Learner autonomy and applied theatre in the ESL classroom

Paper given at the ILA Conference on Learner Autonomy at Konan Women’s University, September 5th — September 8th, 2018.


In their analysis of autonomy in the educational philosophy of Paulo Freire, Nicolaides and Fernandes (2008) outline two broad strands in the theory and practice of learner autonomy in education. The first follows Henri Holec’s classical approach (1981), which is to enable the learner (but also the educator) to take charge of his/her learning process through self-reflective practice. The second emphasises awareness to the social context that grounds the learning process. Ultimately, both lines of inquiry are concerned with the ethics of knowledge production and acquisition against the backdrop of globalization.

For the past two years, as part of a course on contemporary media cultures at Konan Women’s University, I have been exploring the use of applied theatre exercises to facilitate learner autonomy in the acquisition of language and media literacy skills. More specifically, I adapted Augusto Boal’s 1970s “Newspaper Theatre” model, which is outlined in his landmark book “Theatre of the Oppressed” (inspired by Freire’s writings from the 1960s and 1970s), to fit a 21st century media landscape. Students were invited to question the different narrative forms that structure the current media landscape; they deconstructed “official” news stories, and edited and performed their own “living newspapers.”

Drawing on literature from the field of drama and language learning, and using examples of student work from the course, this paper examines the relationship between applied theatre and learner autonomy in the ESL classroom. What insight into the function and meaning of learner autonomy can be gained from applied theatre activities?


applied theatre, drama in education, learner autonomy, ESL, Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal

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