Peter Harrold and Andrew Gallacher, Kyushu Sangyo University, Fukuoka, Japan.
Harrold, P., & Gallacher, A. (2019). Self-perceptions of teacher autonomy within a standardised English language program at a Japanese university. Relay Journal, 2(2) 257-270. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/020202
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Teacher autonomy relates to the teacher’s capacity, freedom and responsibility to self-direct and self-reflect on choices that affect their role as a teacher. This study takes a two-fold approach in examining (1) the degree to which English language teachers in a university in Japan felt autonomous whilst adhering to a standardized curriculum, and (2) how teachers that self-identified as having a significantly higher degree of autonomy than their colleagues continued to find ways to exercise it in this context. The first stage utilized the Teacher Autonomy Scale (TAS). Then in stage two interviews were conducted with teachers who had reported the greatest level of autonomy on the TAS. The findings from the research suggest that teachers are still able to create spaces to express their autonomy within a standardised curriculum through processes of supplementation or modification, which may be motivated by either feeling a responsibility to offer their students more, or a desire for professional freedom and confidence in using their own discretion.
Keywords: teacher autonomy, self-perceptions, Teacher Autonomy Scale, interviews.
Teacher autonomy is an elusive concept to clearly define due to its multifaceted nature and the wide range of professional attributes it encompasses (Huang, 2007). It is popularly construed as a freedom from external constraints and control that may be characterized by teachers having independence in decision making and discretion in how the curriculum is implemented (Benson, 2006). In addition to this, it may be demonstrated through a number of professional attributes. For example, more autonomous teachers may display a higher capacity to be self-directed, responsible, self-aware and reflective regarding their own professional actions (Smith and Erdogan 2008; McGrath, 2000). Key to this is the teacher’s capacity, willingness and sense of responsibility to make decisions that impact on teaching and learning (Huang, 2007). This includes choices regarding the curriculum such as materials, content, methodology, lesson-pacing, homework and assessment. These choices can be affected by internal and external factors, i.e. both environmental and personal constraints, as Benson (2010) usefully distinguishes: “Teacher autonomy can be understood both as a working condition that allows room for teachers’ professional discretion and as the teacher’s capacity to create this working condition within prevailing constraints.” (p. 263). In this study, despite a conclusive definition remaining elusive, the three core dimensions of teacher autonomy succinctly captured by Aoki (2002), namely “The capacity, freedom, and/or responsibility to make choices concerning one’s own teaching” (p. 111), will be used as a framework for discussion later in this paper.
The extent to which teachers have autonomy in their role can impact on many aspects of their professional life, such as job satisfaction, job performance, self-esteem, sense of professionalism, empowerment, stress and burnout (Pearson & Moomaw, 2005). Furthermore, at an institutional level this can impact on teacher motivation and retention (Parker, 2015). However, it is necessary to acknowledge that greater teacher autonomy can have either a positive or negative impact on many of these factors, depending on the individual situation, teaching context, and personal preference. For example, teachers might feel greater stress if too much external control is asserted on their lessons, or conversely feel stressed if they have two much freedom and lack guidance in planning a curriculum, particularly when starting a new job. Furthermore, personal preferences may be influenced by the teacher’s own opinion of autonomy, as Pearson and Moomaw put it “Some teachers thrive on autonomy, while others perceive it as a means for principals to avoid their duties” (2005, p. 42).
Therefore, enabling conditions for the optimum level of teacher autonomy is a hard balance to strike, as it must account for both the teachers’ individual preferences and administrators’ desires to standardise the curriculum (Ylimaki, 2012). Inevitably at management level “coordination and standardization are considered necessary to maximize efficiency, effectiveness and accountability” (Pritchard and Moore, 2016, p. 191). Ultimately, it seems that within educational settings there will always be a struggle between the opposing needs of top-down coordination and bottom-up teacher led autonomy.
With this in mind, the present study aims to establish a better understanding of teachers’ perspectives and self-perceptions of their own autonomy while teaching English language classes that follow a standardised curriculum within a university in Japan. It was considered pertinent to investigate this within the given context due to the top-down prescribed nature of the curriculum placing external constraints on teacher autonomy.
The important role self-perception plays in constructing views of teacher autonomy has been highlighted in a number of past studies stemming from the work of Pearson and Hall (1993). However, there remains a need for more research into insider perspectives regarding teachers’ views and attitudes towards their own autonomy (Huang, 2007). Benson (2010) has made a valuable contribution to this area by interviewing secondary level teachers who were required to follow fixed ‘Schemes of Work’. He found that despite restrictions they were still able to create spaces in the curriculum for expressing their autonomy. However, similar studies at tertiary level are still lacking.
In order to collect data from teachers, the researchers considered a number of preexisting surveys that attempt to measure teacher perceptions of their own autonomy. These include the Sense of Teacher Work Autonomy (Charters, 1976), the Self-Empowerment Index (Wilson, 1993), the Teacher Autonomy Scale (Pearson & Hall, 1993), and the Teacher Work Autonomy Scale (Friedman, 1999). In the end the Teacher Autonomy Scale (TAS) was chosen as the most appropriate for this study for the following reasons. Firstly, the survey is easy to implement as it measures the self-perceptions of teacher autonomy using a short 18 item four-point Likert scale format (see Appendix A). Furthermore, the survey makes the useful distinction between items related to General Autonomy such as personal discretion in decision making in class as well as classroom standards of conduct; and Curriculum Autonomy such as the selection of activities, materials, instructional sequencing and planning. This is particularly useful as this study attempts to focus on practical classroom aspects of teacher autonomy rather than issues at an institutional level such as those related to broader decision making, professional development opportunities, or alternatively its complex relationship with developing learner autonomy. Finally, the validity of the survey has been well documented by Pearson and Hall (1993), Moomaw (2005), and Pearson and Moomaw (2006).
The TAS has been previously used in a number of studies to explore dimensions of teacher autonomy. Pearson and Moomaw (2005) found that as Curriculum Autonomy increased, on the job stressed decreased, and as General Autonomy increased so did empowerment and professionalism. Furthermore, Pritchard and Moore (2016) used the TAS to evaluate the balance of teacher autonomy and top down coordination on 130 ESOL programs and found most programs tended to offer much less Curriculum Autonomy.
Similar to the trend identified by Pritchard and Moore (2016) it is predicted that teachers will report higher levels of General Autonomy than Curriculum Autonomy, as the curriculum is standardized. However, it is also predicted that teachers will self-report a wide range of individual autonomy. Therefore, the current study also intends to explore how and why some teachers still perceive their overall level of autonomy as significantly higher than colleagues teaching on the same program. For this reason, follow up interviews were conducted with teachers that reported having the highest levels of autonomy on the TAS.
The participants of this study were English lecturers teaching compulsory listening and speaking classes to Japanese students studying a variety of disciplines at a Japanese university. The classes meet for 90 minutes per week and follow a top-down standardized curriculum that uses a set coursebook and requires all teachers to assign the same weekly review quizzes and homework assignments.
All full-time faculty in the English department were provided with a copy of the TAS survey and an explanation of its purpose with the option to opt out of the research. In the end twelve out of fifteen staff members agreed to be involved in the study. After the data had been collected the survey results were analyzed in a way that replicated previous studies such as Pearson and Moomaw (2006). To elaborate, the questions that were negatively worded to record perceptions of low autonomy were re-coded as positive as this allowed a total score comparing teachers’ self-perceptions of autonomy to be calculated. It was hypothesized that due to the fixed nature of the curriculum, teachers would report having limited autonomy, especially in factors relating to Curriculum Autonomy. As a result, we were particularly interested in how teachers managed to express their personal autonomy in an environment where for the most part the goals, materials, homework and assessment have been predetermined. Therefore, part two of the study consisted of follow up interviews with participants who self-reported a higher level of autonomy than their peers, reflected by a low total score on the TAS. Three teachers were invited to be interviewed based on their TAS score being over one standard deviation below the mean for the department. One teacher chose to opt out of this part of the study due to leaving employment at the university, leaving two remaining participants. The interviews were structured with standardized open-ended questions to invite responses that allowed further explanation and elaboration on the aspects of autonomy identified by the TAS (see Appendix B).
As predicted, teachers reported having greater autonomy on measures related to General Autonomy. This is reflected by the low scores obtained on questions 1, 3, 5 and 16 on the TAS, which measure: creativity in teaching approach, freedom to determine behavioral policy, freedom to set guidelines and class procedures, and freedom to select teaching methods and strategies, respectively (see Table 1). In contrast, teachers reported having the least autonomy on measures contributing to Curriculum Autonomy. This is indicated by the scores obtained for questions 12, 14 and 15 on the TAS, which measure the freedom to determine the content of what is taught, the materials used, and the selection of activities or tests for evaluation.
The first interviewee, hereafter referred to as participant one, appeared to feel restricted by the pressures of external constraints but felt duty bound to the students to go above and beyond the existing curriculum. He placed particular importance on trying to incorporate interesting activities at the start and end of lessons. He justified his approach by saying:
l think if I was a student I would appreciate if my teacher was doing something a little different than only the textbook.
This may be characterized as feeling a responsibility to make autonomous choices to improve teaching and learning and a commitment to supplementing the existing materials. However, he acknowledged that covering the designated materials still took priority and he felt somewhat restricted by the curriculum. He expressed his frustration multiple times saying:
I don’t feel we have much freedom at all to make changes, I don’t feel we have much freedom at all.
He later went on to specify the areas he felt particularly restricted:
But in terms of choosing let’s say material, textbooks, goals and objectives for classes I don’t feel I have any freedom or input.
In closing, when asked if he had anything to add, the respondent spoke at length about what he felt was the situation at Japanese universities in general:
I think there is not a lot of autonomy in the way we choose to develop professionally so to speak. I feel here it’s like they only look at publications, which personally, I feel that it’s a good way of assessing researchers I don’t know if it’s a good way of assessing teachers. So I guess what I am trying to say is I’d like more autonomy in choosing how I develop. So perhaps more about taking courses, and taking online certificates – certification. Rather than this expectation of having to do research.
He felt this issue was not specific to his current institution but reflects a wider frustration for lecturers employed primarily for teaching roles in Japan that are then judged for the most part on research output. Furthermore, he also felt his capacity to express autonomy should extend beyond classroom practice, elaborating that:
I don’t feel there is a lot of autonomy, in terms of the long-term goals and long-term trajectory of our department… When really, if you are going to be working let’s say in a modern democratic workplace that values employees equally then surely we should all have a say in what happens.
In contrast participant two gave the impression of being more maverick in his attitude to how and why he felt able to express his autonomy. He recognized external constraints existed especially regarding grading, but felt it was in his power to choose how he responded to them, and ultimately, he felt he had control over what activities he would use in the classroom. His responses could be characterized as feeling empowered with self-anointed personal freedom to make autonomous choices. In essence, participant two came across as a teaching bohemian whose non-conformist attitude allowed him to avoid the adverse effects of stress from outside pressure to teach lessons a certain way.
He referred several times to his comfort at making his own decisions in the classroom free from external constraints, as explained in his own words:
You really do have total control in class, cause they’re never going to step on your toes really until you get a complaint from a student. You can do whatever you want in class.
It is particularly revealing that he considered any outside interference from management as ‘stepping on his toes’, and equally compelling that he was more concerned with positive student feedback. He later elaborated:
If you really wanted to, you could not use the book at all. It would be more work on you, but in class, what I’ve seen so far from four or five universities, you can do what you please in the class. You can do what you want, so I make my own decisions in class. I do what I want in class.
This showed how important he felt his past experience of teaching at multiple universities had played in minimizing any fear felt in deviating from the established curriculum. He went on to volunteer an example of how he worked outside or around the curriculum to implement classes in a way he though was best for students:
For example, listening is a huge part of the book, I don’t teach listening at all because I think it’s a waste of time in the classroom. So, I drop listening from there and I implement more speaking activities.
This may be considered quite a radical implementation of change to a class titled Listening and Speaking, opting to focus exclusively on teaching one skill. Participant two, even more so than one, felt a freedom from external constraints believing strongly in his ability to use his own discretion to make the best choices regarding his students’ learning. In contrast, participant one spoke more in terms of bringing the best out of the curriculum by providing supplementary activities that go above and beyond the coursebook, whereas participant two displayed confidence in using his discretion to replace the core curriculum if he felt his own methods were more beneficial to the students. This may be regarded as enacting a policy of modification rather than supplementation.
In summary, both participants saw teaching a standardized curriculum as restrictive, and both considered it important to find ways to express their autonomy, albeit for different reasons and using different methods to create space for it. Therefore, despite only two teachers being interviewed, it was interesting to be able to identify significant variations in why they valued greater autonomy, and how they were able to create spaces within the curriculum to express it.
As predicted, the department as a whole felt greater General Autonomy than Curricular Autonomy, a similar finding to most ESOL programs (Pritchard and Moore, 2016). Furthermore, mirroring what Benson (2010) found with secondary teachers, those interviewed still found ways to express their autonomy in the face of perceived restrictions and were able to empower themselves as teachers. It was poignant that how the teachers perceived the expectations that the curriculum places on them influenced to what extent and in what ways they felt they were able to express their own autonomy. As a result, they either opted to supplement existing materials as in the case of participant one, or in the case of participant two to modify what was there. This finding was unexpected and suggests that there is a complex relationship between the three aspects of teacher autonomy identified in Aoki’s (2002) definition: capacity, responsibility, and freedom. Most noticeably that when the teacher’s capacity for autonomy is diminished by a standardized curriculum they may still express greater autonomy driven by feelings of personal responsibility to their students, such as was the case for participant one; or alternatively characterized by the desire for professional freedom in decision making, such as shown by participant two. This demonstrates the complex interplay between factors involved in not only motivation for expressing greater autonomy but also how autonomy may be achieved.
It was interesting to note that even though interviews were limited to the teachers who had the most positive views of their own autonomy, in order to focus on positive ways autonomy can be enacted, deep underlying frustrations still emerged. Particularly from participant one who, in expanding his responses beyond the initial scope of the study, lamented the lack of professional development opportunities at an institutional level and the skewed focus on research output above teaching practices at national level. These areas could both warrant further research in the future.
The findings highlight the difficulty in measuring the multifaceted nature of autonomy to make meaningful comparisons between teachers due to the range of internal and external factors involved. The implication is that perceptions of autonomy are best explored on an individual rather than departmental level. Therefore, a noticeable limitation of the research was limiting the scope of those interviewed to only those who reported the highest levels of autonomy. This was done out of an interest in focusing on how some teachers still manage to express their autonomy in a highly standardised and restrictive curriculum. However, interviewing a wider range of teachers may have helped to gain a clearer picture of why teachers in a standardized program had such varying self-perceptions of their own autonomy.
Further limitations regarding the scale of the research should also be acknowledged, as this study was limited to surveying the full-time faculty. Therefore, due to the small sample size based on the selection criteria, the findings are not broadly generalizable to a wider population. The university also has approximately thirty-five part-time staff teaching on the Listening and Speaking program. Therefore, it would be interesting to conduct further research that uses the TAS to compare part-time teachers’ perceptions of autonomy to those of the full-time faculty. They were excluded from this study as their teaching situation and opportunity to impact on the curriculum differ from full-time staff. However, in future it would be useful to make comparisons between the two groups and also to ascertain whether teachers working in a part-time capacity in general prefer the top-down direction of a standardized curriculum or would like greater autonomy in determining the content of their classes. This could involve developing the interview questions to explicitly ask teachers to explain the reasons for their personal preferences pertaining to curriculum autonomy.
Finally, it may be useful to repeat the TAS with the full-time faculty to compare how results may have changed over time, particularly in relation to curriculum autonomy. As there have been a number of positive initiatives relating to autonomy that have occurred in the department since this research began. The change with the greatest potential impact has been the restructuring of the weekly full-time faculty meeting, which in the past was an opportunity for the department head to share information and curriculum changes in a top down fashion, but is now only held once every three weeks with the other weekly meeting slots filled by special interest groups that meet for half an hour each. These groups were decided during full-time faculty discussions, with each group headed by a different volunteer member of staff. The groups include curriculum review for each of the programs, educational technology, materials development, research and professional development workshops, and an academic reading group. This has provided faculty members with the ability to influence curricula decisions by joining groups based on their own interests. This structural change now affords teachers direct input on decisions that affect course content. For example, membership of the listening and speaking program group led the current researchers to be involved in a group project to select and pilot an appropriate textbook (Gallacher, A., Harrold, P., Stewart, J. & Taylor, S. 2019). Therefore, it can be predicted that if the TAS was repeated teachers would report improvements in their sense of curriculum autonomy.
This study set out to explore teachers’ self-perceptions of autonomy when teaching on a standardized curriculum and the reasons for some teachers self-identifying as significantly more autonomous. Teachers in general reported greater General Autonomy than Curriculum Autonomy echoing the general trend found in past studies. The findings suggest that when external factors such as a standardized curriculum impact on the teachers’ capacity for expressing their autonomy they may find ways to reestablish it by creating spaces within the curriculum. This was achieved by the teachers interviewed who opted to either supplement or modify the curriculum. This action appeared to be motivated by either feelings of responsibility to their students to offer more, or a desire for professional freedom and discretion. Therefore, it would be useful for further studies to look deeper into both the motivations for acting autonomously and personal preferences regarding curriculum autonomy. Of particular interest would be to examine any contrast in preferences between part-time and full-time faculty. Enabling an optimum level of teacher autonomy can be an invaluable way for administrators to support teachers in their role and help them to develop professionally.
In closing, it is important to recognise that absolute teacher autonomy is not a realistic or desirable goal in itself, however, finding ways to enable teachers with different preferences and experiences to act autonomously in a shared standardised teaching context is. Therefore, the most positive outcome to stem from this study and the wider dialogue it created on autonomy has been the creation of special interest teaching groups that have helped to empower faculty members to have greater impact on curriculum choices.
Notes on the contributors
Peter Harrold is an English Lecturer at the Language and Education Research Center of Kyushu Sangyo University, Japan. He has a PGCE in Education from the University of Exeter, UK; and an MA in Teaching English for Academic Purposes from the University of Nottingham, UK. His research interests include: EAP, teacher and learner autonomy, educational technology, and extensive reading.
Andrew Gallacher is an English Lecturer at the Language and Education Research Center of Kyushu Sangyo University, Japan. He has an MA in TESOL from the University of Nottingham, UK. His research interests include: autonomy, motivation, humor, and CALL.
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