The relationship between teachers' reflective practices and teacher autonomy in language learning classrooms in Saudi Arabia
Teacher reflection is a process in which teachers examine their own beliefs and instructional practices to develop greater awareness of these practices as well as their students' learning. In tum, the ability of a teacher to act on his or her reflections on practice relates closely to the notion of teacher autonomy. Faced with complex situations and changing learner needs in their classrooms, teachers require both the knowledge and skills to respond effectively, and the necessary autonomy to put their professional judgements into practice. In order to make such judgements wisely, it is important that teachers reflect on what they do in order to develop an awareness of the underlying assumptions shaping their teaching practices, as well as the impact on the learners of the choices that they make. Reflective practice is thus a key element of teacher professional development.
While the links between reflective practice and teacher autonomy have been researched in a range of language teaching and learning contexts, no such research appears to have been reported focusing on English language teachers at the tertiary level in Saudi Arabia. This qualitative study focused on six Saudi EFL teachers at a university language institute in Saudi Arabia. The specific aims of the study were to explore: (1) participants' understanding of the concept of 'reflective practice' and the ways in which they reflect on their teaching practices, (2) participants' perceptions of the benefits of engaging in professional reflective practice, (3) any autonomy constraining factors that could limit participants' capacity, willingness, and freedom to engage in reflective practice processes, and ( 4) the impact of any such constraints on the teacher participants. Data was collected through semi-structured individual interviews, classroom observations, reflective journals, and focus-group discussions.
Findings showed that the Saudi EFL teachers' engagement in reflective practices enhanced autonomous decision-making towards the pursuit of more creative teaching methods to meet the learning needs of students. Despite the potential benefits of reflection identified by these teachers, autonomy constraints limited their capacity to initiate changes to their teaching practice arising from reflection. Such constraints fell into four broad categories: time pressures due to the modular structure and condensed nature of the learning programme, the prescriptive curriculum, institutional rules and protocols, and gender-biased authority systems.
Identification of these autonomy constraining factors prompted a deeper level consideration of how they impacted the participating teachers. It was evident from the participants' insights and interpretations that the limitations placed around their autonomy led them at times to believe that their opportunities to engage in reflective practices were diminished, which in tum reduced their XI opportunities for professional development. These outcomes point to the importance of teacher autonomy support processes and structures at the research site, and the potential for improvements in these areas. In particular, it is suggested that teachers may benefit from a more flexible institutional model that accords them greater decision-making authority in the selection of learning materials and curriculum development.