The Secret to ‘Creating’ Autonomous Learners


by An Sneyers

“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about UN-becoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place”

– Unknown –

In the next post, An Sneyer’s explores some of the conditioning factors that limit learning potential and the role teachers may have in helping students overcome these limits. An goes on to introduce her Ultimate Study Skills Success program, together with The Funnel:  a thinking model aimed at helping students with ideas development, understanding text structure, and driving their own learning. An’s text is interspersed with questions that should both offer food for thought and prompt the possibility of sharing your experiences in the comments section. If you want to hear more about An’s model, please join us at the LASIG showcase at 11.55-12.25, Tuesday 2 April 2019.

Recently I saw this quote on a wall somewhere. I love this, because it applies to life in general and it is also true for learner autonomy. I believe that we are all born with a blueprint which contains the seeds for all our human potential, including the potential to autonomously create great things. When nurtured, these seeds get activated through the learning and growing we do, and we transform from infants dependent on our caretakers into fully functional, confident and successful human beings. It’s in our DNA.

Unfortunately, over time there has been interference with the deep knowledge we once shared around what is needed for this process to take place fully and successfully. As a result, is has become harder to raise independent young people ready to lead the world to the next level.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. Around the world parents do the best they can to raise their children the best way they know how. They do this with the resources and thinking they have available at the time. Unfortunately, their approach may not always be effective at growing fully expressed, confident and successful human beings. In fact, unknowingly and unintentionally, they might install beliefs and values that may get in the way of that.

It’s not their fault. Their model of parenting is often based on how they were raised. They may choose to use the same approach, or rebel against it and do the opposite. What we often see, is that parents, despite all the right intentions, don’t know how to meet their children’s needs all the time, and are unaware of the potential consequences of children not being seen as fully-fledged little people, but rather are seen as an extension of the parents. Those children are unknowingly shut down in their self-expression (‘Not now, honey, mummy’s busy’); are not taught how to functionally express and appreciate all emotions (‘Boys don’t cry’, ‘Good girls don’t get angry’); they stop being able to trust their own sensations, thoughts and feelings (‘There’s nothing to be scared about’) and they learn that their needs and ideas are not as important as those of the grown-ups around them.

They get conditioned to believe there is a right and a wrong way, and they’d better get it right. This is the root of people becoming dependent on what the outside authority tells them to do, rather than learn to make their own choices and decisions. Even if that makes them fall down. Even if it makes them look funny. Suddenly, there’s a fear of losing face, of not being enough, of not being liked for who you are and what you bring. Suddenly, it’s become a risk to have a go and be ‘autonomous’ in your thinking, your learning, your doing. Learning is stunted and the person’s experience of life becomes limited.

To date, I’ve not met a single person who hasn’t experienced some version of this and now has concerns around not being enough, being afraid to try new things, take small risks (which are absolutely essential for learning!) and who now worries about whether they’ll be accepted by the group and appreciated for who they are. You only need to look at the increasing number of body image disorders, people suffering from anxiety and depression, or the impact of social media on self-esteem and self-image to see how wide-spread these issues are in today’s society.

I experienced similar things. As a little girl, I loved singing. It was a natural form of self-expression for me. When I was 6, I’d seen people singing and dancing in the streets on a trip to South Africa and couldn’t understand why we didn’t do that all the time… everywhere… when it was so much fun?! I asked my parents to join the children’s choir, but I wasn’t allowed to because the choir would meet at a time that didn’t work for my parents’ schedule. At school I was told singing was for ‘music time’, not ‘maths time’ or ‘reading time’.

This is where I started to unconsciously shut down my voice. I learned that I needed to comply with what the teacher and mum and dad said. Their opinion was more important than my self-expression and my desires. Suddenly, there was something called right and wrong. Singing in maths class was wrong. Being quiet and doing what the teacher said was right and would get me praised. A little people pleaser was born. Needless to say, it took a lot of work for me to break through my fear of opening my mouth and claiming my voice in order to be a teacher, and even more so to do what I do now, which is create my own coaching and education programs, and speak at conferences like IATEFL and the English Australia Conference. It’s taken a lot of ‘UN-becoming’ to get there, but I can honestly say it’s been worth it. I’ve even started to sing again!

We need to remember that when students finally end up in our class, they’ve already experienced some 20 years or more of conditioning like this. Twenty years of learning to comply. To their family’s wishes. To society’s expectations. To the expectations of the education system. They’ve more than likely been tricked into believing there’s a right and a wrong way to learn, and that to succeed in life you must follow a trajectory created for you by external sources. This is how it is, because this is how it’s ‘always’ been.

They’ve forgotten about their ‘seeds’… of their innate ability to be playful, take risks, be curious, spontaneous, resilient, warm, embrace their uniqueness, functionally move through any and all emotions because they all serve a purpose. Instead, they’ve been covered up by a veneer of fears. Fear of not being enough. Fear of not belonging to the group. Fear of not being liked or loved. Fear of not being worthy.

This is why they often struggle to think for themselves, and instead defer to others to rescue them from the potential of losing face. It becomes even more prominent when they don’t trust the group yet. When you ask them for their opinion, they might not have one because they’ve never been asked to articulate one before. And like with anything new, it’s scary. They also may not know how to build their message beyond one-word answers or expand it into more depth because they wouldn’t know where to start. No one’s every shown them and taken care of the full picture, including the thinking and mindset. Not simply the ‘just do this’. This leads to them being quiet, reverting back to their L1 a lot and having inauthentic and rehearsed conversations in English, rather than being able to discuss or write about a topic of interest in depth.

It is clear that, by staying stuck in this learned helplessness and conditioned dependency on the external (teacher or others), they are doing themselves a disservice. And if we don’t learn how to help them overcome this, we are doing them a disservice. They’ll experience a clash in academic expectation, and will likely not do so well in an environment where having and articulating an opinion, and being able to carefully think through hypotheses, are important criteria in passing assessments.

Not only that, these skills are essential to be successful in this post-industrial era, where they will likely spend most of their lives doing jobs that don’t even exist yet. Jobs which are focused on complex problem-solving, collaboration across industries and cultures, in depth communication skills etc. Some of us have started to attempt to incorporate this, but there is so much more to go. And with time constraints and the growing compliance-based bureaucracy that seems to have overtaken the education sector, it’s often not easy to find the time and energy to learn how to do this and fit it into an already overly full curriculum.

So what’s the secret to turning this around then?

Personally, I believe is to help students (and teachers) bit by bit to strip back the layers of conditioning that no longer serves them and replace it with something else. New programming that helps them return to those innate blueprint qualities of resilience, risk taking (as essential to learning and growth), optimism, embracing their own uniqueness, playfulness, curiosity, love and deep trust in their own abilities.

The first step is for them to move out of survival mode and learn to trust others, and see that there may be another way of doing things that is safe and will help them to build the future they’d like to create for themselves. In other words, they must be exposed to a better model of how to navigate the world, than the fear-based one they’ve been programmed with.

Secondly, while they’re in the process of learning to trust themselves and that they’ll be ok, regardless what happens, it helps to give them structures and frameworks to work with. This will allow them to create consistent experiences of success by following a system. It also gives them something to hold on to, which helps in learning to navigate ‘newness’.

This is why I’ve developed the forthcoming Ultimate Study Skills Success program, to step by step install better strategies and models for success in both the students’ study and in life in general. It includes

  • models and exercises to help students develop a sense of ownership over their own learning
  • ways to build and maintain intrinsic motivation
  • frameworks for building functional beliefs around learning, a growth mindset and never-ending curiosity
  • strategies for building grit and resilience
  • tips for bringing organisation and structure to their thinking and study approach, including habit building
  • ways to manage fear, procrastination, stress, overwhelm and much more

Combining the latest in behavioural psychology with best practice education methodology, the program encompasses 10 online modules with videos and exercises for ESL and EFL speakers to take their learning skills to the next level.

If you would like to know more about this program and be the first to know when it launches, I’d love to connect with you. You’ll find my email below, or you can reach out through my Facebook pages.

I will also be presenting a thinking model called ‘The Funnel’ from the program at the LASIG Showcase at the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool on 2 April and at BELTA Day in Brussels on 11 May. The model offers a visual structure to help students distinguish between ambiguous ‘big ideas’ and details or ‘small ideas’ so they can flexibly build opinions, write well-thought out content for essays, recognise the connections between ideas in written and spoken texts, as well as expand on those dreaded one-word answers.

Please come and say hello. I look forward to seeing you there!

And because students are not the only ones who sometimes get stuck in conditioning that doesn’t serve them, I’m also building an Overworked Teachers Recovery Hub. If this sounds like you, please reach out. There is always a way forward and you’re not alone in this.

Lots of love,

An Sneyers

An Sneyers is an educator, mindset strategist, passionista and glow-getter. After having built a well-rounded and diverse career in language education, she started creating her own online education programs to help bring out the light in the people she works with and together build a future worth living in. An loves combining her three passions: education, understanding human behaviour to unleash the power of humanity, and travel. She sees empowered learning as the key to unlocking a bright future for the world and the people in it.

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