The term independent learning is currently used throughout classrooms all over the UK. In secondary education, it is associated with:
‘a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation’ (Creative Education UK).’
Similarly at University level, Independent Learning is encouraged and enforced to push for a student to be:
‘Working with someone else, encouraging each other and talking through difficulties may be the most effective way of working independently. If you have a problem, explaining it to someone else can help to clarify issues for you. Explaining a concept to someone without shared background knowledge is a very good way of making sure you understand the full implications of the concept’.
All of this is certainly the Holy Grail of the classroom and, indeed, of education. Yet it is not an easy environment to achieve. So how can we as educators further facilitate this?
It is essential that we see independence as a process – something to be obtained. In a very succinct blog sub-heading, David Didau accurately asserts: Independence is the end, not the means. Not only is this whole-heartedly accurate, but reveals much more about independent learning than we assume.
Firstly, we must infer that to obtain independence and effective independent learning in the classroom, a pupil requires steps. Moreover, if independent learning is defined as a ‘philosophy’ (see above), it makes sense that it is an encompassing attitude that requires a range of applications. Therefore, it must also be true that to accurately achieve it in an educational environment, students will need to be masters of a range of skillsets which have been developed, applied and improved over an extended period of time.
Alex Quigley has also alluded to this notion in his blog Independent Learners for Teachwire. He explains that the transition between dependence to independence is ‘tricky’ and that we “need to focus on the stepping-stone of interdependence – whereby the teacher helps build good learning habits that are fundamental for independent learning.”
The current problem:
As mentioned by Quigley earlier, stepping stones must be provided that encourage the philosophy of Independence is successfully embedded. Too many schools have simply thrown the term into their ethos without an understanding of how to teach or model the plethora of behaviours it requires first. Implementing the ends before the means will stagnate the process but the immediacy of many schools to apply Independent Learning to their classroom ethos has meant exactly that. The simple ‘showcase’ of this philosophy is its downfall.
Consequently, it has already been heavily established amongst the educational world that independent learning is not:
- Work alone tasks.
- Why? If a student is not struggling or asking questions and can complete a task in absolute silence, this could be seen as Independence but might be purely simplicity
- Seeking answers from Help Boards or Posters.
- Why? Pupils do not always retain the information. It becomes a reliance for a resource in the room.
Such activities may give the façade of independence in the classroom and yet, will not encourage independence because they do not lend themselves to establishing confidence – rather may even exacerbate a learned helplessness.
Confidence as the crux of Independence.
If we break apart the demands of Independent Learning, we can clearly see that it’s asking the following:
Therefore, the skill sets required are much greater than simply ‘independence’. Under each heading these are just some requirements:
- Ability to Seek Knowledge
- skills: confidence, research skills, work ethic, study skills
- Ability to Enquiry
- skills: confidence, research skills, interpersonal skills, ability to formulate an argument, technological skills, problem-solving skills, creativity, imagination.
- Ability to be a Critical Thinker
- skills: confidence, research skills, imagination, creativity, logic, leadership skills, problem-solving skills, empathy
- Formulate a Personal Argument
- skills: confidence, research skills, imagination, creativity, logic
It asks our pupils to not only be evaluative and critical individuals but to also be able to seek answers and have a thirst for knowledge. A lot of adults would still find this challenging. With this in mind, it becomes clear that enforcing independence requires the teaching of numerous skills; not just the ability to work alone or find an answer in the classroom.
So where to start?
In my previous blog, I made mention to the fact that confidence should not be pushed to the boundaries of a school’s priorities in favour of exam refinement and routine. That is also because confidence is one of the key skills needed in order to be an Independent Learner.
Why? To put it simply: confidence is the process of being ‘self-assured’ and independence is being ‘self-sufficient’.
It seems absurd to suggest an environment of self-sufficiency if you have not taught pupils to be self-assured. Self-sufficiency implies that the pupil is working in a system that can grow, alter, change, develop and evolve. Self-assured is the skill that encourages students to question, ask, seek, implement, and transfer and effectively apply knowledge from their current world into their work – all of which are the crux of a self-sustaining, independent classroom.
Preaching independence and its importance in the classroom is good. An educational system that does not do this fails in enabling pupils to become emergent, empathetic and holistically intelligent young people is just as crucial to their success as an A* or 9 (GCSE circa 2016-2017). But you must ensure that pupils have been encouraged to be confident in their assertions first. Confidence and knowledge is the key, and then independence will lead to further, ongoing development.