A is for Autonomy

23 10 2011

Autonomy is definitely the flavour of the month. As I write, preparations are well underway for next week’s Realizing Autonomy conference in Nagoya, Japan, which, in turn, celebrates the imminent launch of the collection of papers of the same name, edited by Kay Irie and Alison Stewart (and featuring a chapter by me, as it happens).

Also, shortly to be published in the IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG Newsletter is a joint interview with me and Luke Meddings that arose out of the Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona in May, and which draws links between Dogme and the learner autonomy movement. And, on top of this, plans are being finalised for my participation in the Learner Autonomy SIG pre-conference event at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow next March.

That’s a lot of autonomy for one week!

But what I want to talk about here is not learner autonomy so much as teacher autonomy. This was triggered by a lively discussion on the Dogme ELT discussion list last week, about the plausibility of such a thing as a ‘Dogme coursebook’. This in turn precipitated a number of posts attacking coursebooks in general, and, by association, coursebook writers. Uncharacteristically, perhaps, I felt obliged to rally to their defense.

Based on my experience observing classes in a number of developing world contexts, such as Palestine, I argued that, due to a lack of training and support, as well as uncertainty about their own English language skills, coupled with learner and other stakeholder expectations about the role of the teacher, “many teachers feel insecure and disempowered.” For teachers such as these, the coursebook is their lifeline. To suggest that they should abandon coursebooks and engage with the language that emerges from the socializing and communicative needs of “the people in the room” is simply disingenuous.

Classroom in Palestine

A similar argument was made my Ramin Akbari (2008) in a TESOL Quarterly article a short while back, where he argued (with particular reference to the Iranian context, but his argument could apply in any public sector context): “Teachers in many contexts are not different from factory workers in terms of their working hours; in many countries, a typical language teacher works for 8 hours per day, 5 or even 6 days per week… The financial and occupational constraints they work within do not leave them with the time or the willingness to act as iconoclasts and social transformers, roles that will jeopardise their often precarious means of subsistence” (p.646).

In my post to the Dogme list, I suggested that a parallel could be drawn with Abraham Maslow’s (1970) ‘hierarchy of needs’. If you recall, at the bottom of the ‘needs pyramid’ are the basic survival necessities such as food and shelter. A person cannot attend to higher needs until these basic needs have been met. Higher up in the pyramid figure community needs (‘a sense of belonging’) and still higher are self-esteem needs and finally ‘self-actualisation’ . But, at all levels, satisfying one’s needs presupposes that the lower level needs have first been met.

Using this analogy, I argued that teachers, too, need to satisfy lower level needs (such as simply controlling the class) before they can ‘graduate’ to a point where they are less dependent on coursebooks, for example, and better equipped to centre their teaching on the learners (and that’s where the notion of autonomy comes in). “We could argue,” (I wrote), “that dogme is what every teacher might (even should) aspire to, but, achieving this ‘state of grace’ means satisfying – and then outgrowing – the lower level needs first. In some contexts (e.g. small private language schools on the south coast of England) one might hope that this developmental trajectory would be fairly rapid and relatively painless. In others it might take generations”.

This is not to say that a Dogme-style approach to teaching is necessarily ‘late-acquired’, i.e. a prerogative of only very experienced teachers – just that it assumes a certain degree of freedom in the way one operates professionally, coupled with a lack of insecurity at the most basic levels.

How, then, can insecurity be reduced and autonomy leveraged, even in difficult circumstances? Serendipitously, in this same week a colleague sent me an article in which he argues for the ‘collaborative nature’ of teacher autonomy (Ding 2009), and adds that “there is a significant body of research examining the potential of technology and in particular ACMC [asynchronous computer mediated communication] to facilitate collaboration and autonomy” (p. 67). Put simply, this means that online communities of teachers can (theoretically, at least) provide the necessary support and motivation to help outgrow lower level insecurities, and achieve a measure of professional self-actualisation.

It just happens that the provision of this kind of collaborative online environment for professional development (and here comes a shameless plug) is one of the goals of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi), of which, proudly, I am the academic director, and which launches very shortly. You can read more about it here.


Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4.

Ding, A. 2009. Tensions and struggles in fostering collaborative teacher autonomy online. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 3:1,65 — 81.

Irie, K, & Stewart, A (eds.). 2011. Realizing Autonomy: Practice and Reflection in Language Education Contexts. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Maslow, A.H. 1970. Motivation and Personality (2nd edition). New York: Harper & Row.