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Independence – reality or empty rhetoric?

Schools frequently talk about producing independent learners who are able to rise to the challenges of the 21st Century. Indeed, many schools include such notions in their mission statement. But how often does this aspiration get beyond wishful thinking and empty rhetoric?

Part of the problem might lie in the lack of a shared understanding of what we mean by Independence. Somewhat like Creativity, we think we know it when we see it, and we believe that everyone else sees it the same way. But do we ?

In the 2008 DCSF review of the independent learning literature, the first key finding was, unsurprisingly that there are many definitions in operation regarding independent learning.

“There are a number of different terms used to describe independent learning, the most common being ‘self-regulated learning’. All these different terms describe very similar themes and processes, including pupils having an understanding of their learning; being motivated to take responsibility for their learning; and working with teachers to structure their learning environment.”

(Click here to download the full review: Independent learning review )

Teachers, when asked about the types of learners they would like their students to become, invariably mention independence as a key behaviour for success. Schools sign up to growing independence in their mission/vision statements. Ofsted frequently use lack of independence as a reason why good schools are not yet outstanding. Given that all parties are on the same page, Independence should be alive and well.

But, the uncomfortable truth is that despite our best, largely uncoordinated, intentions, students actually become increasingly dependent on their teachers as they pass through their schooling.

Recently I was in a secondary school where the headteacher was talking to me enthusiastically about the necessity of building independence, unaware that I had minutes earlier overheard a teacher tell their class “put your hand up if you need another sheet of paper”. Independent, but not so much so that you can get a piece of paper for yourself! The irony was not lost on the poor headteacher when I relayed the story!

Classroom climate is, of course, all-important in encouraging students to feel at home with behaving with self-regulation, assurance and self-reliance. At whole school level, there might be a need to discuss and agree:

  • What would we expect to see in such an independent learning-friendly classroom ?
  • How independent learning-friendly are our classrooms at the moment ?
  • How might classrooms need to change in order to counter learned helplessness and instead build self-regulation, initiative and independence ?

You can make a start by thinking about your own classroom. The more opportunities you create, the more likely you are to be fostering the skills (and beliefs) that lead to independence. Ask yourself, how often in my classroom do I create opportunities for students to:

  • Ask (and answer) their own questions: to frame their own areas of interest; to generate what they do and do not know about their area of interest; to decide what they need to find out; to decide how they are going to find it out.
  • Plan and undertake extended enquiry: to organise their own substantial projects; to read and research widely; to employ a range of resources for learning; to analyse and evaluate evidence; to draw warranted conclusions; to support conclusions with reasoned arguments.
  • Take control of their own learning: to set their own goals; to set their own success criteria; to evaluate their own efforts.
  • Become increasingly self-reliant: to exercise choice; to accept personal responsibility for the choices they make; to learn without direct teacher input / presence; to fail in safety; to observe teachers modeling their own independence.

But independence is more than simply providing a learning-friendly classroom. It is the ‘self’ bit of self-regulation that gives us the clue. Certainly, students need to have developed the skills of facing up to difficulty, learning alongside others, thinking in a wide range of ways and reflecting on the how of learning within learning-friendly classrooms, but critically they need to have developed the belief that doing so will pay off for them as a learner in the long run. Once they see the point and potential benefits of persevering, collaborating etc, teachers can scaffold learning less and gradually pass control over to the student. It is only at this point that independence can begin to flourish.


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