Action-Based Teaching, Autonomy and Identity

The article under analysis is entitled “Action-Based Teaching, Autonomy, and Identity” and is written by Leo van Lier in 2007. In general, in his article, the author provides a thorough description of action-based teaching. He examines different agency aspects, including the relations between process and structure, classroom democracy, and control and power issues. He states that the principal aspect of action-based learning is the significance of perception and its involute relation to understanding and action.

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In this respect, the author describes perception as the central element in the process of development of the identity and self and in the formation of the relationships of learners with their world (Lier, 2007). In addition, the author analyses various pedagogical actions and strategies, such as a non-trivial and coherent principle of pedagogical scaffolding that incorporates microgenesis and structuring.

Lier begins his article by describing the notion of action-based learning and the reasons for its appearance in detail. In fact, action-based teaching is a particular approach to teaching that focuses most of its attention on human agency. Agency is defined by the author as “the socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (Lier, 2007, p. 46). The author claims that agency has recently become a widely discussed topic in a variety of disciplines such as social psychology, anthropology, critical studies, sociology, and others (Song, Nousala, & Aibeo, 2015). In the sphere of linguistics, I agree that the concept of agency has become conspicuous in the framework of social interaction investigations, project-based approaches, and collaborative learning in the classroom.

In the second section first, the author briefly describes other well-established approaches to teaching and learning that are currently practiced and that are closely connected to the action-based approach. Among them, there are task-based, exploratory, project-based, content-based, experiential, and some other approaches. He also points out that all the approaches, including the action-based one, have one thing in common, namely, they all regard a learner as an active person (Kolb, 2014).

For example, the task-based approach focuses on the design and nature of tasks and activities and strategies that learners utilize to complete them. As for the content-based approach, it places a great focus on content and subject matter and the methods that teachers use to present this content to learners, and how the learners internalize them. Regarding the project-based approach, it comprises content and connected sets of tasks aimed at a tangible objective, namely a paper, a presentation, or other types of academic work (Kolb, 2014). In terms of exploratory teaching and learning, it is focused on the analysis of the patterns of interaction between students and teachers in the classroom. In my opinion, Lier’s description of these approaches is rather limited and lacks certain details that are crucial for the comparison.

In the third section, the author analyzes the model introduced by the British sociologist Basil Bernstein regarding the issues of power and control. Thus, Bernstein’s model consists of three rights. The first right refers to the individual enhancement, namely, to the consideration of the past and future opportunities for growth within the limits of curricula. The second right is called social inclusion and refers to the right to be included personally, culturally, intellectually, and socially (Song et al., 2015).

Finally, the third right is participation, particularly the right to participate in certain practices such as the transformation, maintenance, and the construction of order. In terms of power and control, the connection between Bernstein’s model and the action-based pedagogy is even closer. In general, these two notions determine the ways of the realization of democratic conditions and rights in an educational setting (Zhou, 2014). I think that Lier provides a thorough description of Bernstein’s model, which helps understand the interaction between its elements better.

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In the fourth section, Lier describes pedagogy as structure and process. He claims that process and structure, when being regarded independently of each other, have a negative impact on the educational success (Lier, 2007). The main problem is to make sure that the structures do not constrain or hamper the desired processes and to control the processes so that they could not destroy the structure that is developed to improve the pedagogical processes (Hindy & Turk-Browne, 2016). Therefore, the action-based pedagogy is concerned with creating facilitative structures that improve the processes that promote meaningful and lasting learning.

In terms of the classroom, Lier provides a scheme of the interaction between the structures and the processes. According to the author, although tasks and lessons are always planned, not always everything goes according to plan, therefore, every lesson has an element of improvisation. Nevertheless, there are always parts of the lesson that are predictable, for example, rituals, routines, or other recognizable episodes that repeat from one lesson to another.

However, there are certain episodes when some unexpected and surprising occurrences happen, which lead to innovation and exploration (Hindy & Turk-Browne, 2016). These two parameters, namely, routine-novelty and planning-improvisation, interact in certain ways that allow creating different kinds of lessons. I think that in this section, Lier provides many vivid practical examples of pedagogical structure and processes.

In the fifth section, Lier analyzes the cycle of action, from perception to understanding. Learning the language as an agency presupposes learning to perceive affordances, namely, the relations of possibility within multi-modal communicative events (Lier, 2007). Regarding perception, it is central to learning. It consists of two aspects, namely, perception of the other and perception of the self. In addition, the perception has two poles, the objective and the subjective, and the information is used to specify both of them (Lier, 2007).

Further, the author points out that perception is traditionally divided into separate senses, namely, seeing, hearing, and smelling, tasting, and touching. Therefore, sensory learning is an indispensable component of language learning. I think that this section lacks more vivid practical examples that would allow a better understanding of the concepts of affordance and perception.

In the sixth section, the author regards language learning as a process. Lier provides the definition of the word ‘languaging,’ stating that it is a process carried out by active agents that make choices regarding how and what they learn on the basis of their own histories offered affordances by and constrained by their local environment. In this respects, he adds that this definition should not diminish the fact that the learners must learn the language and that this comprises the hard work of practicing and mastering all the aspects of pragmatics, lexis, syntax, and phonology that are described by the traditional linguistics (Kolb, 2014).

Lier continues by providing a description of three ways of obtaining knowledge, which is based on three logical procedures introduced by Charles Sanders Pierce in the 19th century, namely, induction, deduction, and abduction. When applied to grammar, these three ways represent certain instructional options. Particularly, induction is a data-driven approach meaning the progression from examples to patterns and rules.

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A deduction is a rule-driven approach meaning that the process of learning progresses from memorizing rules to their practical usage. Finally, abduction is an experience-driven approach that presupposes understanding new experiences and working with possibilities in a particular context (Song et al., 2015). Thus, grammar is the first sphere of neither what is nor what should be (representing induction and deduction, respectively), but what may be, namely, abduction (Savery, 2015). Although abductive work in language learning is primary, both deductive and inductive aspects are also relevant and important. I think that this section is excellently done by Lier, as he describes every concept in detail and provides illustrative practical examples of each of them.

In the next section, the author describes new ways of relating the self to the world. According to Lier, the main reason for such a change is the recent tendency of the more overt expression of identity as speakers of the second language from the side of learners. However, the study of identity is usually based on the learner’s past experience. Instead, it is much more important to focus on the presence of a learner and even on their future, which can provide many opportunities for them.

In addition, Lier claims that even though the notions of identity and the self have many distinctive features, they are closely connected to each other. In other words, identity is the way for a person to relate themself to the world (Lier, 2007). Thus, these are the central questions of the action-based pedagogy, as learners work together to create different projects and, at the same time, develop the path for their own learning. This section is also described quite well by the author though it lacks some more examples.

In the last two sections, Lier explores the concept of scaffolding in general and pedagogical scaffolding in particular. In fact, the interpretation of scaffolding is controversial, as some researchers regard it as a supporting and creative process, while others consider it a feature for curriculum design. Lier thinks that scaffolding must be considered both an interactional process and a design feature (Lier, 2007). The main reason for this is that in action-based pedagogy, especially that which involves project work, the combination of interaction and design is crucial.

Regarding pedagogical scaffolding, it is characterized by six main features. The first feature is continuity, namely variation, connections, and task repetition. The second feature is contextual support, meaning creating a supportive and safe environment in the classroom. The third peculiarity is intersubjectivity, namely, encouragement and mutual engagement. The fourth feature is a contingency when the actions of a teacher depend on the actions of a learner. The fifth characteristic is handover and takeover, meaning the increase of the learner’s role. Finally, the sixth peculiarity is flow, when challenges and skills are in balance, and there is harmony between the participants (Song et al., 2015). Thus, this is the way pedagogical scaffolding contributes to action-based learning.

In my opinion, in his article, Lier provides a comprehensive description of the basic arguments and principles of action-based pedagogy. I think that the majority of his arguments are relevant in terms of action-based teaching and learning. In order to support his point of view, the author uses a variety of classification and concepts introduced by other researchers in this sphere. Regarding the disadvantages, I think that Lier’s article lacks some illustrative practical examples that would demonstrate how these principles work in reality. However, overall, I think that Lier managed to prove his point of view by means of uniting different approaches in the sphere of pedagogy into one.


Hindy, N. C., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2016). Action-based learning of multistate objects in the medial temporal lobe. Cerebral Cortex, 26(5), 1853-1865.

Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT press.

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Lier, L. V. (2007). Action-based teaching, autonomy and identity. International Journal of Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 46-65.

Savery, J. R. (2015). Overview of problem-based learning: Definitions and distinctions. Essential readings in problem-based learning: Exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 9(1), 5-15.

Song, D., Nousala, S., & Aibeo, P. (2015). Dynamic boundaries of action based Learning: The longitudinal impact. The Journal on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, 13(5), 355-368.

Zhou, Y. (2014). Action-based learning for language proficiency and cross-cultural competence: Learners’ perspectives. Global Business Languages, 19(1), 8-14.

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