Monday, 9 June 2014

Independent Learning: The Red Herring?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

There has been off and on, an obsession with Independent Learning over the last few years. The idea is based on the fact that often we feel our students are too dependent on us, and need (for university and the world of work) to be able to work a bit better on their own. Even OFSTED got involved in this, and some suggested that if the teacher was seen to be teaching, the lesson couldn't be Outstanding (the infamous quote, "If you talk for more than 10% of the lesson, it can only be Good, at best").

Obviously, many ideas connected with this are total nonsense.

From my blog post a few weeks ago (<here>), written after a few discussions with colleagues and my head hurting somewhat, I think the focus of 'independent learning' is a bit of a red herring. That's not to say independent learners and learning are not desirable, but it is part of a more complex system of what goes on in our classrooms. To sacrifice everything to get students working free-reign is potentially damaging to their progress.

For me personally, I like the ideas of an ‘ethic of excellence’ and ‘growth mindset’. I am a massive fan of Ron Berger and have blogged about him in the past: Redrafting to Perfection and TeachTweet #6 (16/01/14): Critique and Perfection – and I saw <this> last week. Some schools are trying to embed it fully within their schools <here>. Sparky Teaching do some really nice resources, such as <this>. There are even networks of schools now committed to focusing on this, see <here>. Even Ian Gilbert's book on Independent Thinking is not really about what you think it is going to be... he certainly doesn't set out a list of ways to simply unleash your students!

However, even with this, it's important to not get caught up with simply a new 'fad' or name for what boils down to just good teaching (This blog explore it well: <here>).

I had an emailed reply to my blog which raised a few questions and thoughts for me. Here is a summary that I think is useful to share:

  • The focus shouldn't be on 'making everyone independent'. Focus on the students who need it most and consider your response and tools you provide to the student who replies with: "just tell us sir" or "do we need to know this for the exam" or "what is going to come up on the exam paper" or "do I need to know this"
  • Very few students will become lifelong independent learners; don't kid yourself! How many of your students will continue to read and research for pleasure once there is nothing financially to be gained? Those that do, make it all worthwhile, although you'll probably never know!
  • Setting an example of loving learning for its own sake is incredibly valuable. Independently minded young people love to hear about teachers with their own passions and interests. Children respond to a thirst for knowledge. 
    • The suggestions I was given included "reading a book in the playground, tell them about your skydiving hobby, or show them your train-spotting notebooks... watch QI at the end of term for the hell of it, give anybody who can give you a piece of information that nobody else in the room knew a sweet, reward initiative and lateral thinking, praise the kid who gets an interesting wrong answer." 
    • The Brilliant Club was another suggestion. We have used this for the first time at school this year and I can't recommend it more highly. A very rewarding experience for our students
  • "The truly independent child is often one reading "His Dark Materials" under the desk on the back row, or drawing amazing cartoons on his exercise book, or staring out of the window!" - I think it's true to suggest that actually what I think I was looking for was motivated, capable, self-directed learners rather than independent ones. They are easily identifiable as the A/A* students. These are naturally to be celebrated, but don't need as much help to improve.
  • If results in a comprehensive school are very high, it is likely that these are achieved by removing independence and doing much of the work for the students. The evidence of this would be: "carefully developed worksheets, well-structured lessons, lots of resources on the intranet to support homework, great wall-displays and so on." Is it more likely that you would find more independent learners in a school with "blank walls and a few moth-eared textbooks"?
  • The better focus may be on learning habits which reduces the micromanagement from the teacher. This is where you instil classroom virtues; these may include the habit of looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary or trying to find out from a book before asking the teacher (see <here>) or more time for reflection and self-assessment. 
  • Sharing these virtues or values of learning will enable them to become embedded across the school; potentially the middle ability students can grow towards the A/A* and the lower ability may improve from D to C grades. However, "The strugglers will struggle to develop the habits and the high-fliers may well be resistant, as they have already been doing as well, they think, as they need to - so why put the effort in to develop better habits, which could be construed as making life easier for you..."
I think I'm in a better place with all of this now and hopefully I can share and communicate this with colleagues. Maybe Andrew Old will like this piece a little more... (he was right last time!)

1 comment:

  1. Glad some of my thought were useful Andy! Keep up the good work!