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- Learner Autonomy in a South Korean Educational Context: An Experiment Using Action Research
Learner Autonomy in a South Korean Educational Context: An Experiment Using Action Research
Andrew Griffiths is a teacher trainer for the Daejeon Educational Training Institute in South Korea. He holds an MA in TESOL and has been teaching for almost 11 years. He specializes in student-centered learning and methods of delivering effective classroom English.
This article shows the results of an action research experiment where South Korean adult learners were allotted time during their class to participate in proactive learner autonomy, following Littlewood’s model of proactive and reactive autonomies (Littlewood, 1999). The origin of the experiment was a desire to increase participation in the class by providing more ownership of content. It was theorized that if participation increased, overall speaking ability might follow. However, there were concerns about the appropriateness of introducing proactive learner autonomy in an East Asian learning context. Following observation and learner feedback, it was concluded that although learner speaking ability had improved, it was inconclusive as to whether this was due to the increased participation rates or other factors such as the individualization of the monitoring and guidance offered during the experiment. Nonetheless, proactive learner autonomy did not appear to be pedagogically inappropriate to the learners, and was indeed actively embraced by them throughout the experiment.
This article will detail an experiment using action research where autonomous learning was introduced on an English course for adult learners. The aim of the experiment was to engender a greater sense of ownership of the speaking content in order to increase participation in class to gain a greater educational benefit for the participants. This report will consider the implications of introducing learner autonomy in an East Asian educational context before describing the planning and implementation of the activity. Observations, learner feedback, and consequent improvements to the activity will then be detailed, along with reflection on whether autonomy might be judged as appropriate for this specific learning context.
What is Learner Autonomy?
A classic definition of learner autonomy is that it is ‘the ability to take charge of one’s learning’ (Holec, 1981, in Palfreyman, 2003). A capacity for autonomy should be seen as a personal quality the learner can develop rather than a separate feature of the educational environment (Benson, 2006, Benson, 2011). Indeed, successful autonomous learners have been described as those that have ‘assumed responsibility for determining the purpose, content, rhythm, and method of learning’ as well as monitoring and evaluating their work (Holec, 1981, in Benson, 2007).
One charge brought against learner autonomy is that it is a ‘western’ construct (Palfreyman, 2003, Smith, 2008). In an East Asian context there has been debate as to whether learner autonomy is appropriate for learners since their educational cultures are defined as being typically authority-driven and teacher centered (Littlewood, 1999, Sakai et al, 2008). However, this picture lacks nuance; aside from the dangers of over-generalization and stereotyping (Littlewood, 1999), it is also noteworthy that many studies have revealed that learners in East Asian educational contexts have enjoyed experiencing learner autonomy (Benson, 2007, Sakai et al, 2008).
What is Action Research?
Action research is carried out mainly by teachers (Nunan, 1992) with the research questions arising directly from that teacher’s challenges and concerns in the classroom (Crookes, 1993). It aims at producing immediate solutions via direct intervention in classroom practice (Richards, 2003), with those interventions being observed and analyzed for usefulness before modifying them for improvements (Crookes, 1993).
In this experiment I followed the format laid out by Burns (Burns, 2010):
- The Planning Stage: Identifying a problem and planning a potential solution.
- The Action Stage: Implementing the proposed solution.
- The Observation Stage: Observing the efficacy of the proposed solution.
- The Reflection Stage: Reflecting on the successes of the proposed solution and formulating a new plan of action if necessary.
(From Burns, 2010, adapted from Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988).
Action research can be cyclical in nature (Crookes, 1993); this was useful to me as this experiment took place over two separate courses, and feedback gathered from the first course helped create an improved action plan for the second course.
One criticism of action research is that it is a context-dependent form of research and so making generalizations about any research findings beyond the actual context itself is problematic (Richards, 2003). However, I required results that would provide the most benefit to my learners, and was less concerned with the ability to generalize beyond my teaching situation. As such, action research was the most appropriate option for me.
The Planning Stage: The Context, the Problem, and the Proposed Solution
The teaching context was an in-service training program designed for public (state) school English teachers in South Korea. All teacher trainees (henceforth ‘trainees’) on the program could safely be placed between the B1-B2 levels on the CEFR. One of the goals of the program is to increase the overall English communicative competence of the teachers. My role as a teacher trainer was to plan and deliver the speaking component of the course – approximately 25% of the course (90 hours across six months).
When reflecting on my classes, I found that despite using a myriad of generally successful student-centered activities, there were still occasions where some trainees did not participate fully in my classes. This led me to consider whether this reticence might originate from a lack of ownership regarding their learning. One specific trainee illustrates the issue. After my classes, she would almost always open a grammar book and began studying in earnest during her free time. She explained that although she enjoyed my classes, what she really desired was to utilize more complex grammatical points in her speaking – something that was not a large component of my course. This forced me to reflect on how, despite my attempts at designing an engaging curriculum, the ownership of the content was ultimately mine and this had impacted on her participation to the extent she was willing to use her free time to learn the way that she wanted. This concerned me, as I felt the lack of participation would negatively impact the overall educational benefit she (as well as other trainees in similar situations) would gain from my classes.
I theorized that if I could give some ownership of the learning content to the trainees, I could increase their participation; and if I could increase their participation, then I would also hopefully increase their educational benefit from my classes. Thus I decided to introduce a form of learner autonomy into my classroom, using Littlewood’s models of reactive and proactive autonomy (Littlewood, 1999). Reactive autonomy is where a goal for learning is set by the teacher and the learners work towards that goal with autonomy, and proactive autonomy is where the goal itself is dictated by the learners as well as the method in working towards that goal. I chose to introduce an activity centered around proactive autonomy for a certain period of each my classes.
However, given previous concerns with learner autonomy in East Asian contexts I also needed to consider whether such autonomy would even be appropriate for my trainees, let alone beneficial. I thus formulated the following question to underpin the action research and its associated intervention: To what extent is proactive autonomy pedagogically appropriate and / or educationally beneficial to my trainees?
I decided to measure the level of pedagogical appropriateness through observations of their responses and reactions to being placed in an autonomous learning situation and I chose to measure the educational benefit through observations of their speaking output in terms of their quantity of participation and in their quality of output. I also decided to combine these observations with feedback from the trainees following the advice offered by Burns (Burns, 2010) to employ triangulation as a way of increasing objectivity in understanding the efficiency of the action research intervention. I elicited feedback twice, both times after each course, in order to assist me in improving subsequent incarnations of PD time for future trainees and so to create a cyclical effect in the action research and subsequent interventions.
The Action Stage: Implementing the Proposed Solution
The proposed solution, an activity named ‘PD time’ (PD - Personal Development) was introduced approximately one month into the course, giving trainees a chance to become comfortable with the learning environment and with each other. A special class was then dedicated to introducing PD time. The following features of PD time were described to the trainees:
- 30 minutes in every class led by me (with one class being typically 100 minutes long) would be set aside for PD time, totaling approximately 25 hours over the whole course.
- Trainees could choose to study whatever aspect of English they wished to during this time, and that this would be their ‘PD time project’. I would have no input into choosing the topic of study and the decision would be the trainee’s alone. The only stipulation was that it related to the skill that I teach (speaking).
- PD time projects would not be graded, but they would be regularly monitored by me.
- Trainees could work alone or in a group, so long as all members of that group freely consented to participate to working in that group.
- Since the large number of projects meant it would not be possible to constantly supervise the trainees, the responsibility for the success or failure of a trainee’s PD time project was theirs alone.
It was stressed to the trainees that I was giving them total ownership and control over their learning and that PD time was fundamentally different to the rest of my curriculum. I also addressed the fact that it might be a little challenging to undertake at the outset. The option of having groups in PD time was also left open; it was felt that this would be sensitive to the East Asian cultural context, which has been hypothesized to value group work over solitary forms of studying (Benson, 2007).
Trainees were given a questionnaire which they filled out privately. The questionnaire asked what they would like to study and whether they would prefer to work alone or in a group. Once finished, they confidentially discussed their choices with me and agreed on a goal that they would work towards within their project. If they wished to work in a group, I would suggest some other trainees that they might wish to work with, but stressed that these suggestions were not mandatory. After collecting all responses and having discussed each trainee’s goals, the trainees arranged themselves freely into groups or began working on their PD time project alone; where possible, different PD time projects were allotted different rooms to work in.
While PD time went on, I usually spent time going from project to project; sometimes briefly visiting and checking each project in the 30 minute slot, and at other times spending an entire 30-minute period with one project when necessary. I took on a number of roles during PD time; listener, advisor, facilitator, or motivator. However, one role I was wary of was being an evaluator. When a group or solo project asked me to assess their work, my first question was always: what did you think of it? This was done to allow the trainees greater ownership of their speaking.
Many interesting PD time projects emerged. A selection from previous courses illustrates some examples:
- A group of middle-aged mothers who focused on their fluency through discussion about their children and ‘family lives’ in English. This group rarely asked me for assistance except with using vocabulary that they were unsure of.
- A group of trainees who practiced working on their accuracy together by recording themselves in free conversation and before listening back with me to review and assess their work together.
- A trainee who worked alone and made her own speeches on topics that interested her, such as feminism and the #metoo movement.
Tracking sheets were used to keep a record of the work that was being done: it was not easy to keep track of multiple projects, each with their own problems, successes, questions and hiccups that naturally occurred. This also allowed me to keep records of my reflections on the successes of PD time, which formed a significant part of the data gathered for the research.
The Observation Stage: Teacher Observations and Learner Feedback to PD time
The activity took place twice over a 12-month period between 2017-2018, comprising two training courses lasting six months each with approximately 40 trainees overall. Teacher observations on activities were ongoing throughout the life of the activity, while the trainee feedback was gathered twice, in both cases at the end of each six-month course.
In terms of the teacher observations on PD time, I noticed several themes (highlighted in bold). The first was that trainees experienced a number of challenges at the outset of PD time, including uncertainty as to how to proceed. For example, after initializing the first PD time, I spent most of the first week having to work closely with many groups to get them ‘on track’ and often had to explain again the rationale behind doing PD time. This was especially noticeable in the first course, and as a result I provided more support at the outset in the second course. Initially I felt concerned that this might indicate that such proactive learner autonomy might be pedagogically inappropriate; however another pattern I noticed was that once they were settled into their PD time programs, the trainees found a lot of enjoyment in PD time; for example during the course a number of trainees verbally told me that PD time was their favorite part of the speaking class because they could work autonomously on their own projects. To obtain further information, I adapted my trainee feedback questions to more thoroughly understand what they enjoyed about PD time (see question 3 below).
I also noticed improvements in the quality of speaking from many trainees. For example, many trainees who chose to focus on improving their public speaking skills appeared noticeably more polished and confident when making presentations in other parts of the course in comparison to other trainees. Finally, I observed very high participation from the trainees; in almost all cases trainees stayed on task even without my being physically present; this level of participation was almost always greater than what was achieved during the main classroom activities.
One issue that continued throughout both generations of PD time was a possible lack of autonomy. For example, one group would often have a list of questions about their work written down for me and would wait for my assistance before proceeding. This led me to wonder exactly how autonomously some trainees actually were – were they truly working under their own volition, or were they just working alone waiting for the trainer to come and assist them? To help clarify the issue, I adapted my trainee feedback questions to help elucidate this matter (see question 2 below).
When obtaining trainee feedback, it was stressed that it was voluntary, anonymous and unconnected with any grading for the course. The trainees were encouraged to respond in Korean in they preferred. The survey, administered online, consisted of a combination of quantitative and qualitative questions which I then analyzed and, in the case of the qualitative questions, coded into emergent themes and patterns using an emic approach. After my initial analysis, I asked a colleague to inspect the data and perform the same analysis to confirm, refute or augment my findings. In total approximately 62% of trainees responded over the two courses. The questions that were asked were as follows:
Question given to trainees:
Before the course, did you have any experiences of working freely on your own personal project in an educational environment? (Quantitative data elicited. Options for answers: Done many times, done few times, never done before, other (please specify))
Establishing the learning background for my learners.
How did you feel about working without the trainer’s close guidance? (qualitative data elicited)
Clarifying issues found in observations and understanding extent of pedagogical appropriateness.
What was good about PD time? (qualitative data elicited)
Clarifying the nature of participants’ enjoyment of PD time and understanding extent of pedagogical appropriateness and / or educational benefit.
What could have been better? (qualitative data elicited)
Understanding extent of pedagogical appropriateness and / or educational benefit.
Did you feel like PD time helped you as a learner? (Quantitative data elicited. Options for answers: Definitely yes, mostly yes, neither yes or no, mostly no, definitely no, other (please specify))
Understanding extent of educational benefit.
The response from each group to the first question indicated that the experience of being allowed to work on their own autonomous project was overwhelmingly new: over 70% of respondents in each course indicated they had never before experienced it. This provided valuable background information for understanding their responses, in particular to their responses at the beginning of the activity: in the first generation a strong emergent theme was that many respondents reported challenges at the outset of PD time:
“At first it was hard…” (Trainee, first PD time course)
As such, the second course’s introduction of PD time incorporated a greater number of best practice examples as well as a longer introductory period in order to explain the rationale and method of doing PD time. However the theme remained persistent, albeit to a considerably weaker extent, even throughout the second course:
“When trainees have to choose their own topic of PD time, it would be better to let them have several example topics…” (Trainee, second PD time course)
Another noticeable motif in the first course was the need for better monitoring, which inversely reflected my concerns that the trainees were not learning autonomously and were continuing to rely on me:
“It would be better if there were more guidance…” (Trainee, first PD time course)
Despite my concerns about the lack of autonomy, it was of course unjustifiable to place my pedagogical curiosities above my trainees’ learning, and so I attempted to address these issues in the second course of PD time by being more consistent with my monitoring and by providing more detailed guidance when doing so. As a consequence of adapting the intervention, a new theme of perception of the usefulness of the monitoring and feedback emerged in the second generation:
“You always gave me specific feedbacks and comments. It really helped me.” (Trainee, second PD time course)
However, despite my fears that my increased monitoring would lessen their capacity to work autonomously, one of the most prominent patterns that emerged in the second course was of the guidance and monitoring augmenting autonomy rather than detracting from it. When questioned on what they enjoyed about the PD time, responses included:
“I felt comfortable because I could control my learning depending on my needs. But sometimes I lost my way. Several checkups with my trainer helped me to find the right way.” (Trainee, second PD time course)
Furthermore, many trainees reported that they found the experience of doing PD time a liberating one: when asking trainees what was good about the activity, a strong recurrent theme was the notion of freedom and independence in learning:
“Feel free and could feel trainer trust me as an independent learner” (Trainee, first PD time course)
As well as helping to clarify the question of how genuinely autonomously the trainees were learning, these specific sections of feedback tasked with identifying the positive aspects of the activity also supported my own observations which showed that the origins of the trainees’ enjoyment in PD time was located in the freedom to manage and direct their own learning. The trainee feedback also supported my observations regarding improvements in the quality of speaking, with over 80% of trainees across both generations reporting that PD time either mostly or definitely helped them improve as speakers.
The Reflection Stage: Tentative Verdicts
The road to proactive autonomy has not been without considerable challenges: there was a great need to provide support and scaffolding for the activity at the outset as well as a need to provide close monitoring and support throughout the act of autonomy.
Nonetheless, both my observations and the trainee feedback indicated that ultimately there was a very positive reception to the high levels of freedom and independence afforded them in learning. It is reasonable to suggest that this positive reaction could be connected to the higher levels of participation in speaking that I observed during PD time – that, in other words, since they enjoyed doing it, they decided to participate more. In addition, both observation and feedback indicated that trainees perceived the PD time to have appreciable educational benefits for them as speakers.
However, we must enquire as to the origins of these educational benefits: were they in the greater participation that I observed, or were they in the improved monitoring and guidance provided - or perhaps both? While both courses reported educational benefits, including the first course where the monitoring and guidance was insufficient, this does not necessarily mean we can conclude that the increased participation alone caused the gains. My initial thesis that increased participation could lead to greater educational benefits therefore remains unproven. Yet this does not weaken the proposal that proactive learner autonomy per se may be inappropriate or unbeneficial in this context, as both participation and increased individualization in guidance and monitoring were natural consequences of allowing my trainees to dictate the content of their learning in an autonomous fashion. In short, the educational benefit has come from some aspect of proactive autonomy – possibly from where I theorized it would come from, and possibly not. Whether or not I have made mistakes in my conjectures, however, I remain undeterred: my trainees’ experiences of autonomy appears to have left them with a profit in learning they would have otherwise missed, and this was always my ultimate goal as a teacher. We can argue, then, that in this specific educational context proactive learner autonomy could be judged as both pedagogically appropriate and educationally beneficial.
Conclusion and future directions
There are many limitations to the research, namely its difficulty in making generalizations beyond the specific learning context, as well as understanding more concretely the sources of the posited educational benefits. The research has also yielded a great deal of information that has fed into improvements in the activity on subsequent courses. One recent improvement in terms of monitoring and guidance is an addition of a monthly ‘health check’ where each project is encouraged to reflect on its successes and challenges and to implement any amendments to their project that they wish to make.
From a personal perspective, watching the trainees grow in various different directions has been an extraordinarily rewarding one. One example sticks in my mind of a trainee who said ‘I want to tell stories with my voice and the way I speak’ and subsequently worked on her ability to express emotion and utilize prosody with her voice to effectively communicate as a speaker. At the end of the course, she concluded her PD time by telling me that she was now ‘a speaker who had finally found her voice’. As a teacher tasked with guiding people to speak more skillfully, this represented a destination at which I hope all my trainees are able to one day arrive.
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