You are on page 1of 7

The following paper explores what developing teacher autonomy can mean.

From Developing Autonomy, Proceedings of the College and University Educators' 2001 Conference, Shizuoka, Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Association for Language Teaching.

Exploring and Defining Teacher Autonomy: A Collaborative Discussion

Andy Barfield, Tim Ashwell, Michael Carroll, Kristie Collins, Neil Cowie, Michael Critchley, Ellen Head, Mike Nix, Andrew Obermeier & Martha C. Robertson

Teachers and researchers have little difficulty defining learner autonomy. The Bergen definition represents one view of learner autonomy that many teachers find appropriate ( Bergen , 1990). Yet, the task of defining teacher autonomy seems much more problematic (cf., Little, 2000). At the bare minimum, teacher autonomy may hinge on "ideas of professional freedom and selfdirected professional development" (Benson, 2001, p.174, citing McGrath, 2000); alternatively, teacher autonomy may highlight "critical reflection" (Smyth, 1989) and "transformation through dialogue" (Shor & Freire, 1987). Little explains but does not define teacher autonomy when he states that "...successful teachers have always been autonomous in the sense of having a strong sense of personal responsibility for their teaching, exercising via continuous reflection and analysis the highest possible degree of affective and cognitive control of the teaching process, and exploiting the freedom that this confers" (Little, 1995, p.179). Sustainable development of teacher autonomy may however require a specific and contextually sensitive discussion and definition. To address this need, the workshop leaders--Tim Ashwell, Andy Barfield, Neil Cowie & Mike Nix--invited the participants to (1) discuss their personal definitions of teacher autonomy, (2) develop these shared ideas in writing, and (3) take part in a post-conference e-mail discussion. This led to (4) an extended working definition of teacher autonomy, which was revised according to (5) feedback and comments from teachers elsewhere responding to a posting of the first draft of the definition on the AUTO-L list in early June 2001. (AUTO-L is a listserve devoted to autonomous language learning.) To capture this incremental process of collaborative discussion, this paper is divided into five parts: Starting ideas for teacher autonomy from workshop discussions Short individual reflections written immediately after the workshop

Extended reflections written on email after the conference An exploratory working definition of teacher autonomy (the "Shizuoka" definition) Feedback from other similarly interested teachers.

STARTING IDEAS FOR TEACHER AUTONOMY: Initial ideas raised during the workshop
The initial discussion of teacher autonomy focused heavily on understanding the different (but clearly similar) contexts in which we work. This led to an early emphasis on dealing with institutional constraints. We began by recognising that teaching is always contextually situated and by proposing that teacher autonomy involves: negotiation skills; institutional knowledge in order to start to address effectively constraints on teaching and learning; willingness to confront institutional barriers in socially appropriate ways to turn constraints into opportunities for change; readiness to engage in lifelong learning to the best of an individual"s capacity; reflection on the teaching process and environment; commitment to promoting learner autonomy.

SHORT INDIVIDUAL REFLECTIONS: Initial post-workshop contributions

Despite the apparent initial consensus, our written reflections began to point out areas of conflict and contradiction. Part of the tension here came from making explicit our different constructs of autonomy (cf., Wellington & Austin, 1996). Should this be seen as a set of skills? Should the emphasis rather be on the processes of fostering teacher autonomy? Might it be better to define the essence of an autonomous teacher in discrete characteristics? Tim Ashwell questioned whether teacher autonomy and learner autonomy can be interlinked. Noting that there are constraints on teachers which may be different from those on students, Tim argued that there is no necessary connection between fostering learner autonomy and teacher autonomy. Michael Carroll made a case for the notion of the autonomous teacher as not just a set of wishes or preferences, but also as skills and common professionalism: Informed and well-chosen decision making is part of being an autonomous teacher. Both Ellen Head and Kristie Collins developed this line of thinking by focusing on the process of facilitating a move in responsibility from teacher to student. On the other hand, Neil Cowie discussed the qualities of an autonomous teacher as a desire for personal improvement and change over the course of his or her career to develop further; Neil also pointed to the importance of teacher development groups as teacherlearner pools of equal power. At the same time, Andrew Obermeier saw autonomy as a predominantly individual issue, while Mike Nix connected the personal with the institutional by

framing teacher autonomy as exploring choices and alternatives within particular classroom and institutional constraints (through action research).

EXTENDED REFLECTIONS ON TEACHER AUTONOMY: Edited from an on-line post-workshop discussion Michael Critchley:
Even if students become totally autonomous as learners in the classroom, the teacher will still not be an autonomous entity--student autonomy does not equal teacher autonomy. Teachers are still likely to feel pressure from peers or from the institution that questions their practices, and as such can never really be autonomous: The power difference and the ability to have complete professional control is never likely to be equal between the teacher and the institution. Should we be always moving ourselves and our students towards autonomy, i.e., away from traditional based methods? To move a group of learners in any direction implies the use of will--in other words, what we are saying is, "you can do anything you want in the classroom, as long as it falls within the limits of what we as teachers and language experts consider appropriate learning behaviour." Is this true autonomy? For students, the ability to behave autonomously is dependent upon their teacher creating a classroom culture where autonomy is accepted. For teachers, this acceptance of autonomy would come from the institution. For both, this acceptance is really the transfer of power--the loss of power and control from teachers / institutions.

Ellen Head:
There is potential ambiguity in the way the phrase "teacher autonomy" can be used. It can mean (a) a teacher who favours and promotes autonomy in the learners and (b) a teacher who wants to "have control over her/his own affairs"

Martha Robertson:
Obviously teacher autonomy does not mean freedom from all constraints--nor does learner autonomy, but I wonder if members of the teaching profession can ever be considered autonomous in the context of fulfilling the mission of our profession. Perhaps teachers can be autonomous only as individuals and self-actualized learners (and revolutionaries, of course...). I don't think what students want is always (or even often) an autonomous choice. Autonomy is developed through observation, reflection, thoughtful consideration, understanding, experience, evaluation of alternatives...the absence of coercion does not automatically result in autonomy, nor is choice always autonomous. We often make choices because we desire comfort, safety, repetition, familiarity--or because we fear punishment or loss or the unknown, or because we are driven by unconscious needs, habits, desires, or unthinking situational responses. Certainly autonomy means the right to make poor choices, but poor choices they remain. As teachers, our primary concern is how our students are making their choices rather than whether we can or should accommodate their desires.

Tim Ashwell:

Teacher autonomy seems to be very closely bound up with the notions of the "critically reflective teacher" (Bartlett, 1990), "teacher-research" (Freeman, 1998) and "action research." The basic premise here is that teachers are best placed to develop their own teaching in order to better the learning experiences of their students. Teacher autonomy seems to be an umbrella term for these innovations in teacher education and on-going teacher development. Rather than accepting the received wisdom, the autonomous teacher interprets ideas about teaching and learning for her/himself probably in collaboration with others making the meaning more real for her/himself. Crucially, the autonomous teacher goes beyond this to search for new answers to new problems which inevitably occur to us as individuals in our own unique teaching/learning situations.

Michael Carroll:
Tim argues that the autonomous teacher is independent from traditional notions of what it takes to be a good teacher. I disagree. An autonomous teacher without the "traditional" teaching skills may be ineffective. I think good teachers have always been autonomous in the sense where our discussion has led us to: Autonomy entails working within social contexts in order to best meet the needs of students. I"d add, though, that autonomy doesn't mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater: Tried and tested answers (albeit regularly re-evaluated) to old problems are as important as new answers to new problems.


The following working definition tries to capture the many different points raised during this collaborative discussion of teacher autonomy:

The "Shizuoka" Definition of Teacher Autonomy

"Characterised by a recognition that teaching is always contextually situated, teacher autonomy is a continual process of inquiry into how teaching can best promote autonomous learning for learners. It involves understanding and making explicit the different constraints that a teacher may face, so that teachers can work collaboratively towards confronting constraints and transforming them into opportunities for change. The collaboration that teacher autonomy requires suggests that outside the classroom teachers need to develop institutional knowledge and flexibility in dealing with external constraints. It also suggests that teacher autonomy can be strengthened by collaborative support and networking both within the institution and beyond. Negotiation thus forms an integral part of the process of developing teacher autonomy. Teacher autonomy is driven by a need for personal and professional improvement, so that an autonomous teacher may seek out opportunities over the course of his

or her career to develop further. Teacher autonomy is a socially constructed process, where teacher support and development groups can act as teacherlearner pools of diverse knowledge, experience, equal power and autonomous learning. Within the classroom, developing teacher autonomy will overlap with principles of fostering learner autonomy and with an evolving body of professional knowledge, skill and expertise. Because society confers teachers and learners with different roles, rights and responsibilities, it is not possible to identify a perfect match between the processes of teacher autonomy and learner autonomy. The interrelationship between learner autonomy and teacher autonomy becomes clear when the values of co-learning, self-direction, collaboration and democratic coparticipation are consciously highlighted in relation to the following three critical principles of action: critical reflective inquiry empowerment dialogue.

It is the quality of interdependence between these values and actions that links the development processes of teacher autonomy and learner autonomy. The processes by which those principles of action can be achieved centre on observing, inquiring, negotiating, evaluating and developing in collaboration with one"s learners and colleagues. These action research processes are made explicit through dialogue and critical reflective inquiry, the richness of which empowers teacher autonomy and helps it develop further. Crucially, developing teacher autonomy involves questioning and flexibly reinterpreting the exercise of authority within the classroom. An autonomous teacher works with his or her learners openly and accountably in ways that will best stimulate their learning. An autonomous teacher continually searches, in collaboration first and foremost with his or her learners, for better answers to the different problems inevitably arising in developing and re-interpreting learner autonomy further."

FEEDBACK FROM A WIDER PEER GROUP: Responses from similarly interested teachers from AUTO-L
Responses to the extended definition centred on interconnecting values, principles and actions of developing autonomous practice. Both of the responses that follow push towards a universal generalizable theory of teacher autonomy (cf., Dam & Little, 1999), away from the shared

regional focus which the participants in the workshop took on similarly perceived everyday institutional constraints within tertiary education in Japan.

Flavia Vieira (Portugal):

What's the use of having a concept of reflective teaching, teacher empowerment or teacher autonomy which can accommodate transmissive, authoritarian, even oppressive purposes? Just think of some of our colleagues at university. I have colleagues whose autonomy allows them to discriminate among students, defend their role as subject matter authorities, deny students the right to express their views. These teachers are very aware of their options and hold strong arguments to support them. Reflection, empowerment or autonomy do not necessarily mean "teaching towards learner development". The argument that defending autonomy for learners implies a redefinition of the teacher role also applies to teacher autonomy. The link between teacher development and learner development is necessary and ideological, whatever the ideology is. If the link is not clearly established, what we have is a "hidden ideology", not an absence of ideology. What/Whose purposes does teacher development/action serve? I think teacher educators cannot escape this question, and it surely points to the connection between teacher development and school pedagogy.

David Palfreyman (United Arab Emirates):

How can we make "values', 'principles' and 'processes' of teacher autonomy fit together in practice? In learner autonomy one can make a distinction between the individual as a 'learner' (trying to learn) and as a 'student' (trying to learn and work within an institution/ education system)--writing about learner autonomy tends to take the former as a starting point, although ideas like Littlewood's 'reactive autonomy' tackle the latter (Littlewood, 1999). A teacher can also be seen as both a developing individual and as a social actor, and a teacher's formal roles (in lessons, in meetings, in course planning, in professional development activities...) are even more complex than a learner's. One question: What does 'context' involve? I feel from this definition that it means mostly the institution; but the classroom is another setting again; and learners and teachers have other contexts outside the institutional framework (peer-groups, wider society, other learning situations) which may be important in the kind of development that teacher autonomy points to.


Bartlett, L. (1990). Teacher development through reflective teaching. In Richards, J.C. & D. Nunan (eds.), Second language teacher education (pp. 202-214), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning. London: Pearson Education. Bergen (1990). Developing autonomous learning in the foreign language classroom. Bergen: Universitetet i Bergen Institutt for praktisk pedagogikk. In Dam, L. (1995), Learner autonomy:

From theory to practice (pp.1-2), Dublin: Authentik. Dam, L. & Little, D. (1999). Autonomy in foreign language learning: From classroom practice to generalizable theory. In Barfield, A.W., Betts, R., Cunningham, J., Dunn, N., Katsura, H., Kobayashi, K., Padden, N., Parry, N. & M. Watanabe (eds.), On JALT98: Focus on the Classroom: Interpretations (pp.127-136), Tokyo: The Japan Association for Language Teaching. Freeman D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House. Little, D. (1995). Learning as dialogue: The dependence of learner autonomy on teacher autonomy. System 23 (2), 175-181. Little, D. (7-9 September, 2000). We"re all in it together: Exploring the interdependence of teacher and learner autonomy. Paper presented at Autonomy 2000. University of Helsinki Language Centre. Littlewood, W. (1999). Defining and developing autonomy in East Asian contexts. Applied Linguistics 20 (1), 71-94. McGrath, I. (2000). Teacher autonomy. In Sinclair, B., McGrath, I. & T. Lamb (eds.), Learner autonomy, teacher autonomy, London: Longman. Shor, I. & Freire, P. (1987). A pedagogy for liberation. New York: Bergin & Garvey. Smyth, J. (1989). Developing and sustaining critical reflection in teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education 40 (2), 2-9. Wellington, B. & Austin, P. (1996). Orientations to reflective practice. Educational Research 38 (3), 307-316.

The full reference for this paper is: Barfield, A., Ashwell, T., Carroll, M., Collins, K., Cowie, N., Critchley, M., Head, E., Nix, M., Obermeier, A. & M.C. Robertson. Exploring and defining teacher autonomy. Forthcoming. In Developing Autonomy, Proceedings of the College and University Educators" 2001 Conference, Shizuoka, Japan. Tokyo:The Japan Association for Language Teaching.