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Beyond Dependency – in support of Independent learners

Over the years, when I ask teachers in secondary schools to Tell me what your students are like as learners, they invariably respond in the same way: They do expect to be spoon-fed and for their teachers to do the thinking for them. I find this strange since I know that this is the last thing that the very young want. My grandson, George, would sooner get porridge in his hair than be patronised by an over-attentive, spoon-wielding grandparent. How have we managed to build this supposed dependency in young people in the ten years from five to fifteen? In an effort to assure levels of attainment, are we training our young learners to be progressively dependent upon us? In fairness, when teachers are asked to describe the habits that they want their students to have by the time they leave school, there is one phrase that soon comes to mind: greater independence. As usual, I have had the privilege of looking at learning in a number of lessons over the last few weeks and been focusing my attention on the independence of learners in the age range from 5 to 18. So what are the characteristics of independent learners; what do I see them doing as a matter of habit – when given the opportunity to do so? They seem to do most of the following –
  • Ask themselves what they know and need to know before getting started
  • Consider where they need to go for information, ideas and resources
  • Adopt a flexible plan that they keep under review
  • Draw upon the experience and advice of others
  • Gather ideas with discernment and discrimination
  • Take stock, reviewing the situation as they proceed
  • Evaluate progress in the light of their initial goals
All qualities eminently evident in a year 4 class at The Saintsway Academy in Bodmin. And what is it that their teachers do to assist this process?
  • Stimulate curiosity and interest so that their learners want to work things out for themselves
  • Make use of stuck challenges
  • Refuse to do the planning for their students
  • Provide opportunities for the use of thinking routines that enable students to distil their thinking
  • Encourage the use of sketching, drafting and mind-mapping as they generate-sort-connect ideas
  • Know when to walk away, go silent and leave space for learners to learn
  • Intervene as learning coaches
Let’s consider this last point, as I did the other week when looking at what teachers do when their students are working independently. Not all teachers have a clear idea of their role when students are busily engaged with individual or group work; too often they readily provide answers and solutions when learners are making mistakes or getting stuck. On the other hand, teachers like Sally Long know exactly what it means to be a learning coach. When her students were collaborating on a clear but open-ended task she was a consummate listener and observer. She evaluated how individuals were performing and held back. Gauging levels of engagement and understanding, she timed her interventions sensitively:
  • Involved herself physically at the same level as the students
  • Nudged students to look at what they were doing and saying
  • Never told them what to do
  • Posed exploratory questions
  • Made suggestions about what they might like to consider
  • Provided opportunities for them to move places and glean from others
  • Left them better equipped to exercise independence than when she joined them before moving on to support and challenge another group.
As ever, you might like to add to these lists as you reflect on the times when you adopt the role of learning coach in the classroom. You might like to try our At A Glance downloads which are packed with ideas for starting to build independence in your learners.
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