choice decentralised teaching and learning

In this video by Pearson education we are told that the coursebook package ‘Choices’ fosters Learner Autonomy. Let’s suppose that this is true.

The next question is:

if this is true, what is the mechanism by which it does this?

We are told about an ‘architecture of choice’ but it’s not clear what this means. Surely if you are bringing a set of materials into the classroom – then

you’re already limiting choice.

Moreover, issues such as

who has the power to choose
what determines your choices (class, race, sexuality, gender)
how your ‘choice’ is conditioned by material facts

are not mentioned.

So, while not meaning to criticise the teachers involved in the video but the product, I have a question.

1) How can you foster Learner Autonomy by importing materials that are generic and centrally designed?

Your opinions please.


8 thoughts on “Learner Autonomy with a coursebook?

  1. Hi Paul,

    Very interested to bump into your blog just now. Looking forward to reading Sailing with LA when I get the chance.
    Like you, I’m guessing Pearson’s aggressive appropriation of autonomy is actually a fairly empty promise and a rather cynical move on their part. I’d be interested to see what mechanisms they’ve come up with to make LA real.

    But I wonder just how important the ‘import’ of materials into the class is in the bigger LA picture, providing teachers use them judiciously. I run a blog, too, with a friend Duncan Foord. Here’s a post you might find interesting:



  2. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for commenting. Well, I agree with you on Pearson – I asked them directly on Twitter how their materials foster learner autonomy and I’m still waiting for their response.

    So, Pearson ELT – feel free to comment!

    Regarding materials – I’ve nothing wrong with bringing materials into class and teachers using them creatively. But, as soon as you bring a book into the classroom – unadulterated – I think it unconsciously sets off some kind of psychological process.

    This is a book – knowledge – to be respected. And the book is the authority. I’ve had learners not believe me when I say ‘the book is wrong’. Coursebooks tend to pull everyone into their ‘orbit’ whether you like it or not.

    Teaching without a coursebook just frees you up to do a lot more in my opinion.

    But I have an idea which is a compromise. Why can’t publishers let me have (some kind of) access to the materials so I mix/ match/ remix the material to my own context? It could be under a CC license; I pay some kind of fee and I can rearrange the course the way I want it. Just having access to the pictures in coursebooks would be good.

    Maybe one of the big university presses would be interested in running a pilot?

    Oxford or Cambridge?

    *I’m reading your post on ‘Giving your Coursebook the Coaching Twist’ now – thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Paul,
      I’ve taught classes without a coursebook on many occasions and enjoyed ferreting through the staffroom library and my own materials to tailor curriculum to the students’ needs (according to me!). But what psychological process does MY authority impose on the class? The claims you make about coursebooks can just as easily be laid at the teacher’s door:

      “…as soon as you bring a TEACHER into the classroom I think it unconsciously sets off some kind of psychological process…This is a TEACHER – knowledge – to be respected. And the TEACHER is the authority… TEACHERS tend to pull everyone into their ‘orbit’ whether you like it or not.
      LEARNING without a TEACHER just frees you up to do a lot more.”

      The course book still stands as a useful scaffold / crutch / syllabus for teachers who are a) inexperienced b) lacking in confidence in their own English (it is largely NSETs who preach dogme); b) too busy to tailor materials to specific classes; c) teaching low-level classes who have roughly the same objectives of learning the basics. Good coursebooks also provide learners with: a) a motivating sense of progress b) texts and extra reading and listening at their level that they can use to extend their study, c) language that tends to be couched in naturally-occurring collocation, researched by corpora; d) a reference of irregular verbs, vocab banks, grammar rules, phonemic symbols, etc all in one book. I hope that my post (above) also shows how many books these days look to more metacognitive aspects of learning.
      Like teachers, coursebooks have their place in learners learning programmes. Like teachers, they can be trusted (on the whole) to o a good job. Unlike teachers, however, we shouldn’t expect too much of them. They’re only books, after all.

      1. I should add that Pearson’s claims for their book are clearly unrealistic for the reasons I’ve just given. But that’s the job of marketing departments, I suppose. It’s our job as consumers of their products to sift out the good ones from the crap!

        1. I agree, though it’s sometimes hard to pick out good materials from the tidal wave of ‘product’.

      2. Hi Dan,

        You’re right – you can insert ‘teacher’ there. But there’s one big difference. A teacher can change his/ her behaviour, a teacher can react to the atmosphere in the room, a teacher can react.

        A book can’t.

        And I don’t agree with the statement ‘This is a TEACHER – knowledge – to be respected. And the TEACHER is the authority…’. My experience in Berlin really doesn’t bear this out. Freelance teachers are not respected in Berlin – we’re low-waged, underpaid and we don’t have the respect that full-time/ contracted teachers do.

        Also, teachers come in all shapes and sizes – non-native speaker teachers might not agree that they have ‘authority’ and are ‘respected’ in all situations.

        I agree with some of your points about coursebooks, but I don’t think the claim that ‘coursebooks have their place’ should be accepted automatically.

        We increasingly ask our learners to be critical – but very few people challenge the claim that ‘coursebooks have their place’.

        I’m just one of them.

  3. (of course, Dogme was critical of coursebooks – but it looks like the pendulum has swung back – cue ‘the return of the coursebook’)

  4. Paul, Found your post top of the list for a search for “learnerautonomy” on Google+. Disagree with you strongly about limiting choice. Limiting choice is a great thing as long as what your are left with are the good bits. The key is being able to judge what is good, and of course you are right that that is culturally relative, but there’s no getting away from cultural relativity – even the preference for not imposing a choice on students is culturally relative. Nothing is more biased than the idea that the best kind of choice is an infinite one.

    My favourite bit from the video is at 1.50: “If you go through any of the sections of the book there is one common objective underlying them all. And that is learner autonomy.” Which sounds nice as long as we forget what sort of course this book is supposed to be used on. Presumably it is a course which the people at Pearson see as preparation for one of those Pearson tests.

    Autonomous learning for tests is a rather dubious sort of autonomy. The students can choose the words they want to learn, suggests the man in the video. But the question that will be in the students’ minds is: Is this the sort of vocab likely to come up in the dreaded exam? Autonomy in this context becomes a technique for creating a sort of anxious self-discipline of the sort that would be created on a factory floor if the workers were told that now they must decide how to do the assemby of the products (without, of course, being able to question the choice of product to be assembled or the speed of the assembly line, not to mention issues like the ownership of the plant and the distribution of the profits). It becomes a technique for ensuring that every worker becomes his own foreman – every student becomes his own examiner. Autonomy as the internalisation of heteonomy.

    In addition to the cynicism that Dan highlights there is a predictable poverty of thinking here about what autonomy – freedom – might mean. We try to scratch the surface of that issue in relation to learner autonomy in our post:

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