Learning Paths





Luciano Mariani

Perspectives, a Journal of TESOL-Italy - Vol. XXIII, No. 2 Fall 1997


1. Introduction

In this paper I would like to take a closer look at the concept of learner autonomy and discuss the ways in which this concept affects us as educators.

 I will try to do this, first, by discussing the relationship between the need for autonomy and its opposite, that is, the need for dependence: in the light of this opposition, I will argue that autonomy is not an absolute value, but is in fact a very relative and individual feature. Then I will try to describe the role we, as teachers, play in this context: to do this, I will introduce and contrast two ways of behaving that are part of our basic stock-in-trade, i.e. the challenge and the support we give our students. I will try to show that a valuable way of describing our own individual teaching style is to look at the ways in which we provide challenge and support, both in the tasks we set for our students and in the interaction patterns we establish in the classroom. Finally, I will argue that this challenge/support framework is more than just a feature of the learning process - it is indeed a condition for learning to take place.

2. Autonomy: redefining the concept

As we all know, autonomy has become a very fashionable word in EFL today. Most coursebooks claim that they promote some kind of learner independence; teacher training courses often include autonomy as an area for investigation; and there has been a considerable body of academic research, as well as action research, to explore what learners and teachers do or can do to promote more independent and responsible learning - and more responsible teaching, of course (Benson and Voller 1997; van Lier 1996; Tudor 1996). Despite all these efforts to refine the concept, autonomy is still sometimes seen in our profession as a kind of monolithic concept, something which has an absolute and universal value, a "must", so to speak, for all students in all situations. However, if we take a closer look at the role that autonomy plays in human experience, we will be able to see it as just one end of a continuum, the other end being its opposite - dependence.

 At one end, we have a need for autonomy, a need to become independent and responsible human beings, to increase our powers of self-regulation - but at the other end we also have a need for dependence, for the feeling that we belong somewhere, for the feeling that we can rely on people and things to get through the demands of life - a need to feel secure in a safe, non-threatening environment. These two basic human needs can be seen as two symmetrical states, two sides of the same coin, which we need to fully realise ourselves as individuals. Now, we all value and want both, but each of us in a different way: each of us can place herself or himself somewhere along this continuum, and our position can change over time and according to the circumstances.

 We, as educators, often believe in the importance of promoting autonomy in our students - but I think we should keep in mind that learning to be autonomous cannot have the same meaning for everybody at all times. Autonomy is, in a way, a paradox. If I tell you, "Don't be dependent on me, be autonomous!" and you comply with my request, you are doing what I'm telling you to do, and so you are not autonomous - but if I tell you, "Be autonomous!" and you ignore my request, you continue to be dependent on me.

 Perhaps a way out of this paradox, and the real and only way to learn to be autonomous, lies in finding the ways and means to manage both autonomy and dependence according to our own needs. There may be a time for autonomy and a time for dependence, and it is essential to experience both if we want to make informed choices.

 Thus learning to be autonomous is basically an individual, gradual, never ending process of self-discovery - a process through which each of us gradually discovers the maximum of autonomy which is possible given the subjective and objective constraints of our own individual situation. So the true meaning of autonomy is not a complete, irrational freedom to do anything under the sun, but rather a more subtle ability - the power to decide, at any single moment, whether we should be safe or daring (cf. van Lier 1996, page 65).

3. Challenge and support to promote autonomy

If we take this view of autonomy, what role do we, as educators, play? What impact do we have on our students' self-discovery process?

 I suggest we describe the way we get involved in this process by linking autonomy and dependence with two parallel concepts - challenge and support. To answer our students' need for autonomy we challenge them. To answer their need for dependence, we support them. And we do this in two basic and closely related areas: the way we choose, set and manage tasks, and the way we manage the interaction within the class.

 Let me briefly recall the origin of these two words - challenge and support. The Webster Dictionary records that challenge comes from the Old French word chalenge or calenge, meaning "a claim, an accusation, a dispute", which in turn derives from the Latin word calumnia, meaning "a false accusation". Thus the original meanings of challenge have legal and even military connotations: to quote the Webster Dictionary again, a challenge is, among other things, "an invitation to a contest or trial of any kind, a calling or summons to fight in a single combat or a duel". I think this is very interesting, because when we challenge our students we are actually asking them to go beyond a safety zone, so to say, and venture out into possibly dangerous and risky areas. Of course, the modern meaning of challenge also includes, to quote the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, "something that tests strength, skill or ability especially in a way that is interesting". So the concept of challenge includes a referencemportant ideas such as putting oneself to a test, dealing with interesting things, and facing the unexpected and the unpredictable.

 The word support, on the other hand, comes from the French word supporter, meaning "to bear and endure", which in turn derives from the Latin word supporto - sub, "under", and porto, "to carry". One of the modern meanings of support is still "to hold the weight of something, to keep it in place, to prevent it from falling". So the concept of support includes the idea of providing scaffolding, which, as we know, is something temporary, something to be gradually removed as the structure being built becomes stronger and more reliable.

 We as teachers are obviously experts in providing our students with both challenge and support - it's part of our professional repertoire, and we do this both in connection with tasks and in connection with interaction. We provide challenge when we set open tasks, tasks with no pre-determined answers; when we let students choose between alternative tasks, for example making a synthesis of a text by either writing a summary, or using non-linear notes, or drawing a chart or a diagram. We also provide challenge when we let students experience the responsibility of correcting their mistakes in pairs or groups; when we encourage them to discover language rules rather than simply apply rules provided by us or the textbook. By providing challenge, we cater for the basic human need for self-regulation and self-determination.

 When do we provide support? For instance, when we ensure that the purpose of a task, and the relevant instructions, are correctly understood; when we model the task by showing how it can carried out in a step-by-step fashion before we actually ask students to work through it. We also provide support whenever we use cooperation rather than competition, or whenever we promote students' self-confidence, for example by adopting a positive affective attitude even when we have to give negative feedback on their oral or written work. By providing support, we cater for two other basic human needs: task support meets the need for competence, and encourages the feeling that you can develop the necessary skills to perform well; interaction support meets the need for relatedness, and encourages the feeling that you can develop safe and satisfying relationships with others (cf. Deci et al. 1991; van Lier 1996).

4. A "teaching style" framework

We often use our knowledge of the classroom context, our own intuition, and our instinctive reactions, to make judgements about what each of our students needs from us. However, what is perhaps more important, and more intriguing, is the quantity and quality of challenge and support that we provide, and the way these two dimensions interact with each other to produce our own individual and unique teaching style. Combining the two dimensions generates a framework of four basic types of challenge/support patterns:

 High challenge




 High support --------------|--------------- Low support




 Low challenge

It is interesting to use this framework to discuss what each of the four patterns involves in terms of teacher's behaviour and students' reactions. As an illustration, I will now provide a few examples taken from my own experience both as a student and as a trainee.

 I still remember my art teacher at middle school - the old "Scuola Media", before the 1960s reform. In those days students spent considerable time "drawing from life": you just had to look very carefully at a vase standing on a tripod and try to draw it. I wasn't very good at this kind of "still life drawing" - in fact I was rather bad. I remember once, the teacher called me to his desk, looked at my sheet, and started to shout how horrible my work was and how hopeless I seemed to be. Then he told me to sit at the back of the room and start off on a new drawing - he put a watering can in front of me and simply left me wondering how I could possibly go about that awful task. On that occasion, my confidence in my drawing abilities was shattered for ever. It is clear that my art teacher was providing me with a high level of challenge but a ridiculously low level of support, both in terms of task, and perhaps more importantly, in terms of interaction, that is, affective support. The result, at least as far as I concerned, was anxiety, insecurity, discomfort, and even aggressiveness - not to mention the long-term effect on my self-confidence.

 I happened to be in a completely different situation with my Italian teacher in the final year of high school. During her lessons we used to spend half of the time listening - or rather, pretending to listen - to a boring lecture and the other half of the time listening again, to three or four of us being tested by the teacher. Most of us didn't actually follow this questioning time, simply because the questions were always the same, and, what's more, the marks were always the same, ranging from "nearly sufficient" to "just more than sufficient", as we used to say. I can still remember the atmosphere of those lessons, how I felt most of the time - the key words being boredom, apathy, indifference and demotivation. A very good example of low challenge coupled with low support.

 Many years later I followed a teacher training course of which I still have very fond memories. The picture which I have in my mind is a group of colleagues, sitting round a table and having a wonderful time together. The trainer was the nicest person I've ever met. He ensured that our tasks were always clear and easy to do. He made all he could to make us feel at ease at all times. There was a feeling of security, intimacy and warmth, but ... but also, looming up beneath the surface, a feeling of actually getting very little in terms of new knowledge and skills. We were just fine as a group, but we could sense that there was actually very little growth. There was a lot of support, especially in terms of interaction, but there wasn't enough challenge.

 For my last example I'll go back again to my good old days at "Scuola Media". Once my P.E. teacher, my teacher of Physical Education, chose me to show the other students how to climb up a rope. I wasn't very good at P.E., but I happened to be able to do this particular thing quite well. Of course doing this just by myself, in front of all the others, involved a high level of challenge. However, my teacher, by stressing what I could do rather than all that I couldn't do, provided me with a correspondingly high level of support. I can still remember the feeling of satisfaction at the end of that day - my self-esteem had been boosted and I had learned that I could achieve something even in a subject I wasn't particularly keen on.

 It is of course tempting to use this framework to describe our own personal teaching style. We could ask ourselves: where do I fit here? What kind of challenge and support pattern do I usually establish with my classes? We can answer this question "by feeling", that is, instinctively, and guess that we belong somewhere in the framework. Or we can try to be a little more systematic and design a simple questionnaire. This is an interesting activity to carry out with a group of colleagues. It involves considering a number of tasks, either in a unit or a lesson, or, alternatively, in one particular area - for example, evaluation procedures, or the teaching of reading skills, or error correction, or the treatment of grammar. Once the tasks have been identified, we can ask ourselves: what features of the tasks make them challenging for our students? What features make them, so to say, "supportive"? And also, how much challenge and how much support is implied in the way we set and manage the tasks in the classroom course, what is important in such an experience is not so much the finished product - the questionnaire - as the reflection and the discussion involved in producing it (an example of such a questionnaire is provided).

 However, even a questionnaire, useful as it might be, would just give us a very general picture of our own teaching style. We could rightly argue that we vary the quantity and quality of the challenge and support we give our students according to the class and the individual students we are teaching at any particular time, the task we are handling, the materials we are using, the time of the year and the time of the day, and a host of other variables.

 Indeed, a very important feature in the challenge/support framework is flexibility - the fact that support and challenge must be balanced out in flexible ways according to the ever-changing conditions of work.

 For example, we may decide to ask students to self-assess their performance - in this way we are providing challenge, because we are asking them to give up, at least partially, the relative security of an external evaluation and to take on the responsibility of making judgements on themselves. At the same time, we may want to give them some kind of support, for example, by providing an assessment chart to start with, or by asking them to share their own evaluation with their partners and with us.

 What we are actually doing in this example is to try and match opportunities for active engagement on the learners' part - that is, challenge - with a promotion of skills - that is, support. This "matching" process is an extremely important operation, and it is worth examining another view of it.

5. A developmental perspective

At any one time, the situation learners - and teachers - face can be represented in this way:

 (cf. van Lier 1996, page 190):

The central area, the "inner circle", refers to what a learner already knows and can already do: this is familiar territory - it's her or his present and actual stage of development. Then we have an "outer circle": beyond this outer circle lies totally unfamiliar territory, knowledge and skills learners have not acquired and, what is perhaps more important, knowledge and skills that cannot be developed because they are beyond what learners are at the moment ready to learn. The outer circle is a sort of intermediate area which has been called "zone of proximal development" (Vygotsky 1978): this refers to what a learner is potentially able to learn, like a bridge between the known and the familiar (the inner circle) and the totally new and unfamiliar (what lies beyond the outer circle). It is only within this outer circle that learning can take place. Learning within the inner circle has already taken place, learning beyond the outer circle cannot take place.

 I will illustrate this with an example. If you give me different parts of a simple hi-fi system - say, an amplifier, a CD player and two loudspeakers - I can usually put them together even without looking at instructions or asking somebody to help me. I have the knowledge and skills to do this job fairly quickly and accurately. I feel no need to learn any more in this connection, so that, if you offered to teach me how to set up a simple hi-fi system, I would quickly get bored - there would be no challenge in your offer. Also, you would be providing me with support, but I wouldn't need it, because, in a way, I'm already autonomous. I am within my inner circle, and I can exercise a high degree of self-regulation.

 Still talking about my practical skills, in the past few months I have been learning how to assemble small pieces of furniture, for example, a small desk or a small chest of drawers, provided that the piece comes in a kit, with the parts ready to be put together, and as long as the kit includes full step-by step instructions. I am quickly developing this skill, but I still need to read the instructions very carefully, and also, occasionally, I need the assistance of a more skilled friend. The instructions and the friend provide me with the support that I still need, and I can probably count on my previous experience of being able to assemble simple hi-fi systems. I'm not yet autonomous, but I am making good progress. In a way, I am gradually turning my potential skills into actual skills: I am moving within my outer circle, from the familiar and the known, which provides me with a feeling of security, towards the unfamiliar and the unknown, which provides an element of discovery and surprise. Risk and securare balanced, and I feel motivated by my increasing competence - moving within this area provides me with a challenge, and I am learning.

 Now consider what would happen if I moved beyond the outer circle, out of my "zone of proximal development". Suppose that you wanted to teach me how to actually build a small piece of furniture. No matter how much support you would offer me, in the form of written instructions, practical help or whatever, I think I would feel helpless, and would probably soon get worried and anxious. The challenge involved would be too high, it would be far beyond my present actual skills (my inner circle) and also beyond my present potential skills, the ones I'm still developing (my outer circle). If you still wanted to teach me, I would be completely dependent on you - I could only do what you told me to do, with no opportunity for choice and self-regulation.

6. Using "scaffolding" strategies

Thus promoting autonomy really means working within this outer circle and towards the borders of it. If we work inwards, we foster dependence; if we work outwards, we foster autonomy. How can we promote work which falls within the outer circle? Within the outer circle, teaching for autonomy implies matching support and challenge. This balancing of support and challenge refers to what has been called scaffolding (Bruner 1983): like the poles and boards that are used round a building that is being built, painted, or repaired, we build a structure round people who are in the process of learning, and we gradually remove it as we realize that they can stand on their own two feet.

 The use of scaffolding strategies is something which we, as teachers, but also as parents or adults, often use with children or, generally speaking, people of any age who are in the process of learning something. Using scaffolding strategies, and gradually removing them, is thus a concrete example of challenge and support in action, and is at the core of the process of learning and teaching for autonomy. I would like to provide another example, this time closely related to a school situation: the task of making a synthesis of an expository text.

 The most common advice traditionally given to students in this respect sounds something like this: "Keep the most important or main information and disregard what is secondary or irrelevant". Now, we can hardly consider this as a scaffolding strategy providing support. Arguably, one could wonder what is meant by "main" or by "secondary" information. Besides, what you may regard as "main" information could be seen as "secondary" by somebody else. Making this distinction is a demanding task - it clearly implies a challenge which, at least for many students, may be far ahead of the skills needed to cope with it. In other words, this piece of advice refers to a skill which for many students does not belong to their present, actual state of development - their "inner circle" - but perhaps to their potential state of development - their "outer circle". For some students, this skill may even fall beyond that.

 So we need to provide support in the form of scaffolding - we need to break down the complete task and help students to identify the different steps in the process of discriminating main ideas from secondary ideas. We could show them that, behind the rather vague and useless labels of "main" and "secondary", lie more concrete levels of information: for example, a general statement can be distinguished from a more concrete example; an objective fact can be contrasted with a subjective opinion; a structure can be broken down into its parts, a process into its stages. Once students can see the difference between these levels of information, they will have more concrete criteria to make a choice.

 We can of course develop specific tasks to train them to gradually become aware of different levels of information in a text. First, we could start with a very simple "recognition" exercise: we could highlight the different levels of information and simply ask students to recognise them. We could ask them, "Do you consider this portion as a statement or as an example?". Then we could still highlight the different levels, but ask them to say why they are different, without giving them the clues, that is, the labels of "statement" and "example". Next, we could ask them to identify the levels themselves, simply telling them that the text contains a number of statements and a number of examples. And finally, we could ask them to identify different levels of information in a text and tell them to justify their choices by saying why they are different. Only then will they be able to select information according to explicit criteria.

 Breaking down tasks like this does not mean that we need to be so gradual and specific in structuring our "scaffolding": the degree of support, and the relevant degree of challenge, will obviously depend on the needs of a particular class or of particular students. It will also vary according to the feedback that students can give us through their performance and their self-evaluation of their progress. In other words, the balance between support and challenge is an ongoing process of decision-making on our part and on the students' part.

7. Implications for further research

I would like to finish by mentioning some of the most direct implications of the challenge/support framework for our profession.

 In the first place, the framework can be used as just another way of becoming more aware of our own individual teaching style. We can do this by observing examples of our behaviour during a lesson or an even shorter teaching episode, and by identifying the very specific, personal ways in which we provide our students with support and challenge. This involves considering both the quality of the tasks we set and the quality of the verbal and non-verbal interaction we promote.

 Secondly, we can use the challenge/support framework as a useful addition to our already well stocked range of criteria for materials evaluation. Coursebooks and other materials, including software and media like the e-mail and the Internet, can be evaluated in terms of the opportunities they provide for students to experience both challenge and support, and in terms of the scaffolding they offer to ensure that learning gradually leads to autonomy.

 Finally, there is clearly a strong connection between the challenge/support framework and students' motivation. Investigating students' motivation implies finding out, among other things, how far the tasks we set provide the appropriate balance between challenge - which means novelty, surprise, discovery and complexity - and support - which means encouragement, reassurance, comfort and security.

 To finish with, I would like to quote a couple of famous lines from J. F. Kennedy's inaugural speech. On that occasion he said:

 "Don't ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

As a reminder that, whatever amount of challenge and support we provide, autonomy is, ultimately, a matter very much in the hands of our students, we could paraphrase Kennedy's words to read like this:



Benson, P., Voller, P. (eds.). Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning. Harlow: Longman, 1997.

 Bruner, J. Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton, 1983.

 Deci, E.L. and Ryan, R.M. "A Motivational Approach to Self: Integration in Personality", in Dienstbier, R.A. (ed.) Perspectives on Motivation. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Vol. 38. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

 van Lier, L. Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Awareness, Autonomy & Authenticity. Harlow: Longman, 1996.

 Tudor, I. Learner-centredness as Language Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

 Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.


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