So what actually is independent learning? It is supposedly a very good thing. We want it for our students. Employers want it. School leaders want it. OFSTED want it. Everyone wants more independent learning, it appears, but do we actually know what it is that we want? Can you give me a clear definition? Perhaps you can, but I bet it was tricky.
Wooly terms like ‘personalisation’, ‘student centered learning’ or student ‘ownership’ of learning are linked synonyms for independent learning. I’m not sure what they mean in concrete terms either. We need something a little more definitive that we can share and model with our students with explicit clarity.
Independent learning could best be described as students utilising learning strategies that foster self-improvement through organised independent study, with the support and guidance of a teacher. Like most teaching methods, done well it is effective; done badly and it can prove useless. Note my inclusion of the ‘guidance of a teacher’. The hackneyed notion of a guide on the side doesn’t cut it for me.
We should lead the learning directly. We should model great learning and not feel that students are being robbed of the opportunity of some mercurial discovery. The best learning is always guided by the teacher. Equally, however, good teachers know when to take the training wheels off the bike. They create the opportunity for building the skills of independent learning as a desired end goal of secondary schooling.
We need to establish some practical working principles to ensure that we do it well. First, independent study is more an end goal, rather than a means to an end. Have you tried much independent learning with your green under the gills year 7 students? I suspect you deferred to more directed teacher instruction given that they didn’t know nearly half as much as you do!
This is rather unsurprising. Students need ample training to work successfully independently. We need to train students to make the tricky transition from dependence to true independence. We might instead focus on interdependence – whereat the teacher building good learning habits and then shares successful independent learning strategies.
We need to first ensure that students are exhibiting the right habits to help them work well independently. We need to share with them the reality that conquering boredom takes effort and no little skill. Setting short term and long term goals needs modeling with students and we also need to model how to organize ourselves for learning: from working in groups; prioritising using lists; learning to time our work with some accuracy etc.
The overlap with independent learning and doing homework successfully is particularly marked. Students need to know that their social media and gadget distractions are an addiction they can kick if they prepare their environment and their self-control for a sustained time.
Here are some useful strategies to share with students:
Start with organisation. Those who can learn independently typically know how to organise themselves. If they have a folder in your subject, explicitly guide them to how best organise their folder. Nudge them along by scheduling in regular folder checks into your teaching time. Help them understand that ultimately it is future time saved.
Planning tools. Use a planning tool, like their student planner or their phone to organise their time and set reminders of deadlines. Share with them how you plan your working week or how you planned your time effectively at school.
Researching the web. Don’t expect students to possess good research skills. Give them some useful internet tips:
1. Spend a lesson early on showing them the best websites, giving them search advice and working together to source good materials.
2. Show them the exam board website and print off the specification.
3. First, bad spelling encourages bad Google results. Get them to correct their spelling otherwise they won’t find the best resources.
4. Include your file type in your search. Using PDF or PPT offers better search results.
5. Directly specify websites for research. The web is a black hole of procrastination. Be specific and check the links work. Email them to link to leave no opportunity for poor web research or cyber-loafing.
Model getting unstuck. When no-one is looking, it is easier to give up. Train students what to do to plough through their sticky patch. It could mean strategies like revisiting their notes and re-reading teacher feedback; going the library; checking the internet; emailing their teacher. You could create a reference guide for students on your course that provides them with a ‘go to support’ – right down to where specific books are in the library.
Generating their own questions. Again, modeling learning can really help. Show students some metacognitive questions – questions that get them to think about their own thinking e.g. Do I have all the information? What are the key elements of the information and/or task? Can I put this information into my own words? How can I reorganise this information more effectively?
A version of this article was first released in Teach Secondary Magazine