Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Independent Learners, Independence... How? What? Why? HELP!!!

Image from Thank, Q

I have been struggling for over a year now. So many questions fly around my brain about independence. I'll start with what I have in my brain, right now:

  • What does an independent learner look like?
  • Is independence simply a final place that a large number of students get to regardless?
  • How can I make my students more independent, without simply neglecting them and their needs?
  • What does independence look like on a daily basis? Is it possible to observe in a lesson, for example?
  • How can I convince my colleagues this is important or even desirable? (If our results are very good)
  • Where do I go next...? And who can I take with me?

It's been a focus of our ACE (Aspiring for a Culture of Excellence) working party for over a year now. I'm not sure we're even close to cracking it.

Our first step was an 'easy win', placing a 3 B's poster in each room (read <here>) which were initially used quite a lot by staff. It's been nearly a year now; I wonder who was the last person who pointed at it and didn't allow a student to ask a question they could find the answer to?

We also ran a Family Learning Project (read <here> and <here>) which was a huge success and we will be running again this year. Staff have commented on how they have been able to refer back to it in lessons and how impressed they were. However we did this for Y7... and what next?

I have tried to do a few bits and pieces myself in my own classroom. With a Y9 Assessment, I gave the students the task, a selection of resources, my online guidance ( see <here>) and then left them to it. The results were varied, but generally as expected for a mixed ability Y9 class. With Y8, I got them to produce a booklet on the Exodus. They watched the Prince of Egypt (one of my fav films!) and then were left with a set of criteria, the textbook and a lesson in a computer room. Again the results varied greatly.

From these small scale, informal, trial and error pieces of 'research', I realised that the most able really excelled. I had some amazing work, way beyond what would have happened had I been more conventionally teaching them. That raised some important questions of how I deal with the bright students in my mixed ability KS3 classes... do I do enough? However I also realised that the less able can really struggle, especially the panic I heard about in 'Homework Club' with the TAs. I also saw 'middle' children perhaps making a great attempt, while others put in little effort as they did not fully engage without that constant encouragement. Certainly more problems and questions than solutions. 

With the Y8s, I did a knowledge based 'quiz' (read, 'test') and the results varied in an expected pattern, and the feedback varied... some enjoyed, some hated, some didn't really have an opinion.

In Y12, with the first A2 module in the summer, I tried some independent work (read what I did <here> and what I found <here>) which again didn't really have any gains, but no 'losses' either. I tried to extend their learning and writing by getting them to blog, which was a reasonable (but potentially unmeasurable) success. Read their postings <here>. Finally, I have tried to up my 'active learning' at A-Level and recently wrote about it for UKEdMag <here>.

Ultimately, I felt a little frustrated and not sure where and how to move forward.

We've sat down in the last few weeks to try and look again at this and below constitutes a few ideas that are currently 'out there'. I'd LOVE some feedback either via the blog or on by email <here>.

6th Form Induction
Possibility of doing things in a 'new way' with introduction to independence and some group based work in the afternoon. Although that great for a first day but the important thing is 'where next?'.

6th Form CP (Citizenship & PHSE) Lessons, General RE and General Studies
Looking at the syllabi of these are seeing them as a 'way in' to looking at skills and approaches that will encourage independence. For example, students were interested but quite passive in my "Science and Religion" module so I am looking to running it more as a 3 lesson - 'key questions', 'research' then 'debate' next year. We need to avoid 'death by woeful Powerpoint' presentations though.

'Extended Project' 
Not necessarily the EPQ offered by exam boards but something that students can get very actively involved in... may be signing up to one such project? Young Enterprise is incredibly successful at our school and this is  one opportunity. Perhaps an independent student newspaper (see <here>)? Or an essay prize or blogging project? (See <here> and <here>)

Cross Curricular Projects
Encouraging departments to look at ways of working together on different projects. This may work for KS3; we acknowledge there is just not the curriculum time for GCSE classes under the current model.

Lead By Example
Starting a pilot of an independent project and share it with other staff to hopefully inspire them!

A few colleagues and I have started a debating club which he hope to empower a committee to take control of. These will be our senior debaters (new Y13). In hindsight, we started at the wrong time of the school year, but hope to get it off the ground post-AS exams. This could be an 'extended project' that is worked on during former CP time.

Philosophy Club
Reading David Birch's new book (see <here>), I again wonder if I could run a philosophy club that focuses on philosophical enquiry...

(Great) Barriers

Our results are excellent, some of the top in the local area. Why the hell would we want to change the way we teach? When students were questioned a few years ago (according to my sources) they responded that their one criticism is that "teachers didn't talk enough". I can assure you there is a lot of teacher talk, particularly in A-Level lessons. We get lots of students on to very good courses at excellent universities... some go straight into very good jobs... are we really doing anything wrong?

"Just Tell us Miss" (@MissDCox)
This, it's SO this. Especially from the most able students. My incredibly bright Y11, Set 1 students got obsessed with the 'textbook definitions' for the key words despite me over and over saying as long as it was correct, it would get full marks, it didn't need to be word for word from an Edexcel approved textbook! On the other hand, there is a culture of what can only be called laziness, especially from low level disruptive students where it is far easier to just give them the answer to keep them vaguely on task and essentially quite.

Another thing?
This year we've started Open Door Week, formal SLT book monitoring... probably more things that I can't remember. How do we encourage staff to get on board? Change their established SoW? Extra meetings with people from other departments? Replan lessons that work perfectly well? Also some ACE peeps are wary that there could be a feeling of "Them again with their 'new' ideas?".

What's in it for me?
UCAS points? No? Not interested. There has to be motivation. In General RE, we stopped doing the NOCN qualification which had an external verification and, as such, certification, for our own syllabus this year. Thankfully, we have good girls who did the work for an in-house, but pretty (I made it!), certificate. 6th form is a hectic time... unless it will help with UCAS statement or gives UCAS points or a qualification that will actually get them a job, how do you get students to see the point? I think Tom (<headguruteacher>) is on to a winner with substantial cash prizes!

Ultimately we are working very hard as teachers, but are we working hard at the right things?
Could our energy be better spent instead of doing a lot of the hard graft for our students?

Over to you...
Tweet me <here>, email me <here>, comment below and challenge me, console me, fight me, inspire me....


  1. Have you looked at P4C (Philosophy for Children)? http://p4c.com/ also take a look at SAPERE http://www.sapere.org.uk/Default.aspx?tabid=40 (Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education - UK educational charity promoting philosophy for children and communities who provide training for teachers and schools). The focus is to get children thinking for themselves (independence!) - the teacher becomes a co-inquirer who facilitates discussion. Many teachers notice the wider benefits these skills have across different subjects. If you'd like to know more about doing P4C get in touch - currently writing my dissertation on this area, I've been trained by SAPERE and worked doing P4C in schools. I could perhaps respond to more of your concerns you've mentioned above if you're interested in this approach.

    1. Thanks for the Emelia. A local school to ours has P4C on their curriculum and it is a great idea. As I mentioned, I have used the Philosophy Foundation books but will have a look at your links too. I think it's something that should happen outside of RE, can we create the time and space...? Thanks again, much appreciated.