by Julia Ochocińska

Autonomy in education, and more specifically in language learning, has become the subject of many contemporary studies. And despite it not being considered an utterly new phenomenon (according to Benson, 2011, the origins of autonomy in language education can be traced back to the early 1970), it’s safe to say that having experienced its long-awaited renaissance, it’s quickly gotten labeled as one of the most desired learning outcomes in the 21st century classroom.

But let me ask two questions: why does modern language learning need more autonomy, and why now in particular?

Well, the answers are rather simple. It all comes down to the irrelevance of traditional modes of teaching in correlation with the dynamic changes occurring within the social and professional sector (consider, for instance, the last couple of years which can be seen as a truly transformative experience for education in general). But that’s just a drop in the bucket as along with certain external factors, many changes can be observed directly within the internal structures of the profile of a 21st language learner (e.g. higher awareness of one’s needs, clearer goals and objectives, higher though still realistic expectations, increased environmental attention, and a more holistic approach to conscious citizenship).

It would appear that “the ability to gain knowledge is far better than knowledge itself” (Lower & Target, 1998: 6) after all. This is the polar opposite to what traditional education has to offer. It’s not my intention, however, to say that traditional equals ineffective, but rather that in many cases traditional education does connect readily to the ideas of obsolescence and irrelevance to the modern world.

Obviously, tailoring education to meet the 21st century standards is a tall order which requires much more than magically snapping one’s fingers. For us educators, it’s all about taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. What can I do to help my students as they travel on the path to their own growth and self-discovery? What is my role in this process? What are the biggest challenges of today’s dynamically changing world and what can I do to better equip my students with the skills they’ll need to face them? What is the line between guidance and overreliance? Am I leading the way or unknowingly imposing?

Without a doubt, self-reflection has become an inseparable part of our profession. And clearly it goes both ways - self-reflection is not the unique preserve of the teacher but applies to the student as well. However, I dare to say that only self-aware teachers are efficient teachers. In a sense, they act as role models to a bunch of kids transitioning from their adolescent years straight into the uncharted territory of adulthood. This type of responsibility is unmatched, isn’t it? We all think we can do this; however, only a small percentage of us can do this right without killing the natural curiosity and individuality of our learners.

There are contradictions at the heart of education that act against self-reflection and the skills of the 21st century learner. It is the job of the teacher to promote independent behaviors, provoke critical thinking and encourage a culture of choice and freedom. After all, traditional forms of education risk producing students who are unable to think for themselves and are unaware of their individual predispositions. And that contradiction? While ensuring their students are all of these things, the teacher must stick to a prescribed syllabus, mandated by bodies with zero awareness of the personalities in the classroom, and with goals (such as exams) that bear no relation to many of the skills the teacher professes should be at the heart of their lessons.

And yet, our students need to know that learning is a life-long process which goes way beyond the four walls of their classroom. It’s a process of planting seeds for a better future and seeing the tangible results of one’s efforts in due time; a process which offers limitless opportunities to expand and succeed in various areas of life. That’s what autonomy in learning is all about. That’s what effective education should be about.

In the context of EFL teaching, much has been made of the shift from a teacher-centered to a student-centered classroom, but does the reality match the declaration?

There are many techniques that can lead to an apparently student-centered classroom - too many, in fact, to speak of here, so I shall use one example for now, that of Dogme (Thornbury, 2000). The central tenet of this approach is that the student drives the lesson forward, with the teacher serving as a guide. Yet it is still the case that the teacher is in control - they make the original decision to use Dogme, and can, in theory, switch to a different approach on the fly; the student might not know what the teacher’s goal is, and thus miss out on the empowerment of that choice; and it is for the teacher to decide on the areas of grammar and vocabulary that should be followed up on during the Dogme lesson itself.

I believe we still have a long way to go before achieving our lofty aims to make our learners truly autonomous. We shouldn’t forget that with higher autonomy comes greater responsibility. And responsibility is the word which more often than not causes reluctance among the majority of our learners; a word that can even trigger the fight or flight response. But is it really our students’ fault that they fear it so much? Are they entirely to blame for the current state of affairs in the educational realm?

Well, not exactly.

I am speaking most of all from my own observations from within the Polish educational context. This might seem to distinguish my experiences from those of the Journal’s readership - but not necessarily so. Firstly, the Polish system of education is similar to many other systems in Europe. It is somewhat authoritarian in nature, and much relies on giving students endless tests. Secondly, many of the Journal’s readers no doubt work in EFL in countries with such systems - and it is useful to know what life is like for your own students before they turn up in your classroom, expecting, no doubt, the same or similar treatment to that they had received in the rest of their day.

The students that I know are mostly ready to take responsibility for their learning - they just don’t know it yet and if they do, they don’t know how to proceed. That’s the biggest challenge a language educator needs to tackle first – to go against the well-established educational grain and suggest a huge shift in perspective.

But enough of preaching. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of how to actually introduce the idea of autonomous learning into the classroom context.

Of course, the most advisable approach would consider a complete turnaround in terms of structuring and designing language courses. As implied by Cotterall (2000; quoted in Harmer, 2007), such a well-rounded language course should be built predominantly around the idea of goal orientation. However, bear in mind that the large-scale character of curriculum remodeling is highly unlikely to guarantee an overnight success. Even though its effects are oriented towards the long-run, the process itself is thought to take place rather gradually.

But don’t get discouraged as there are several things we language educators can do to encourage a more autonomy-friendly atmosphere in our classrooms on a daily basis. I’ll call it a baby-steps approach towards encouraging a culture of lifelong learning. Here are my suggestions:

1. Take a step back and observe

I hate to break it to you but you’re only one piece of the educational puzzle, an important one unquestionably, but it’s your students who matter the most. Give them the spotlight, let them shine their light. Of course, they won’t know everything, and they will make mistakes. But how else are they going to learn if they are not able to discover the world on their own terms? It’s part of the process. And don’t get me wrong, the teacher’s guidance is necessary at any stage of the learning process; however, by guidance, I mean support, not unhealthy dependence; suggesting not imposing; facilitating not dominating. When your students speak, encourage them to take chances. This might come down to something as simple as delaying your feedback in exercises that promote fluency - if the student feels they will be jumped on as soon as they speak, they will become more conservative and will only tell you what they think they want to hear.

2. Show them how and let them choose

Even though in many instances your students might have limited say in terms of course content, you can at least let them decide how they want to learn about a given chunk of material and/or which language learning resources to use. Show them what’s out there, give them a chance to explore different learning strategies and techniques so they can adapt them to their needs and predispositions. To flip the classroom or not to flip? To collaborate or to work individually? To engage them in collaborative project-based tasks or to stick to passive knowledge transfer and acquisition? To use authentic and compelling language resources or to follow repetitive - though better scaffolded - coursebook exercises? The list goes on, the possibilities seem to be endless. Be aware and make your students aware.

3. Unlock the power of self-reflection

The transformational journey towards autonomy starts with the ability to identify one’s own strengths and weaknesses. The moment your learners know how to identify the gap between what they already know and what is yet to be learned in the context of their future goals and individual predispositions, their overall motivation levels and by the same token their capacity to become more autonomous increases exponentially. Self-reflection is a powerful tool for personal growth and development so if for some reason you still haven’t incorporated it into your teaching practice, let me ask - what are you waiting for? Hear your students out, let their thoughts and feelings be externalized. Start slow, provide them with some writing/speaking prompts until self-reflection becomes as natural as breathing. What have I learned? What do I need to work on more? What was the most challenging/difficult? Why is it important? And so on. Then, as they finally learn how to monitor their progress and have a deeper sense of understanding of the intricacies of the learning process, let their creative juices flow. Reflective learning comes in different shapes and forms. Journaling, blogging, podcasting? To each his own.

And if they can’t get it? If the paradigm shift from being spoon-fed to holding the spoon seems an insurmountable challenge? Model the kind of self-reflection you want - by telling your students about your own experiences of learning. Glenn Standish wrote in Issue 50 about Teacher Talk Time - and, indeed, it is not always bad, especially if it provides a template for your students, while helping to build further rapport between you and them in the meantime.

You are all no doubt familiar with this old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” (Traditional proverb, cited in Lower, R., & Target, F., 1998). Is this simply yet another lofty saying, or is it an idea worth pursuing? The ultimate goal of contemporary education or an approach impossible to implement?

Well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.


Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and Researching Autonomy (2nd ed.). Pearson Education Limited

Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English Language Teaching (4th ed.). Pearson Longman

Lower, R., & Target, F. (1998). Helping Students to Learn: A Guide to Learner Autonomy. Richmond Publishing

Standish, G. (2023). Teacher Talking Time: Is it really that bad? IH Journal #50

Thornbury, S. (2000). A Dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues #153

Author Biography

Julia Ochocińska is a certified Poland-based EFL teacher, a freelance writer, an educational content creator and, above all, a language enthusiast interested in all things language and all things teaching. She has vast experience in the ELT industry as a teachpreneur, teaching a variety of General/Business English courses to clients of different ages and proficiency levels.