Publications beliefs identity and motivation

Beliefs, Identity and Motivation in Implementing Autonomy
The Teacher’s Perspective


Published in: Murray, G., Gao, A., & Lamb, T. (2011). Identity, Motivation and Autonomy in Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Recent discussions of identity and motivation in language acquisition have increased our understanding of the highly personal, variable, and contextually influenced learning processes our learners engage in (e.g. Breen, 2001; Ushioda, this volume; van Lier, 2007). But what about the teacher? What factors affect teacher motivation and identity? This study was motivated by an interest in understanding teachers’ roles as agents in the learning process and in particular their roles as facilitators of autonomous learning in self-access centres.

This chapter reports on a large-scale investigation that took place over three years in which extensive interviews were held with teachers of 46 self-access centres in five countries. The purpose of this chapter is to 1) elicit teachers’ beliefs about learner autonomy in self-access, 2) identify conflicts between teachers’ beliefs about autonomy and students’ (self-access) language learning behavior, and 3) identify conflicts between teachers’ beliefs and institutional constraints. The study is based on an ethnographic approach to develop an understanding of the participants’ personal theories (Borg, 2003) of supporting autonomous language learning. It does this through a combination of open-ended interview questions and a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) (Thompson & Strickland III, 2001) of the language support offered in the centres. A categorical content analysis (L’Ecuyer, 1990) reveals a complex and sometimes conflicting interaction between the teachers’ beliefs and their everyday roles which suggests that the concept of agency cannot be separated from those of motivation and identity.

Understanding the Teacher’s Role
With the so-called ‘social turn’ in education (Lea & Nicoll, 2002), there is currently a growing interest in understanding the role of the teacher in the wider sociocultural-educational context, and similarly an interest in understanding the teacher as an active individual within that context, responsible for his/her own development. This requires an understanding of the teacher as a person; ‘The aim of teacher education must be to understand experience’ (Freeman, 2002c: 11). Freeman (2002c: 1) provides a comprehensive review of both the conceptual and research literature on teacher knowledge and learning to teach. In his article he focuses on ‘the hidden side of teaching’, where the ‘hidden side’ refers to teachers’ mental lives. Teachers’ beliefs and their sense of identity are examples of these ‘hidden’ characteristics and have been shown to strongly affect teaching practice (Richards & Lochkart, 1991).

How teachers’ beliefs emerge and change over time, and how teachers’ sense of ‘self’ and identity develop, has been the focus of an increasing amount of research over the years. Borg (2003) proposed an influential model of ‘teacher cognition’ which encompasses all of a teachers’ beliefs, knowledge, assumptions, perspectives, etc, that determine teaching practice, and that are, in turn, affected by the practice of teaching. For example, experiences gained in the classroom shape a teachers’ views on pedagogy, as does taking a professional course, or communicating with other teachers.

With Borg’s model as the theoretical framework for this chapter, we are particularly interested in teacher cognition in relation to one particular type of teaching, namely the ‘facilitating’ that occurs in a self-access centre. Teachers (also often referred to as ‘facilitators’) working in a self-access centre find themselves needing to use a different or additional set of skills than those they draw on in a classroom. There are a number of obvious differences between a self-access and a classroom environment that affect the day-to-day role of the teacher. Many tasks that in the classroom are commonly considered to belong to the teacher, in a self-access centre are carried out by the learner, with or without the help of a teacher. Examples include identifying learning needs, setting goals, selecting materials, and monitoring progress. Facilitators thus provide individualised help at times when learners need it, which involves a great deal of flexibility. The ranger of learners’ levels, interests and needs are what usually surprises new facilitators (Moore & Reinders, 2003). Another challenge for facilitators is the difficulty of focusing on skills as opposed to content; in classes generally a certain amount of material needs to be covered (e.g. a course book or a number of topics), whereas in self-access, facilitating involves preparing learners and supporting learners in their self-directed learning. As a facilitator it is impossible in most cases to know if a student will return or not and the focus is thus always on helping learners discover ways of improving their language by themselves.

These differences between the language classroom and the SAC mean that for teachers, working in self-access can be challenging. Looking at Borg’s model (see above), the prior language experience teachers have is usually limited to classroom learning; most teachers have had little, if any, prior experience of developing autonomy as a learner, and most teacher education courses do not cover the topic in detail (Reinders & Balcikanli, 2010. From our personal experience, for many people working in this type of environment is a conscious decision, based on convictions about optimal ways of learning and teaching, and a process that requires a great deal of self-discovery. However, little formal research has so far been done to investigate exactly what motivates facilitators and what challenges exist for them in implementing self-access in practice. In other words, there is little information about the ‘hidden side’ of facilitation as a professional practice, and the relationship between teachers’ cognition on their teaching practice, and vice versa, the effect of teaching practice on teachers’ cognition. The main purpose of this study was thus to fill this gap in the literature and in particular, to explore the relationship between teachers’ identities in terms of their beliefs and perceptions of self; their motivation to promote learner autonomy; and their practice of fostering it in the context of a self-access centre.

Teacher Beliefs about Autonomy and Self-Access

Teachers’ beliefs about autonomy
In order to explore teacher cognition, it is important to start from the individual. Kumaravadivelu (2001c: 541) talks about teachers as ‘autonomous individuals’ who ‘construct their own context-sensitive pedagogic knowledge’. Similarly, Borg (2003c: 81) has described teachers as, ‘active, thinking decision-makers who make instructional choices by drawing on complex, practically-oriented, personalised, and context-sensitive networks of knowledge, thoughts, and beliefs’. To better understand the roles of teachers in the self-access environment it is thus paramount to investigate their knowledge, thoughts and beliefs. In practice, this has not often been done. According to Vieira (2007), teachers are sometimes simply seen as tools to reach certain educational goals, rather than as an integral and active part of the educational process.

If we see teachers as expert technicians, the notion of professional autonomy makes little sense, since expert technicians are not supposed to move beyond or subvert normative expectations. This view of teachers is not compatible with the idea of pedagogy for autonomy, unless we envisage pedagogy for autonomy as a specific kind of regime to be followed uncritically. The resistance of many teachers to educational and political discourses of autonomy is often a sign of rebellion against this instrumental view of their role as technicians who should conform to top-down policies and reforms, more than a sign of rejection of the idea of autonomy itself. (Vieira, 2007c: 23)

Aoki (2008) too, emphasises the personal nature of implementing autonomy and argues that teacher education is about seeing teachers as individuals who develop their educational identities, as they attempt to develop their learners’ identities as autonomous learners:

If identity is the central concern of teachers, learning to support learner autonomy may not be about acquiring knowledge or even generating knowledge as assumed by advocates of reflective practice but about transforming identity. In other words, teacher educators should ask themselves ‘who do I want teachers to become?’ rather than ‘what do I want teachers to know and to be capable of?’ (p. 15)

Perhaps surprisingly, considering the attention learner autonomy has received over the years, not very much is known about the relationship between teachers’ identity and beliefs about learning and teaching on the one hand, and how this affects their practice of fostering autonomy on the other. To understand teaching practice in a particular context, it is important to investigate teachers’ beliefs about that context and we therefore now look at the case of self-access.

Teachers’ beliefs about self-access
A number of previous studies have investigated teachers’ beliefs about learner autonomy and their own roles in its development. One of these (Reinders, Sakui, & Akakura, 2010) is a diary study charting the experiences of two novice language advisors working in a university SAC. It was clear from the advisors’ comments that the facilitation process requires good support and ideally good preparation and training. Other studies have come to similar conclusions. For example, de los Angeles Clemente (2001) found that in one university in Oaxaca, Mexico, teachers who were asked to work in the self-access centre without proper preparation and training, developed a dislike of the work, and a disbelief in the potential of independent learning. In addition, they felt anxious about their new roles. Clearly the process of moving from classroom teaching to facilitating learning in SACs can be a daunting one.

Although studies such as the above help us to understand more about how teachers think about autonomous learning and their roles in supporting this process, much less is known about how the implementation of autonomy works in practice, especially at an institutional level. It is unclear, for example, to what extent teachers’ beliefs about autonomy are matched by their students’ beliefs, and to what extent teachers are supported within their teaching and institutional context in implementing a pedagogy for autonomy. Understanding how ‘autonomy in practice’ works and what impediments may exist, will help better prepare teachers for their roles as facilitators of autonomy and deal with the constraints that exist. Their ability to deal with these constraints, or indeed their willingness to do so, of course depends on their own beliefs about what learning and teaching should be like. It is clear that cognition and practice are closely, and mutually, related.

The Study
The data for this chapter come from a large-scale study conducted between 2003-2007 in which 46 SACs were visited in five countries and in-depth interviews were held with staff. The purposes of that study were to chart current thinking about theory and practice in self-access and to identify issues in its implementation in different countries. As part of the interviews a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) was carried out (see below). The interviews also included questions about teachers’ beliefs about autonomy and self-access and their motivations for working in this type of environment; it is this subset of the data that we are exploring here. Below we will describe the research questions, participants, procedures, instruments and the types of analyses conducted using this dataset.

Research questions
The research questions this study aimed to answer were the following:
1) What are teachers’ beliefs about autonomy in self-access?
2) What conflicts exist between teachers’ beliefs about autonomy and students’ (self-access) language learning behavior?
3) What conflicts exist between teachers’ beliefs and institutional constraints?
Through these questions we aim to investigate how teacher identity and motivation develop and change in the context of developing autonomy in self-access.

Participants in this study were teachers in 46 centres in 5 countries, 35 of them were part of a tertiary institution and 11 of a language school. All were visited in person by one of the authors (see table 1).

‘Table 1 near here’ [supplied separately]

The semi-structured interviews consisted of 35 questions (most of them open-ended), divided into nine thematic blocs, adapted from Gardner and Miller (1999). Together they cover the main pedagogical and practical issues related to self-access as identified by Gardner & Miller and in the wider self-access literature. The nine themes included: learners’ and teachers’ attitudes towards autonomous learning in the SACs, the counseling service, learner training, learner profiles, materials, activities, assessment and evaluation. The questions about the themes were structured through a SWOT analysis. This is a tool originally used for management purposes that looks at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of organizations (Thompson & Strickland III, 2001). More recently it has been adapted for use in educational research as it encourages an investigation of a learning or teaching context from multiple angles, unaffected by prior expectations. Strengths in this context are the capabilities and resources that are advantages for the operation of the centre. Weaknesses are the aspects that limit or reduce the potential of the SACs. Opportunities are the external factors that ensure the optimal functioning or future of the centre and threats are the external elements that could negatively impact on the centre and even affect its existence.

The interviews were transcribed for content and this was analysed by using the categorical analysis model (Bardin, 2003) within an open categorization framework (L’Ecuyer, 1990), which has no predetermined set of categories, in order to ensure that the resulting categorization corresponded to the reality as felt and expressed by the participants and not to the prior conceptions of the researchers. The transcripts of the interviews were analysed by both researchers, coded, and then transcribed (see for more information Lázaro, 2009).

The results discussed below focus on teachers’ beliefs about autonomy, mismatches between teachers’ and learners’ beliefs, and finally, the relationship between individual and institutional views on autonomy. Together, these affect teachers’ identity and motivation in the context of enabling learners’ ability to control their own learning. The three sections will show the way teachers’ cognitions are constructed based on these three key points.

What are teachers’ beliefs about learner autonomy in self-access?
Several questions in the interviews asked participants to reflect on the implementation of autonomy in self-access and their roles in this process. We have grouped comments related to similar issues together and report these here with representative quotations taken from the interviews.

The development of autonomy is, to many of the teachers we interviewed, primarily about treating learners as equals. In the words of one of the centre managers when talking about the teachers in the centre:

Advisors in the centre, they treat them [the students] as equals. They try to show them that they respect them, they expect respect in return. They have very high standards, they expect very high standards from the students. They try to provide students with some sort of scaffolding or a framework by which the students would do better than what they would on their own. (New Zealand)

Perhaps related to this is the notion that teachers need to be able to offer alternatives to existing power relations:

The advisors really try to break down some of the power relationships that are traditionally present between teacher and student. The adviser tries to ensure that the student realizes that he or she is responsible for their own learning. (Hong Kong)

Some teachers also indicated that they felt they had a responsibility to actively shape a context that allows for the development of autonomy (cf. Winch, 2007). Autonomy, in their view, is thus something that needs to be ‘taught’ or the development of which needs to be ‘guided’.

Understanding why they need learner training is a process. Students don’t understand why they have to learn this. They need guidance and support. Without this, learner training does not work. (Spain)

This implies an increasing (support for) individualisation of the learning process:

One of the strengths of the advising sessions is the capacity to adapt to the student’s needs and his or her situation. I think this is the most powerful aspect of self-access. (Switzerland)

Self-access and autonomy are about the development of life-long learning skills:

It actually enables the learner to continue learning when they leave the school. That’s the biggest single thing, I think. (New Zealand)

The view of learner autonomy as an individualised process towards life-long learning, to many teachers implied a degree of conflict between recognising the individual’s role while still providing the necessary guidance. For several teachers, this form of guidance towards autonomy was seen as a form of negotiation:

The idea for us is to offer them an advising service at the beginning, so that learners can feel comfortable and can start taking their own decisions. After that you can leave more space and let the learner make their own choices more. We wouldn’t want to give learners a set ‘autonomy curriculum’ but it is necessary to start with a certain number of limited options and to offer guidance in the beginning. (Spain)

What conflicts exist between teachers’ beliefs about autonomy and students’ (self-access) language learning behavior?
Looking back at Borg’s model, it is clear that classroom practice plays an important part in the development of teachers’ cognition. Our beliefs affect our teaching practice, but similarly, our teaching experiences affect our beliefs. A mismatch in teachers’ and learners’ beliefs is thus likely to have an impact on teachers’ views on autonomy. Below we report incidences in the interviews where teachers reported a potential mismatch or conflict between their own view on autonomy in self-access and their students’ (self-access) language learning behavior. As in the section on beliefs, we have grouped comments related to similar issues together and report these here with representative quotations taken from the interviews.

One recurring issue is that many teachers feel their students are too dependent on them and do not take responsibility for their learning.

In general I would say that students are not used to autonomous learning. That means that they expect that an advisor will be always guiding their learning process. Obviously one of the goals of the centre and its staff is to get the students to be more and more autonomous, so that they learn to analyse their learning process and so that they can use the learning materials in a more considered way. (Spain)

Students’ dependence is probably closely related to another issue which was mentioned by many teachers, namely students’ lack of interest in developing learner autonomy. Many reasons were cited for this but the most common was that students simply do not think it is important. In the words of a teacher in New Zealand:

For a numbers of years students have said: “Really, I want a teacher to teach me. I don’t want to learn on my own” And I think half of that is financial: “I pay money, so I expect to be taught”. They see it as a complete waste of time. Part of it, it’s educational background about what is expected. “If I go to school I have a teacher teaching me”.

Some students feel their money and time are better spent in class. There is also a common perception that for students independent learning is hard, or like ‘asking them to run before they can walk’ (New Zealand), often of not having been exposed to it in their formative school years. As a result, some students may even fear it, as this teacher from Spain says:

The learner has a very paradoxal attitude towards autonomy. On the one hand, the freedom and flexibility sound very attractive, as does the ‘anything you want, whenever you want’ idea. It’s easy to convince them like this. But after a while students realise that it’s not so easy, and especially if they pay for their education, they start to develop doubts. It’s like looking at a blank page and asking yourself: where should I start?

For some teachers, this lack of interest in autonomy is difficult to understand:

The program has good staff who believe in the idea of independent learning. The problem is that they can’t understand that not everyone wants to be independent in their learning process. (New Zealand)

Not only are students sometimes less than enthusiastic about the idea of directing their own learning, they also often do not see the importance of tools such as learning plans, records, and portfolios. Many students see it as an extra job and may consider it not a good use of their time. Teachers think they often also don’t know how to use these kinds of tools properly:

In most cases the reflection done by students it is not deep enough. They don’t understand the process of the portfolio. They see it as a product/ assignment. (Germany).

Many teachers thought their students had the wrong view of what self-access is and how it contributes to student learning. Many felt students used self-access as a ‘quick fix’ to deal with last-minute problems. This also applies to their views on language counseling sessions.

You get also a lot of students that do like the service, but they basically want you to correct all their mistakes. And that’s not what we do. […] Some students really like it, some others get really annoyed as they just want a grammar check. (New Zealand)

Learners also feel that because self-access learning is often not credited and progress not measured through formal tests, that it is not helpful.

Test are potentially useful, as most of the students do not consider their peers as a source of information, a source of feedback. People think that they themselves are not really good judges of their own progress when it comes to language, and we try to show them that yes it is a valuable source of information. (New Zealand)

Some teachers report developing tests to make self-access more acceptable to students:

As the students are very exam oriented, it is difficult for them to assess without pre- and posttest and to see progress. They feel they can’t measure it. (Hong Kong)

It is clear from the comments reported above that considerable mismatches between teachers’ and learners’ beliefs about autonomy exist. Teachers display different ways of responding to these, in some cases accommodating them (such as in the last example), but in all cases reflecting on them. Since reflection is the starting point for all professional development (Freeman & Richards, 1996), these mismatches are likely to have an impact on the ways in which teachers see themselves within the contexts they work in.

Is there a potential conflict between teachers’ beliefs and motivations and institutional constraints?
The way in which teachers are perceived is likely to have an effect on how they think of themselves. If teachers are not valued or if the goals they are working to achieve are not shared by their colleagues or the wider insitution, then this may have a(n) (detrimental) effect on teachers’ identity and motivation.

In all of the centres we visited, there were issues with regards to the integration of self-access and autonomy into the wider educational context. Often there was a lack of coordination between students’ self-access learning and their classroom work. In the words of one German teacher ‘the activities in the SAC are simply not coordinated with those in the courses’. And according to this New Zealand teacher:

I think that the weakness is that you need a lot of classroom and staff to help students become independent and sometimes I think that we lack that. So like teachers teaching students how to be independent so that when they come to the self-access they are doing the things that would help them to move in independent learning.

Often this lack of integration is due to curriculum constraints where the role of foreign languages and of autonomous language learning in particular, is not given much room in terms of budget or timetabling considerations. Often self-access learning is not compulsory and therefore only very motivated students, or those with severe learning difficulties, make use of the available support.

Actually the curriculum at the university has no language component. Students do not need to have language training, nor the university has the obligation of offering such training. This situation makes it very hard for the centre and the staff to get the necessary funding and recognition (Germany).

Sometimes this lack of integration is a result of working in a large institution where the position of the SAC is not clearly defined:

We haven’t been able to engage all departments within the institute. We haven’t been able to convince people that students should come. In a big institution you get lecturers who follow up the students and say them go to the support language centre and then they ring us and ask us: has this person been there? But many other don’t. I guess, maybe we should have a stronger link with some departments. (New Zealand)

Implementing autonomy can also be a frustrating experience due to a lack of understanding from colleagues in other departments about what autonomy is.

It is very hard to change people’s minds and their way of thinking. Convincing people takes time and it doesn’t always work. In Hong Kong there are very few teachers concerned about the importance of learner autonomy. (Hong Kong).

This lack of understanding results in teachers in the SAC being perceived as somehow doing less valuable work and their professional contribution not always being recognised. In some cases SAC counsellors are labelled ‘administrators’ which does not accurately reflect their roles. In some cases their work is not adequately acknowledged.

According to the new guidelines, work in the SAC now gets less recognition and in practice this means that SALL involves more work for the teachers. This is dangerous, as these teachers may not be interested in working in the SAC anymore. (Hong Kong)

A perennial problem in self-access and one reflected in most of the interviews, is the lack of funding. In some cases this is the result of a lack of institutional integration (no one takes financial responsibility for the centre), and sometimes it may be a result of the lower status of SAC and SAC teachers than other ‘more academic’ departments.

The strength of the centre is the team behind it. Nevertheless there is a part of the team with bad working conditions, and this leads to the situation of people leaving the centre. So, once you have trained a person for the work in the centre he/she leaves and you have to start from the beginning. This is very frustrating for the staff responsible for the centre. (Spain)

This lack of funding particularly affects centres’ ability to hire sufficient staff.

We lack trained staff for working in the centre. We can’t afford to hire professional staff, so we rely on students. As students come and go every semester or every year, there is no consistency. For us it would be much better if we could have permanent staff. (Switzerland)

In a number of centres, teachers in language departments are expected to carry out tasks in the SAC, without proper training and without proper remuneration. SAC time is often paid at a lower rate than classroom time.

We can’t ask teachers to work in the centre, without having their time there recognised. If they don’t get their effort acknowledged somehow, you can’t ask them to invest their free time there. (Germany)

Several teachers point out that institutions may want to use SACs as a way to reduce teaching costs, and that they do not see the need to invest sufficiently in ensuring good-quality self-access support. This also negatively impacts on the views on self-access of the teachers in the centre:

Teachers’ attitudes has been a big thing. In the beginning it was really hard [on the teachers], because the school basically did it [establish the SAC] because they wanted to save some money. Management often views lab time, even self-access time as a sort of money saving and at the end it’s not really. It’s simply an alternative to classroom teaching. (New Zealand)

With or without the support of management and other colleagues the work in the flexible environment that is a self-access centre can be frustrating. As there is often no timetable, no curriculum, and no set materials or classes, the usual ways for teachers to obtain feedback about their and their students’ progress, may not be easily available. This can affect teachers’ motivation:

In the beginning, working in the centre can be very exciting for the teachers, but then comes the time when they have to work alone without much support, and that’s hard and sometimes a source of disillusionment. They do not have much experience and neither their colleagues. They ask themselves: ‘Am I doing it right? Does this really work?’, and they feel really insecure and lonely. (Spain)

It is clear from the comments above that the insititutional context has a significant impact on how the work in the centres is perceived. There is a lack of understanding or appreciation of the professional identity the facilitators bring to the institution, and this has an impact on teachers’ self-perceptions and motivation.


The results of this study show a complex interaction between teachers’ beliefs, identity and motivation in implementing autonomy in the context of a self-access. Previous research on classroom teaching has found similar interactions. For example Borg’s framework of teacher cognition (1997, cited in Borg, 2003c: 82) gives prominence to contextual factors and classroom practice, including the learners’ role therein.

In terms of teachers’ beliefs about autonomy, the study found a great deal of overlap between the respondents. Autonomy is widely seen as involving (the development of) equality, and respect between teachers and learners. Other key concepts include empowerment, and related to this, the provision of guidance and the facilitation of learning (as distinct from teaching). The development of autonomy is also seen as a key aspect of successful teaching and a requisite for learner success. In practice, however, these ideas were not shared by many of the students. Teachers felt students did not recognise the importance of developing autonomy and lacked the necessary independent learning skills. It was generally felt that it was not so much cultural differences but rather a lack of previous education that underlies this phenomenon. Students are simply not used to the idea of taking responsibility for their learning.

The interesting, and in our view crucial, question this raises, is how educators will respond to this challenge. Some facilitators adapt by making the self-access environment more like the classroom. An example of this is the implementation of tests to accommodate students’ desire for a formalisation of their self-access learning. The majority of the facilitators, however, especially report an enormous need for learner training. Barcelos (2008) argues that a large part of the reluctance students may have towards the idea of autonomy, may result from misunderstanding and miscommunication. She calls for transparency and argues that ‘teachers need to be more explicit to students about the roles they want to play, clearly explaining their purposes and rationale behind each activity […]’ (p.194).

This leads to the question whether as educators we sometimes think we ‘know better’ and force our ideas of what constitutes good teaching and good learning onto our students, and whether there is an alternative. Barcelos (2008c: 194) suggests occasional adaptation to students’ beliefs. In this view, education, and in particular autonomy education, is a process of negotiation.

The main lesson from the results of this study is that these types of challenges are commonplace. Facilitators can expect to have to answer such questions for themselves in their own teaching context. This requires adequate personal/mental and professional preparation. In reality, however, many teachers lack this preparation. In terms of Borg’s framework, teachers’ extensive experience of classrooms which defines early cognitions and shapes teachers’ perceptions’ is, as the quote shows, based predominantly on classroom teaching. Most facilitators do not have alternative models to guide them, and explicit training in self-access learning is not generally available.

The other point to note is that dealing with different beliefs and possible conflicts that result from this (think of a student refusing to do self-study as an alternative to classroom learning) is likely to challenge teachers’ identity as someone who has the students’ well-being at heart. That in itself may be a fairly healthy process, but not having the requisite preparation for that process, may negatively impact teachers’ motivation, as, like we have shown, it can indeed do. In the words of this SAC manager commenting on her staff:

In some cases teachers feel lost. The other day a teacher commented that she felt frustrated as she didn’t know if her work at the centre had any impact or not, or what kind of impact. What happens is that there’s a lack of feedback.

Without easily accessible professional development opportunities and academic support, individual facilitators may not have enough opportunities to reflect on, and further develop, their personal belief systems. If the development of learner autonomy depends on the presence of teacher autonomy (Smith & Erdo?an, 2008), then surely, the development of that autonomy has to be a priority.

Further challenges to implementing autonomy come from Borg’s ‘contextual factors’, in the case of self-access mainly from institutional constraints. Most of the respondents in the study reported similar problems with a lack of professional recognition. In many cases this was thought to be a result of a lack of understanding on the part of colleagues of what autonomy is and what the role of a facilitator entails. This often resulted in a lack of integration of self-access learning into the wider (language) curriculum, an issue that has been widely reported in previous literature (e.g. Cotterall & Reinders, 2000; Gardner & Miller, 1999). This highlights the importance of awareness-raising; an area where SACs have important work to do. Unfortunately the lack of understanding of the work facilitators do, in practice often translates into decreased status and pay. The lack of recognition for self-access also means that fewer (financial) resources are available for facilities, and, importantly, staff academic development. This is reflected in the common labelling of SACs as a service department and of facilitators as ‘administrators’. This has a clear effect on facilitators’ sense of identity and motivation who see themselves not simply as providing and administrative service, but as people who work at the heart of the teaching-learning interface and who build deep and powerful connections with their students.

Finally, teachers’ sense of their personal development as professionals is informed by ‘classroom practice’ (as in Borg’s framework) and experiences. But in self-access learning, the ‘normal’ means of making sense of these experiences, and of measuring success (through course completion, feedback from students, tests results, etc) are almost absent. For many teachers this means that working in self-access is often a form of isolation; both institutionally, as well as professionally.

This study has shown that facilitating self-access learning comes with both rewards and challenges. One of the rewards is the knowledge that one is actively acting on one’s beliefs, by implementing autonomy in a flexible learning environment. This seems to be the motivation for most of the teachers in our study:

I would say that although human resources does not value our work so much, the teachers in the centre are all people who believe in learner autonomy and have always believed in it since the day the centre was opened. (Spain)

The many challenges, however, negatively impact on facilitators’ identities and motivation. One of the implications of this study is that there needs to be far more accessible and far more specific preparation for teachers intending to work as facilitators, and far more ongoing support. Without such professional preparation, both students and facilitators are likely to be negatively affected. The study has also shown the value of teachers’ voices as an important source of information in investigating the reality of implementing autonomy.


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