. They were the most enthusiastic about that whole social network thing we were doing. Others were interested in English for professional reasons and it was reflected on their essays as they were… too professional? I don’t know why, but I personally find “over-professional” papers too dense to read, and tend to avoid them. Though, it’s probably not a good thing. There were also some that didn’t care all that much about the language learning thing —why they were even enrolled in the program was a mystery to me. It was still interesting to observe it all with an outsider perspective.

The article also emphasized the process of writing and how EFL learners approach that process. Going back to that TESOL program, I remember that some of my classmates were simply translating what they were able to write in their own language. I’d often attempt to encourage them to write their essays fully in English as the translation process was a limiting aspect in their potentials. They’d often respond by saying that it was just a homework, and they didn’t feel the need to engross themselves in it as much. Of course, that sort of “strategy” in process doesn’t necessarily mean the learner is failing. As indicated in the article, it could be decision made by the learner in relation to their identity in academic settings. I personally wouldn’t encourage it, though. It might be effective to a degree for an EFL student but once the setting is shifted, and the learner becomes an ESL learner, the translation process would become a hindrance too difficult to overcome. My classmates from the first year, who had managed to make it to the second year (and the third) that took place here, at State University of New York, would reveal to me that small social network we had conducted helped them tremendously, even in writing.

I could also talk about my students… but this post is getting a bit too long, so I’ll wrap it up here. Similar to some other articles that I’ve read about second-language acquisition, once again, I’m taken down to memory lane. I’d like to say that examining research article with a similar thesis as the proposal that I’m working on was a great exercise but unfortunately it seemed to focus on presenting the results of the research rather than the topic at hand, which I won’t get a chance to conduct (only in theory). Nevertheless, Ferenz’s article was definitely an interesting read. I’m actually curios to see what kind of class that we’re going to have next week as I assume this particular topic cannot cover the entirety of it. Is there such a thing as a surprise topic? We shall see.

 

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Ferenz, O. (2005). EFL Writers’ Social Networks: Impact on Advanced Academic Literacy Development. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Vol. 4, 339–351.

Imagining a Research that Could Be

It looks like we’re getting real close to the end of the semester. Once you start working on your final project for the course, you get that feeling of “we’re almost at the end” —I don’t really know how else to describe it. I’m also not so sure if I should be sentimental or overjoyed about that prospect. I guess, I’d know for sure after I hand in the final draft of my research proposal. For now… let’s simply trudge on.

So, I attempted to write the first draft based on the research question that I was previously working on, which I have already mentioned it in my other posts, and not much has changed —at least for the time being. Depending on the feedback, I might do some tweaks (which I also mentioned). In our last class, we briefly went over our research questions. At the time, I had an additional detail in my question and it related to being able to develop autonomy without any help. However, after reading some of my resources (PDF articles), as well as hearing the suggestion made by Dr, Nelson in the class, I’ve decided to drop it. I feared that it could potentially cause a contradiction without me realizing it —something that may still be possible to discover on my paper. I think, I have at least a foundation of sorts to continue on, though.

The biggest challenge was deciding on what sort of task or assignment to use as a means to show my claim/theory. Since the research questions involved development of autonomy, I thought writing assignments could be a good choice. As indicated by many experts (who shall not be named), the writing skill is the most difficult to obtain specifically for non-native students. I figured that it’d particularly require the highest level of autonomy for the student to produce a successfully written paper. Hence, it’d allow the research to be conducted with a proper(?) exercise as it specifically attempts to observe the development of autonomy.

The overall proposal is about discovering a correlation between the learner’s awareness of ineptitude and self-direction. As we were tasked to find a gap in the field, I discovered (or merely assumed) that most research papers either ignored that connection or analyzed it under a positive light. My position is that if the learner is conscious of his or her inability, such as low proficiency level in a target language, then the potential fear of failure could be detrimental in becoming an autonomous learner. Of course, that is simply my assumption for the time being and that I could be totally wrong. Then again, isn’t that the point of conducting research in the first place? Speaking of ‘fear of failure’… I’m glad that we’re not actually conducting a research but rather simply writing a proposal. If I may be frank, I don’t have enough confidence in my abilities to produce a successful research result to prove that theory I’ve put forth above —should I have revealed that here? Oh, well.

Going back to the writing task, I’ve chosen to utilize(?) Flower and Hayes’ writing model for the supposed research. I’m planning on collecting data by tasking learners to write essays in disciplinary fields. The idea is that the selected participants have low proficiency level, which is determined by an examination but without revealing its results, and some of them have serious concerns. Basically, two groups of learners categorized as unconscious incompetents and conscious incompetents respectively. Their task is writing an essay through drafts, and at each draft they are asked to conduct peer review with learners who posses slightly higher proficiency level. At the end of the task duration, each student would be evaluated and interviewed. The interview questions would specifically attempt to determine if the learner managed to develop a general autonomy; asking “how was the overall process”, “if there were any detriments, what were they?”, “how did you feel during the peer-evaluation sessions?”, “any cause for reluctance from your point, and if so, what were the reasons?” …etc. So, in a way, the research is mixed methods as it collects both quantitative and qualitative data. I believe it falls into a case study (maybe?). I’d like to say that it’s a phenomenology method but the phenomenon itself is what the research is trying to determine, so… would that still count? I’m not quite sure.

I believe that is all for the first draft of the proposal. As I’ve mentioned, things could easily change going forward, but I think I’m happy with the way it turned out… for now. I’m “looking forward” to the feedback that I’m going to get in our upcoming class.