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Promoting Autonomy Among Learners

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Acting autonomously does not mean functioning in social isolation. On the contrary, it requires an awareness of one\'s environment, of social dynamics and of the roles one plays and wants to play. It requires individuals to be empowered to manage their lives in meaningful and responsible ways by exercising control over their living and working conditions



The posting below looks at various ways to promote autonomous learning among students.  It is from Chapter 3, The Autonomous Self, in the book, The Learning Self: Understanding the Potential for Transformation, by Mark Tennant. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 [] Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Promoting Autonomy Among Learners


From the point of view of those who are interested in promoting autonomy as an important and valued attribute, there appear to be three fundamental approaches one can take: the humanistic, the liberal, or the critical approach.

The humanistic approach is exemplified by Carl Rogers. Rogers was a clinical psychologist who was primarily concerned with improving the psychological health of his clients. It is to be expected, then, that the educational practices he advocates are adapted from his clinical or therapeutic techniques. Rogers's conception (1983) of the teacher as a facilitator of learning is testimony to this, as can be seen from the way he describes the qualities of a good facilitator:

        • Realness and genuineness: \"When the facilitator is a real person, being what she is, entering into a relationship with the learner

          without presenting a front or façade, she is much more likely to be effective...It means that she is being herself, not denying herself\"

          (pp. 121-122).

        • Prizing, acceptance, and trust: \"Think of it as prizing the learner, prizing her feelings, her opinions, her person. It is a caring

          for the learner. But a non-possessive caring. It is an acceptance of this other individual as a separate person, having worth in her

          own right. It is a basic trust-a belief that this other person is somehow fundamentally trustworthy\" (p. 124).

        • Empathic understanding: \"[This is] the ability to understand the student's reactions from the inside...a sensitive awareness of the way

          the process of education and learning seems to the student\" (p. 129).

Rogers accepts the learner's view of the world as a starting point for learning; the learner's autonomy is, in effect, a pre-given state. The driver of learning is the learner's natural tendency to self-actualize, and thus the facilitator occupies a neutral position. In Roger's view, being a good \"facilitator\" of learning means having empathy with and trust in learners; being genuine with learners; and being open, caring, and nonjudgmental. And so \"learner-centered\" education is characterized by a focus on developing a good teacher-learner relationship in an attempt to understand and meet learners' needs. As Pratt and Nesbit (2000) comment: \"This was an important discursive shift....Now content, and the specification of what was to be learned, was subordinate to the learner's experience and participation....Learners were to be involved in specifying what would be learned, how it would be learned, and what would be an appropriate indication of learning....The learner's experience, as a form of foundational knowledge, replaced the teacher's expertise as the primary compass that guided learning. As a consequence, the primary role of teacher shifted from teacher-as-authority to teacher-as-facilitator\" (p. 120).

This view of learning was taken up in the adult learning literature, with Knowles's promulgation (1978) of the idea of self-directed learning. He argued that teachers of adults should use techniques that build upon adults' natural capacity and desire to plan and conduct their own learning. This means that the role of the teacher becomes that of a facilitator of learning-of one who assists learners in formulating goals and objectives, locating appropriate resources, planning learning strategies, and evaluating the outcomes of learning. Thus self-directed learning is characterized by the mastery of a set of techniques and procedures for learning, and the role of the teacher is to help students \"learn how to learn.\" In a group situation the tension in this approach has always been how best to manage the seemingly irreconcilable needs of the group with those of the individuals who make up the group. Every group at some stage infringes on individual autonomy, and therefore a judgment must be made about the relative importance of group as opposed to individual autonomy. This judgment invariably raises issues of power and control, which means that group learning becomes a political site. But such issues are not dealt with in the humanistic approach. Humanistic educators, such as Knowles, have been justly criticized for being too technical and for ignoring both the content (that is, the subject matter) and context of learning.

The liberal tradition is highly focused on content. Although it endorses educational outcomes very similar to those of the humanistic tradition in that it seeks to promote among learners a greater awareness of self and the cultivation of an identity that is independent, rational, autonomous, and coherent and that includes a sense of social responsibility, it advocates a very different route to these outcomes. The good learner is one who, with proper guidance, is brought to apprehend \"the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and shades....[H]ence it is that his education is called 'Liberal.' A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom\" (Newman, 1999, p. 93).

In the liberal tradition the subject of pedagogy is the production of a singular ideal type-the \"educated person\"-toward which one progressively develops through disciplined study and engagement in rational argument. Engaging in disciplined study, of course, means both self-discipline and studying the subject matter and approaches of a particular discipline. It therefore promotes \"subject matter autonomy\" rather than \"general autonomy as a learner.\" Thus the exemplar of the autonomous learner is the person who has developed a critical capacity in a particular subject area. From a teaching point of view the issues are how to approach a subject in a way that will enhance the learner's capacity to think independently in that subject (for example, providing a framework that orients learners to the literature and methods of the discipline, to its conceptual tools, to the problems and issues posed, and to the state of knowledge in the discipline). Also, the learner may need to have an understanding of the historical development of the subject and the controversies within it. Fostering the spirit of and capacity for critical inquiry requires a balance of expert input on substantive content, modeling of the critical thought process, and guidance of learners in developing their ability to understand and analyze the subject matter. This version of promoting autonomy, like the humanistic version, can be challenged for failing to address the social and political contexts of learning. This failure is redressed by the critical approach to teaching and learning.

Encouraging critical reflection is of course a long-held value in education, especially in education for social justice, such as in the work of Freire (1972, 1974) with his concept of \"conscientization\" (see Chapters Four and Seven of this book). Such prominent adult educators as (Brookfield 1995, 2005) and (Mezirow 2000, 2003, 2009) have their own versions of conscientization. For Mezirow it is \"transformative learning,\" which is \"learning that transforms problematic frames of reference-sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)-to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames of reference are better than others because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action\" (Mezirow, 2003, pp. 58-59). Mezirow takes up a central concept in adult education-the idea of the autonomous learner-but it is autonomy forged not in the humanistic tradition but in the critical social theory tradition. This gives it a new complexion: it includes the idea of critical awareness. A mature, autonomous learner is critically aware of his or her needs and is able to make a commitment to learning on the basis of a knowledge of genuine alternatives.

Brookfield (1995, 2005, 2008) has developed critical reflection and critical thinking as the centerpiece of this approach to adult education. In his analysis of Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom he is very explicit about the political nature of critical reflection:

           In using critical reflection as the conceptual hermeneutic through which Mandela's book can be analyzed, I am building specifically

           on my own politicized formulation of critical reflection as the deliberate uncovering and challenging of assumptions concerning power

           and the perpetuation of hegemony. Critical reflection is not just thinking deeply about assumptions; rather, it has a specific

           political purpose. What makes reflection critical is its grounding in the critical theory tradition, a tradition that uses reflection

           to theorize and strategize how to bring about democratic socialism (Brookfield, 2005). Here, reflection's focus is on understanding

           the dynamics of power (and how to manipulate these) and on uncovering (and combating) ruling class hegemony [Brookfield, 2008, p.



Although Brookfield has politicized the idea of critical reflection, his common ground with Mezirow remains. They both emphasize the constraints on learning that originate in the social structure and that become internalized by the learner. Thus they don't accept at face value the beliefs and values of learners-quite the contrary, the whole point of education is, they believe, to challenge accepted beliefs and values. This is what separates theirs from the humanistic point of view. In the critical theory approach the teacher is anything but neutral, always challenging learners' assumptions within a framework that recognizes the power of social forces to shape needs, wants, and desires. Autonomy is not assumed; rather it is something that needs a great deal of work to develop and maintain.

Perhaps the best and most recent attempt to capture the various aspects of autonomy is contained in the final reports of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Definition and Selection of Key Competencies Project (known as the DeSeCo Project), which was established to document the key \"competencies for personal, social and economic well-being\" (OECD, 2003b, p. 5) in the twenty-first century. This project has been closely linked with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is now well entrenched as a global initiative that assesses school-age students' knowledge and skills in the areas of reading, mathematics, science, and problem solving. It was always acknowledged within the Directorate for Education of the OECD that success in life is based on a wider range of competencies than those assessed under PISA, and so the DeSeCo Project was initiated with this in mind. The DeSeCo Project, which was managed by Dominique Rychen (see Rychen and Salganik, 2001), identified three key competencies for a \"successful life\" and a \"well functioning society\" as the abilities to \"interact in socially heterogeneous groups\"; to \"act autonomously\"; and to \"use tools interactively.\" The report expands on the idea of autonomy:

          Acting autonomously does not mean functioning in social isolation. On the contrary, it requires an awareness of one's environment, of

          social dynamics and of the roles one plays and wants to play. It requires individuals to be empowered to manage their lives in

          meaningful and responsible ways by exercising control over their living and working conditions. Individuals must act autonomously in

          order to participate effectively in the development of society and to function well in different spheres of life including the

          workplace, family life and social life. This is because they need to develop independently an identity and to make choices, rather

          than just follow the crowd. In doing so, they need to reflect on their values and on their actions [Organisation for Economic

          Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2003a, p. 14].

An overarching competency is described as follows: \"reflectivity-a critical stance and reflective practice-has been identified as the required competence level to meet the multifaceted demands of modern life in a responsible overall development of critical thinking and a reflective integrated practice based on formal and informal knowledge and experience of life\" (OECD, 2001, p. 4).

In regard to the OECD's conception of autonomy, the group acknowledges the key aspects of autonomy present in the academic literature: the importance of action, the link between autonomy and relatedness, reflectivity, critical thinking, agency, and choice. Autonomy is thus not possible without the sociocultural context in which it is situated and becomes meaningful.

How proponents of both the humanistic and liberal approaches conceive autonomy seriously limits their capacity to develop strategies for educating across difference. Among learners from diverse backgrounds it would be a grave error of judgment to regard autonomy as a shared attribute or even as a desirable goal. This is because the psychological subject of autonomy is the separate, bounded, rational individual who stands outside of history, society, and culture, rather than the emotional, embodied, and historically and culturally embedded individual. However, it is only the latter conception that allows us to connect to and have some dialogue with learners based on their life experiences as members of, say, particular racial or ethnic groups. In the critical approach, autonomy cannot be addressed without a critique of systemic inequality and the language, practices, and structures supporting such inequality. For example, critical race theory, which derives from critical theory but has racism as its central construct, portrays racism as a normal rather than an aberrant state of affairs in the United States. This realization calls for a set of strategies very different from those evident in liberal democracies, which, for example, attempt to make race \"neutral\" or \"irrelevant\" in the interests of equality before the law but fail to restructure institutions and systems (see Closson, 2010). Alfred (2010) supports this view in characterizing the different views of blacks and whites concerning racial inequality and injustice: \"Whites look at matters of racial discrimination with detachment, whereas Blacks view racism in terms of their and their relatives' experiences in past and present encounters with White people\" (p. 205). No doubt this applies to other areas of discrimination and inequality, such as gender, ableness, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. For teachers and policymakers the challenge is to combine critical thinking about systemic inequalities with a willingness to engage with emotion and affect and to be fully present to others' experiences (see Paxton, 2010). If learners adopt such a stance, they too can be said to have developed what may be called a \"critical autonomy.\"


Alfred, M. \"Challenging Racism Through Post-Colonial Discourse: A Critical Approach to Adult Education Pedagogy.\" In V. Sheared et al. (eds.), The Handbook of Race and Adult Education: A Resource for Dialogue on Racism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010, 201-216.

Brookfield, S. D. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 1995.

Brookfield, S. D. The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Brookfield, S. D. \"Radical Questioning on the Long Walk to Freedom: Nelson Mandela and the Practice of Critical Reflection.\" Adult Education Quarterly, 2008, 58(2), 95-109.

Closson, R. \"An Exploration of Critical Race Theory.\" In V. Sheared et al. (eds.), The Handbook of Race and Adult Education: A Resource for Dialogue on Racism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010, 173-186.

Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books, 1972.

Freire. P. Education: The Practice of Freedom. London: Writers and Readers, 1974.

Mezirow, J. \"Learning to Think Like an Adult: Core Concepts of Transformative Theory.\" In J. Mezirow and Associates (eds.), Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 3-34.

Mezirow, J. \"Transformative Learning as Discourse.\" Journal of Transformative Education, 2003, 1(1), 58-63.

Mezirow, J. \"Transformative Learning Theory.\" In J. Mezirow, E. Taylor, and Associates (eds.), Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009, 18-31.

Newman, J. H. The Idea of a University. Washington DC: Regnery Gateway, 1999.

Paxton, D. \"Transforming White Consciousness.\" In V. Sheared et al. (eds.), The Handbook of Race and Adult Education: A Resource for Dialogue on Racism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010, 119-132.

Pratt, D., Nesbit, T. \"Discourses and Cultures of Teaching.\" In A. Wilson and E. Hayes (eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 117-131.

Rogers, C. R. Freedom to Learn for the 80s. Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1983.