Another post on independent learning

I recently wrote a blog on independent learning, but I wanted to explore my thoughts on it still further.  And so I wrote this:


Independent learning is the holy grail for teachers.  All of us seek to somehow shape that imaginary figure: the student who listens and learns from us, and, over time, goes forward, guided by our occasional words of advice, through the gilded gates of A*s (or 7s), and onward, out into the world, but always hungry to learn throughout their lives. I’m sure such students exist, but the process isn’t always as easy as what I’ve just described. Independent learning – the phrase itself or the move towards less prescriptive ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy – can be found in the most traditional of schools, to the more outre.  It’s a little like taking the stabilisers off a bicycle: when is the safe time to do it? When can they get there without us? What if they crash?

Of course, some do crash, and some crash so badly that they never get on that bike again, refusing to gain the qualifications they need to go on to university or equivalent.  And because education is nothing if not messy, and complex, and ‘human, all too human’, teachers have to make such judgments all the time, about developing individuals who, sometimes, don’t even know what they know or how to articulate it.  An 18 year old may be less capable of taking responsibility for his or her own learning than a 14 year old…it depends on who they are.

Independent learning has been debated for many years, and was always considered A Good Thing by those who might be said to come from the more progressive wing of education. But things started to change under Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph (with the introduction of the National Curriculum).  It fell in and out of favour at the Department for Education until Michael Gove began to question its value, favouring more ‘traditional’ forms of teaching.  And when articulate, passionate voices such as Daisy Christodolou openly rejected the reification of independent learning in Ofsted’s inspection framework, people began to re-evaluate what was being done in the classroom, and to debate if and when independent learning can quickly turn into a dereliction of duty by the school.  Teacher bloggers, such as David Didau, asked questions that remain relevant and, very often, unanswered.

And they remain unanswered because independent learning is, like differentiation, not understood or defined.  It isn’t just a student going away, reading loads of books, and coming back, transformed overnight into a leading expert on inorganic Chemistry or the Battle of Hastings.  It has to happen gradually, and be modelled by the teacher.  I recently observed two lessons by very different teachers: one allowed the students to work in silence on a task for a specified period of time; the other set a task, but kept interrupting the class with advice on how to solve the problem. Both teachers are outstanding, but I felt the students in the first class had to think harder, for longer, on their own, and as they gave voice to their thoughts it was clear that they had progressed because of the task the teacher had set up, and the clear advice given at the start.  They then learned from each other as they listened (a neglected quality in many schools) to each other. They moved forward (as no doubt did the other class, but perhaps not as fast, and perhaps more tentatively).

‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’ – James Baldwin

In Angela Duckworth’s latest book, Grit, she quotes approvingly of James Baldwin who wrote that ‘children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’ Teachers (and parents) know this to be true, but it is often ignored in schools (and at home). Independent learning can happen in the silence between the spoken words, and in moments of real research undertaken by the student over a meaningful period of time.  But teachers have to model that behaviour, and ensure that any task set as something to be done autonomously by the student is as rigorous and demanding as something studied in class.  If the wheels come off the bike the teacher, like a parent, has to be there to pick them up (in every sense) and say: ‘what did you learn from that? And what are you going to do differently?’  Whether they choose to take our advice is, of course, both a point of frustration but (also) can be a source of joy, for pupil, teacher, and parent.


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