Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

The Full Monty: What are the issues involved when we enhance learner autonomy?

Christine Hogan
School of Management
Curtin University of Technology
In order to enhance learner autonomy and to provide a superordinate and stretching goal at the end of a Masters Programme in Human Resource Development (HRD), I presented students with the challenge of planning, advertising, presenting, assessing and evaluating a conference on the Future Directions of HRD.

This session is designed to provide lecturers with a forum to discuss the joys, issues and problems involved in enhancing and managing learner autonomy. Issues will be linked to John Heron's work (1989) on the three modes of using and/or sharing power in groups: hierarchical, co-operative and autonomous.

Terminology used in this paper

The full monty The phrase "the full monty" anecdotally originated in the second world war. Field Marshall Montgomery, a famous leader in the British Army reputedly insisted on a full English breakfast ie fried eggs, bacon and bread even in his campaigns in the desert. This became a joke amongst his troops and a phrase developed: "the full monty" meaning "going the whole way".
Learner autonomy Learner autonomy refers to students having a direct say in and control of one or more of the following: the content, process, assessment and evaluation of their learning.

Why is there a move towards learner autonomy?

If you take a long look at babies, it soon becomes apparent that young children are power houses of energy and motivation to learn. Small children are natural autonomous learners, constantly asking "why?", "how?" "what?". They are self directed and it takes vigilant parents to keep these naive explorers of life from harm. As soon as children go to school however, the curricula, class content and learning processes are usually, often with good reason and intentions organised for them.

Why therefore has there been a movement away from teacher centred learning to student centred learning or autonomy? Candy (1991) argues that there has been interest in self directed learning through the ages, and that this interest increased from the 1960s and has accelerated in more recent years. Heron (1993) believes that there are many arguments for autonomy in learning. Firstly, he argues that learning by its very nature is autonomous, that is, nobody can make you learn and indeed no one can memorise facts, understand ideas or practice skills for you. Heron maintains that interest and commitment are self generated and any attempts to impose or negate them interferes with learning. Secondly, he believes that compliance with a programme completely directed by others leads to conforming behaviour in order to survive "the system".

Thirdly, Heron cites the doctrine of natural rights formulated by Locke in the 17th century now described as "human rights" as being the right of children, workers, research subjects and also students in higher education to participate in decisions that relate to them. Fourthly, Heron believes that learning should involve the whole person "a being that is physical, perceptual, affective, cognitive (intellectual, imaginative, intuitive), conative (exercising the will), social political, psychic and spiritual" (Heron 1993:15). This he believes is achieved best through learner autonomy.

How is learner autonomy achieved?

Learner autonomy can be achieved with many different structures: single students, buddy pairs, small groups and even the whole class uniting to achieve a superordinate goal. Individual autonomy is easier to negotiate as in small project groups, the level of autonomy required may be different amongst the individual members of a group (Heron 1989). Autonomy may be encouraged by the facilitator or seized by individuals or the group

Facilitation styles and the use of power in the classroom

John Heron is a leader in the development of a model of facilitator styles. The first development of his model (1977:3) included six bi-polar facilitation interventions shown below in Figure 1.

Non directive
Non interpretative
Non confronting
Non cathartic

Figure 1: Facilitative interventions (Heron 1977:3)

In the 1970s Heron saw these dimensions as "types of facilitator intervention". I contacted John in June 1997 and asked him how, when and why he made the conceptual leap and added the "three power or decision making modes" to his model (see Figure 2). He replied:

I think it was at a radical education workshop which I ran at the University of Surrey sometime in the middle eighties. A whole day or more of the programme was devoted to an autonomy lab, in which I was a participant along with everyone else. One of the sheets I posted up at the start of the lab was about my needs to clarify facilitation issues. Several other people signed up and we had a long session sharing views and perspectives. I had for some time been aware that the bipolar model, which I had used in many training workshops and in self and peer assessment, was effective as far as it went, but that the X - non X scheme missed out too much. The broad outlines of the new scheme clarified in my mind as I was taking my turn in the autonomy lab subgroup. (Email 29/06/97)
Hence, the theoretical framework for the 18 possible facilitator dimensions (Figure 1 below) was born ironically as a result of an autonomy lab (Heron 1989:61, Owen 1992). Heron added the power modes: The first two of the power modes correspond to Kurt Lewin's leadership styles ie autocratic and democratic (1951). The third ie "autonomy" is substantially different from Lewin's concept of "laissez-faire" leadership which means "do what you like". It is ironic that just as lecturers develop confidence to make effective presentations and/or teach, then they also have to learn to "let go". Most new lecturers and/or teachers are naturally concerned with "control". Letting go of control can feel intimidating and risky. It can also lead to feeling that you are not doing your job. Indeed it is often more time consuming and stressful for a lecturer to work with students in autonomous mode than in hierarchical mode.

By openly ensuring that participants know how power is being used, Heron was encouraging all facilitators to make open, ethical political statements to groups in how power could/would be used in the classroom.

There is a big difference I believe between a facilitator who works with students in autonomous mode and lazy lecturers. Consider a story I heard of a lecturer who in the first class delegated to each student a chapter of the text book and asked each individual to lead the class discussion each week. This lecturer also had a mark for "student participation" and sat at the back of a class making a mark beside each student's name as he/she said something!

ModesPlanningMeaning ConfrontingFeelingStructuringValuing


Autonomous ******

Figure 2: Heron's Model of Facilitation Styles: dimensions and modes (1989:23)

For the purpose of this paper, I will focus on the six dimensions in the autonomy mode. However, note before using any mode, it is necessary "to decide who decides" the various elements of the course ie you alone or you with students? Also, you need to think about what will happen if students decide to do something which you perceive is too risky physically and/or emotionally. It is important, I believe, to contract regarding the roles and responsibilities of students and facilitator to ensure that the learning processes and use of power are open and understood from the start. Below are examples of autonomous dimensions:

Autonomous modeExample
Planning dimensionthe facilitator delegates course design to the students
Meaning dimensionthe facilitator delegates interpretation of ideas, feedback and reflection to the group incorporating assessment and evaluation
Confronting dimensionthe facilitator delegates the role of defensive and avoidance behaviour to the group ie self and peer confrontation
Feeling dimensionthe facilitator delegates the handling of feelings to the group members
Structuring dimensionthe facilitator delegates the structuring of learning experiences, class exercises and supervises the running of them
Valuing dimensionthe facilitator delegates the affirmation of self worth to the group

Figure 3: Examples of autonomous dimensions

What does learner autonomy entail from the point of view of the facilitator?

In a recent meeting of lecturers, I commented "going around trying to be the fountain of all wisdom and knowledge must be like having an orang-utang on your back". Everyone fell about laughing and many wrote my comment down. I was a little puzzled by the degree of mirth it caused. Yet, despite the difficulty of keeping up with the rate of movement of knowledge in the world many lecturers still have their egos linked into this view of the world.

Moving to increased learner autonomy requires:

According to Heron's model there are eighteen possible facilitation styles (See Figure 2). Changing styles can be confusing to both the lecturer and the participants. Yet at times a lecturer needs to take a more hierarchical mode to keep things on track or perhaps needs to work in a cooperative mode with students to make meaning or to confront inappropriate group behaviour. Learner autonomy requires a didactic lecturer also to become a facilitator of learning. See below.

Lecturer in hierarchal mode
Facilitator in autonomous mode
ExpertMentor, tutor, co-learner
Lecturer focusStudent focus, peer learning
ControlTrust, risk
StructureAmbiguity, fluidity, uncertainty
Questioning to test understandingTeaching students how to question

Figure 4: Changes in behaviour from lecturer to facilitator

The change to autonomous mode results in higher degrees of risk and ambiguity so I always keep a journal of hunches, questions, ideas about the resulting complex group dynamics. This helps me to "make sense" of what is happening. It has also taught me that group dynamics can swing quickly both within a meeting and between weekly meetings. It taught me to expect the unexpected.

What does learner autonomy entail from the point of view of the participants?

Of course students' reactions to leaner autonomy vary. "Surface" learners tend to want to be told what to do. "Deep" learners tend towards leaner autonomy naturally. In some cases "achieving learners" (who often use a mixture of surface and deep styles) may set themselves such high goals that there is ensuing stress and even "distress".

Some students "seize the day" and relish the opportunity to design their own assignments and assessment schemes. Some rush off and work totally alone, others seek guidance and support from the lecturer. I think the most difficult part is when some students have an unrealistically high expectation of their work and have not sought lecturer guidance. They then react negatively to constructive feedback.

Some lecturers comment on the resistance to learner autonomy by students from Confucian backgrounds in South East Asia. I believe it is important not to generalise about any group of students. I was particularly impressed during my two years in Hong Kong by Chinese students who designed their one year Liberal Studies programme in the first year of their degree. Coming straight from school and participating in a two day Search Conference in a camp situation, they energetically threw themselves into their group projects culminating in a student organised visit to China (Hogan 1982).

If lecturers are involving students in co-operative and autonomous course planning then they need I believe to use a "robust" process like the "Search Conference" (Emery 1976, Emery and Purser 1996, Hogan 1994).


Below I have given some dilemmas real and imaginary to prompt discussion. The examples relate to my teaching in the area of Facilitation and Human Resource Development. However, you may have a number of your own dilemmas to discuss relating to your own teaching area.

Dilemma 1: Planning dimension: autonomous mode

"I paid, you teach"
Consider the following dialogue between facilitator and student in the first class:

Facilitator: Good evening and welcome to this unit in Strategic Human Resource Development. In order to maximise your learning this semester you will be involved in deciding on a super ordinate goal for the whole group and designing strategies to achieve that goal ie you will be working in autonomous and co-operative modes to plan this unit to meet your learning needs. This unit is based on a philosophy of learner autonomy which involves...
Student: Excuse me, I just paid $ XXX for this unit and you are asking me to do all this work! In my last unit the lecturer put everything on the web and gave us handouts of all her power point lectures...

Dilemma 2: Meaning Dimension: autonomous mode

Autonomous and co-operative assessment does not equate with high distinction marks.
You have spent quality time carefully giving constructive feedback to students' assignments. When you give them back in class you suggest ten minutes reading time. Some students immediately turn to their marks and do not read any of your carefully written feedback. There is visible anger. "But I always get a high distinction" one student says loudly.

Dilemma 3: Confronting Dimension: autonomous mode

To monitor or not to monitor small groups?
A student is learning how to facilitate. He has set groups of participants to work, they are spread out in clusters inside the classroom, next door and down the corridor. Instead of walking past the groups occasionally, the student facilitator sits quietly until it is time to call the group back together. When asked why she did not monitor the groups she responds "I am practising learner autonomy, even if I just walk past them I am controlling, exercising my power over them. By not walking past I am showing them I trust them to sort things out for themselves".

Dilemma 4: Feeling Dimension: autonomous mode

You can invite openness, but it may not be easy
You delegate to "study buddy" pairs (Hogan 1997) the task of addressing how they are feeling about their work together. You have discussed with them guidelines on giving and receiving feedback. The class start to discuss and there are high levels of energy in the room. You notice one pair sitting awkwardly, hardly communicating. What would you do?

Dilemma 5: Structuring Dimension: autonomous mode

"Trust me"
You have contracted with your class for individual students to take responsibility for a five minute opening or closing exercise each week in class. You have pointed out that this is cooperative mode ie in the unit guide you have asked them to ensure that the exercise relates to the content of the class and is suitable for the time limit and ask them to tell you their exercise by phone beforehand. One student who has missed the previous two weeks walks in to class two minutes before the class is due to start. It is his turn to facilitate the opening. Consider the following dialogue:

FacilitatorWhat opener have you prepared?
StudentTrust me
FacilitatorYou've missed a couple of weeks
StudentYes, but everything is OK, I know what I'm doing, trust me (ie seizing learner autonomy).
LecturerOK (with some misgivings)

The student launches into a totally inappropriate opener (in autonomous mode). As he had missed two weeks the opener is not appropriate to the content/subject focus of the class that week. The facilitator and students had renegotiated the content the previous week. The students look puzzled. You feel frustrated. What would you do?

Dilemma 6: Valuing dimension: autonomous mode

You want to mediate, but students want to sort things out alone.
Students have working autonomously for some weeks outside the classroom in groups of four. Two students from one group visit your office visibly distressed. The group is obviously becoming dysfunctional. You listen to their issues and discuss options including an offer by you to meet with all the group members to mediate. They return to their group, but you hear that problems continue. You are concerned for the emotional safety of all group members. You again offer to visit the group to mediate. They refuse the latter option. What would you do?


Candy, P. C. (1991). Self-direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive guide to theory and practice. Jossey-Bass Publishers. San Francisco.

Emery, M and Purser, R. E. (1996). The Search Conference: A powerful method for planning organisational change and community action. Jossey-Bass Inc. San Francisco.

Emery, M. (1976). Searching : for new directions -in new ways -for new times. Occasional Papers in Continuing Education, No 12. The Australian National University, Canberra.

Heron, J. (1997). June 26, Facilitation model. E-mail to Christine Hogan. [On line]. Available E-mail HoganC@cbs.curtin.edu.au

Heron, J. (1993). Group Facilitation: Theories and models for practice. Kogan Page Ltd. London.

Heron, J. (1989). The Facilitator's Handbook. Kogan Page, London. UK.

Heron, J. (1975). Six category intervention analysis. Human Potential Research Project. University of Surrey. UK.

Hogan C. F. (1997). The Study Buddy System: You are not studying alone. Training and Management Development Methods, 11(3).

Hogan, C. F. (1994). The Search Conference Process. School of Management, Curtin Unviersity. Perth, Western Australia.

Hogan, C. F. (1982). Education ... What for? Report on a Search Conference. Hong Kong Polytechnic. Hong Kong.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field Theory in Social Science. Harper and Rowe. New York.

Owen, H. (1992). Open Space Technology: A User's Guide. Abbott Publishing, Maryland. USA.

Please cite as: Hogan, Christine (1998). The Full Monty: What are the issues involved when we enhance learner autonomy? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 133-138. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/hogan-ch.html

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