Going It Alone: The Route to Learner Autonomy – Guest Post by Andreas Grundtvig (@A_Grundtvig)

It is with great pleasure that I introduce you a wonderful guest blogger, Andreas Grundtvig! I was very happy to meet him at the ETAS SIG Day in Zug.

Andreas Grundtvig teaches at the Staatliche Fremdsprachenschule in Hamburg, Germany and is currently preparing to take over the management of his local Cambridge ESOL Examinations Centre. In his freetime, he regularly presents teacher training workshops and designs and creates classroom resources for Cornelsen. He is passionate about politeness research as well as fostering learner autonomy and imaginative learning – in 2005, he supervised the foundation of the first ever, internationally recognised, EFL micronation – the Kingdom of Playland.
Beginning his career in Spain in the 1990s, Andreas has spent over a decade in academic management in countries as far afield as Portugal, Switzerland, Lithuania, France and Germany. His former students range from aircraft designers, cardiologists and politicians to six-year olds. His first student ever was a famous songwriter (buy him a beer and he’ll tell you about this)!
Andreas was born in Sweden and grew up and graduated in Suffolk, England. He lives in Germany with his Lithuanian wife and English Springer Spaniel. He still cannot make up his mind whether he is a dog or cat person!

Thank you so much, Andreas!

As I’m thinking here about what to write for Vicky’s blog, I’m on my way home after presenting for ELTAF, the English Language Teacher’s Association in Frankfurt. It’s been a long day – I’ve delivered two workshops and talked for over six and a half hours to a group of eleven teachers I’d never met before – but I’m riding on a high – from a sense of success and accomplishment. For a quiet, unassuming guy like me, it’s been a personal record.

Of the two workshops, I feel that the second went especially well. Even though it came after a heavy lunch on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I don’t recall seeing anybody yawning or checking their watches to see how much longer they’d have to bear up until the weekend could finally begin. Instead, I could see only keen listeners, who experienced several ‘a-ha’ moments (when a previously confusing subject suddenly becomes crystal clear) and, at the end of the session, left discussing amongst themselves which of the ideas I’d shown them they would use in their own classrooms. All of these responses – combined with an end-of-the-day refill of the amber nectar – were enough to give me the buzz to keep on presenting.

I began my afternoon workshop – ‘Go it alone – the secrets of the LA learner’ – by telling the participants a story about an earlier presentation I’d given – again to a bunch of strangers in an unfamiliar town. At the beginning of this year, I spoke in Cologne, where, half an hour before the workshop was due to begin, the first of the die-hard TEFLers began to arrive. One of them, I could see, was sizing me up and, as he began to circle and then to approach, I braced myself for what was coming next.

‘Tell me!’, he fired in a no-nonsense manner, ‘What’s the difference between learner independence and learner autonomy?’

I put the same question to the participants here in Frankfurt and – hopefully, sounding less like the Voice of Authority – asked them what they thought. They were as unsure as I had been but were a lot less afraid of admitting to the fact. Deciding which factors are involved in the concept of learner autonomy took up the best part of an afternoon. Working on the task together, we came up with an inventory, if you will, of characteristics of the LA learner. This is what we said:

  The autonomous learner…

–         needs to be motivated.

–         needs to have a lot of contact with and be ready

to accept L2.

–         mustn’t be afraid and should try to move from fear to freedom.

–         can make connections with other languages they may know.

–         shouldn’t try to understand every word they hear.

–         thinks outside of the box.

–         tries to listen to L2 as much as possible.

–         looks at how language is used – context is everything!

At the end of the afternoon, we went on to discuss the negative impression that most of our students have of homework. Why is it that, all too often, when we suggest doing something outside of the scheduled lesson, students glower and grumble until we feel like throwing in the towel and just forgetting about the whole thing? Most probably, they experience flashbacks to the endless evenings of their schooldays spent bogged down with gap-fill exercises and a grammar rule book as their only guide. Come to think of it, the words ‘home’ and ‘work’ are, after all, significant of polarities. Perhaps we can do something to remove the stigma that homework bears (firstly, by giving it a new and better name) and to give our students more creative and – hopefully – motivational tasks.

On the main topic of learner autonomy, I’m interested to hear what you think about our inventory (did we miss anything?) and how can we introduce and tackle, raising our students’ awareness of each of the points mentioned?

By the way, my answer to the question originally posed to me in Cologne began with a shaky ‘Er… it is probably… ehmm…’ – get this wrong, I was thinking, and I’m finished! Swallowing hard, I pulled myself together and managed to come up with the following:

‘An independent learner is somebody who studies alone without the guidance of a teacher. An autonomous learner however, is someone who is able to do things alone but under the guidance of a teacher.’

Right or wrong, I was pleased with my answer. As it turned out, so was my wily interlocutor!

‘Just as I thought!’, he responded, clapping his hands together, and adding: ‘I’ll quote you on that!’

5 thoughts on “Going It Alone: The Route to Learner Autonomy – Guest Post by Andreas Grundtvig (@A_Grundtvig)

  1. Hello Andreas!

    Thank you so much for the great honour you gave me to write for my blog! And on such an interesting topic, one of my key interests this year as I teach mainly adults and I see that it is very important for them (and for all ages, I believe)/

    I absolutely love the answer you gave that person who was a bit intimidating, from what I gather : ) Great distinction of the independent and autonomous learner.

    Many thanks again Andreas, and here’s to more collaborations!

    Kindest regards,

  2. I’d also like to quote you regarding the definition of an autonmous learner!
    You mentioned homework – I have found that by moving homework online with engaging activities the students have made another step forward on the road to being autonomous learners!

    1. That’s great Naomi. Thanks. Which are your favourite websites to recommend for homework/self study? I work a lot with the BBC site.

  3. Pretty good answer, I’d say, Andreas. Of course, I’d then suggest that the qualities mentioned about ‘the autonomous learner’ are also those of ‘the independent learner’.

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