November 18 – my country’s Independence Day. The day when everyone in Latvia reflects on our history and how it has influenced our present and, of course, our future. This is the day when we celebrate our ability to make decisions, to determine our own future, and to act, as a country, as we please.
My country has not been independent for that long: in fact, we will only celebrate our 100th anniversary a couple of years from now, whereas the actual number of years that Latvia has been free is even smaller. Throughout its history, Latvia has always been made part of a greater, bigger something: the Swedes, the Germans, the Russian Empire and then the Soviets all had their bite of it. Some were bigger oppressors than the others; and, as it often happens, while taking from us with one hand, they were feeding us with the other. The Latvian language got its formal grammar from a German, a lot of its cities from the Swedes, and some huge factories and industries from the Soviets. And that is why people in Latvia are never tired of talking about history – each family here has its own story to tell, and its own side to take, and this is what makes our country unique – we breathe history, we are small but proud, conflicted, yet free. And having worked with and learnt from lots and lots of people from different parts of the country, I can claim with absolute certainty that we are happy to be independent, no matter how difficult or unfair life seems at times. That is because freedom, be it the freedom of will, of self-expression, of movement, or any other freedom at all, is one of the most essential components of anyone’s well-being and happiness.
So, looking back at the 25 years of Latvia’s independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I can’t help but wonder why, while being so happy about finally regaining our freedom and independence, we have not been very successful at it. Why is our progress so slow, the finances scarce, the industries significantly under-developed and our young people fleeing to build their lives elsewhere? One would think that with our freedom regained and no-one out there to tell us what to do and what to be, with all the excitement and endorphins and enthusiasm, we should have, by now, sky-rocketed and finally, finally made our home a much more stable, comfortable, and safe place to be… And yet, a quarter of a century later, we are still doing something wrong.
Those who know me professionally, are aware of my interest in learner autonomy. Over the past couple of years, I have read and talked a lot about it, trying to figure out how it works and why, despite us being informed and with all the technologies and resources available, we still seem to be producing students that are unable to be independent in their learning and seem to need us to always tell them what, how, and when to learn. I know a lot of people of my age who, just like my country, seem to be having a hard time being independent, finding their place in this world, making decisions about their studies, careers, and even their personal lives. And I think that in both cases, the answer is quite similar: we do not know how to be independent, and despite finally having all this freedom in our hands, we don’t quite know what to do about it. And while in the case with my country this is how, historically, things have worked out for us, a lot of young people all over the world are the product of a less than perfect education system which does not teach children to be independent and to take charge of their own learning, when they are young, or their own lives, when they grow up.
In this article, I am not talking that much about solutions: I have done that in several talks in Malta, Portugal, and in Latvia later this week; and I am also going to do that in my next blog post later in December. What I want to discuss now is the reason(s) why learner autonomy is misunderstood and give some examples of what it leads to and why I believe that we, as teachers, need to do whatever it takes to get our students to take charge of their own learning as soon as possible.
It’s all about the grades
Hundreds of articles have been written and, possibly, even more talks done, all discussing the negative effects of grading students at school. Lots of education systems all over the world get students to compete for grades, scores, test and exam results, all making the children believe that good grades mean a good life in the future. “You should study well to get into a good university and then you should be a good student at university to get a good job…” – sounds familiar? Of course, it does: this is what most of us have been told again and again by our parents, teachers, and educational authorities. In fact, after years and years of being told so, we have grown to believe it as well. And, moreover, this what we probably tell our children and our students too…
I was a good student, I always got the top grades and I was always among the top students at school. Did that help me get into university? Yes, it did. I was also a very good student at university. Did that make my life better? It did, because good grades helped me get a grant without which I would have never been able to pay for my studies. Did it help me get a good job? Perhaps it did – being a quick learner together with my ability to speak decent English got me a teaching job at the very young age of 20. Sounds like my story should be used as an argument in favour of the traditional school grading system: getting the high scores for my hard work and diligence got me places… BUT….
Is being a good student good?
No. Looking back, I can, with all certainty, claim that being a good student in a system where learner autonomy is not promoted did not teach me several very important truths not just about education and learning, but also about how adult life works. It did not teach me that failure is a learning curve and not the end of the world. In a result-focussed environment, grades were the only measure of success, and a bad grade, to me, was an indicator of failure – something that, being a ‘good student’ I was not very good at coping with. Neither did it teach me much about setting my priorities or saying ‘no’. School is simple – you do well as long as you do as you are told. And we were told, by lots and lots of teachers, to do homework and to study hard for each and every subject. With each and every subject being a priority. Irrespective of our talents, interests, needs, or states of mind. Being a good student, to me, meant doing all of my homework, i.e. staying up late and not having much time for hobbies and friends. It meant never saying ‘no’… to my teachers. It did mean saying ‘no’ to my friends, my dreams, and my interests – to the things that really matter.
How bad is bad?
Observing students in different countries, from different cultural and learning backgrounds, and with different learning histories at school, I have come to realise that the ‘bad’, or academically less successful students can, generally, be divided into two categories.
There are students who, like me when I was at school, are dependent learners: in their learning, they rely on the teachers to know what is best for them and to take them there. They rely on the grades as the only form of trustworthy feedback, and, as a result, they lose confidence and feel guilty about ‘disappointing’ their teachers and, eventually, label themselves as ‘stupid’. It is great if such students have a passion that they can focus on – art, sports, dance… However, even in this case the danger is that their lack of autonomy and self-confidence will prevent them from pursuing their passion because ‘this is not a serious career path and I am not good enough anyway’. Such students will often end up doing boring low-paid jobs and not even trying to perform well at those: ten to twelve years in a system where one is shown, on a daily basis, that one is not great at anything can rob one of their ‘drive’.
There is however, another category – the so-called rebels. They know what they want, they often know what they are good at, and they cannot be bothered to conform to the rules established by the schools. Despite having a passion and being, as a rule, autonomous and quite capable (in other words, the kind of students we should be happy to have), these students are often labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘a nuisance’, or even ‘bad’ and ‘stupid’, especially when, eventually, they start falling behind. This happens because teachers often do not have the resources or experience to help such students excel and develop, or feel that their ‘hands are tied with the curricula/syllabuses/educational authorities’, or simply just cannot be bothered.
Of course, it is not all so grim. And, of course, I did have fantastic teachers at school who helped me build my confidence, become independent, and not lose my passion and my natural curiosity and desire to learn. There are thousands of teachers and hundreds of schools all over the world who take pride in creating comfortable and effective learning environments for all of their learners.
And yet, despite the popularity of the term (everyone nowadays speaks about promoting learner autonomy in the classroom), I believe that the concept is often misinterpreted and, consequently, misused by a lot of teachers, and this is why:
- Learner autonomy is NOT about giving the students more tests or unsupervised independent work – it is about getting the students to assess their own progress and take responsibility for their learning outcomes. It is about getting the students to design their own tests, getting them to reflect on their progress and encourage peer teaching.
- Learner autonomy is NOT about giving the learners more homework to do in their free time (it is their FREE time – the time when they should be FREE to do whatever they like). It is about getting students to plan their learning time, set learning goals, and decide what steps (and when) they need to take to achieve these goals.
- Learner autonomy is NOT AT ALL about letting the students take over your lesson and decide how to spend it (playing games, in most cases). It is about the teacher responding to the students’ needs and interests. But also very much about helping the learners to set clear, achievable, and realistic learning goals (also lesson aims, if you please).
- Learner autonomy is NOT about providing learners with a lot of extra reading (a list of articles to read about volcanoes, a grammar reference to help with conditional sentences, etc.) – it is about teaching the learners to look for reliable sources, to select the right materials, and to read them in an interactive way, identifying and processing the necessary information.
Learner autonomy is never about making somebody the sandwich – it is about helping them make one on their own. And we are not talking about the primitive jam-on-bread one – we are talking about ‘the perfect sandwich’ – one of one’s own choice – fresh, delicious, and highly nutritious. It is about being able to make hundreds of different sandwiches, knowing one’s ingredients and how they go together, not fearing to modify existing recipes and being daring enough to create new shapes and flavours to eat on your own and to share with everyone else.
Looking into the future
I guess the most important message that I would like to communicate here is that our students will not miraculously become autonomous when they finish school – we need to teach them to be independent, otherwise they will waste their twenties – possibly, the most productive years of their life – learning to do that on their own; while the others will blame everything that goes wrong in their careers on you, finding the perfect excuse for their lack of action: “I am the victim of an imperfect school system and I will thus continue to not take responsibility for whatever is happening in my life and just go with the flow…”
As to my beautiful country, 25 years ago, we finally gained our independence and we did not quite know what to do with it: we were never taught to take the initiative, we were never encouraged to speak our minds, and therefore, quite naturally, it is taking us so long to have it all figured out. Sadly, a lot of people in Latvia use our history as their perfect excuse for the lack of action, refusing to act or have things changed and blaming everything on our past. Will we manage? Of course, we will. And despite all the difficulties and problems and delays, I think, overall, we are still doing pretty damn well.
At the same time, teachers, educators, parents – let’s not wait until our children graduate to finally ‘leave them kids alone’. Let us help them become independent, confident, and effective learners NOW, shall we?