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Talking Shop: Aspects of Autonomous Learning. An Interview with Leslie Dickinson

Who is the interviewer?

Tricia Hedge, a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Univ. Since 1972 she has taught sts and ts in univs in Sweden, Japan and UK on a wide variety of programmes: Eng for Academic Purposes, Eng for Professional Purposes, and both pre-service and in-service education. Tricia is the author of Teaching and Learning in the Lang Classroom and Resource Books for Ts: Writing, She is also co-editor of Power, Pedagogy and Practice and founder editor of the Oxford Bookworms Library series, published by OUP. She is a former editor of ELT Journal.

Who is the interviewee?

Leslie Dickinson is currently Senior Lecturer at Univ in Edinburgh, Scot., has written several books and articles on L autonomy, including Self-Instruction in Lang Learning and Learning Training for Lang Learning. In this interview he talks about the qualities and characteristics of autonomous LS, the influences on his own thinking about autonomy and the related concept of L training, his current research, and his particular interest in self-assessment.

List the characteristics of the autonomous learner.

Autonomous LS are those people who are characterized in a number of ways: 1st, they are able to identify what´s been taught, they can pick out what T is doing, what the aims and purposes are, can make them their own and work on them. More importantly, they are able to see the importance of doing that, of being concerned about what they are trying to do. So, they are aware of the T´s objectives. / 2nd, they are able to formulate their won learning objectives, not necessarily in competition with the T. /  3rd, they are people who can and do select and implement appropriate learning strats, often consciously. They can monitor their own use of learning strats. / 4rth, they are able to identify strats that are not working for them, that are not appropriate, and use others. They have a relatively rich repertoire of strats, and have the confidence to ditch those that are not effective and try something else. / 5th, they can monitor their own learning, in other words, they can do self-assessment, and they are consciously involved with it and can recognize its importance.

What does Leslie say regarding “autonomy and age”

In relation to learning within formal education institutions, the notion of autonomy is more easily attached to adults. Talking a much broader context, the notion of autonomy applies across the age range. The most autonomous learners that she is aware of are small children, who are obviously learning about themselves and about the world. There is work going on in education which indicates that young children with learning difficulties can be trained to become better LS. And there is interesting work being undertaken by Dam in Denmark, where she is training secondary school children to become more autonomous. Of course, the approaches that one will take towards different ages as T will be different.

What does L training consists of?

It consists of learning how to learn. According to Ellis and Sinclair, L training relates to the concept of L autonomy, in that it aims to provide LS with the ability to take on more responsibility for their own learning. They make the useful point that “ability” involves both strats and confidence.

Dickinson developed a framework to drive LS´ attention to metacog strats, its acronym is GOAL . Explain what it stands for.

Leslie Dickinson was worried over the years about encouraging LS to work out their objectives, to think through a range of metacog strats, to plan their learning, to give a time scale to it, to select materials to meet their objectives, and to undertake self-assessment. So she coined the acronym GOAL, a checklist of things LS have to pay attention to in experiencing a lesson, to use with STS in class.

G = Goal- what am I supposed to learn from this? O = Objective- what is the specific objective of the task I am about to do? A = Act - how am I going to do it? What strat is the best? Is the obvious one, the one I really want to use? L = Look- monitoring the strat in use & self-assessment. How have I done? OK? Do I need to do the task again?

What is collaborative assessment about?

Dickinson says that seeing L involvement is very easy in informative assessment, but as soon as you are moved into formal certification, which is a feature of most educational situations, the L traditionally has no control or involvement. The relationship between the T and the L is one where virtually all of the power is with the tutor. Under those circumstances, to try to get LS to take responsibility for their learning is much more difficult, because they are obviously and demonstrably not in control of this important aspect. She developed a scheme of collaborative assessment with TS attending a Master´s course in TESOL in which STS are invited to assess themselves, that is, they have the option to assess their own coursework. The course is assessed through assignments. Sts submit their self-assessed grade in a sealed envelope with the assignment. The tutor, having given a grade, then checks out the st’s self-assessment. If the grades are different, though in fact they’re often similar, the tutor invites the ST to come along, talk about it, and negotiate an agreed grade according to the negotiating criteria that we use. And if the tutor is persuaded by the st’s arguments for a higher grade, that grade goes forward. This gives the st real power. If they cannot reach agreement a referee marks the work, and his/her grade is final.

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