Independent Learning in the Classroom

Independent Learning in the Classroom

All teachers want to develop their students into independent learners. In so doing, they hope that the pupils in their charge can take control of their own learning – both inside the classroom and beyond. However, there can often be something of a gap between our stated intentions and what we do on a day-to-day basis. This can lead to our aims being upset through a failure to properly consider whether or not our actions will lead to the goal we desire.

For example, one of the prerequisites of independent learning is the ability to work on your own, with minimal direction and with confidence. This includes a sense of how to manage one’s own learning as well as how to respond to difficulties or challenges. In such a situation it is necessary that the teacher takes a back seat. After all, how can a student be independent if their teacher is taking the major role in their learning?

A question arises. How can we be sure that our pupils are being independent learners if we are not closely involved with what they are doing? Ultimately, we cannot be completely certain. We have to have some faith. This faith is a manifestation of the belief we have that our pedagogical approach has cultivated independent habits of mind in the students we teach. In this sense, the faith is based on evidence, albeit evidence which is not total and which can be contradicted.

Stepping back, we now find ourselves in a position where we must ask how we develop independent habits of mind, such that we can allow our pupils the space in which to be independent.

Developing Independent Learners

There are as many paths down which we could travel as there are lessons we could teach. With that said, let us consider three which I have found to be particularly effective.

First, we have the alteration of our own mindsets. Given the nature of the teaching profession, we tend to find ourselves instinctively helping the pupils we teach as soon as they have a problem. Without thinking, we do whatever we can to aid their understanding and ensure they are able to access the learning. This is all well and good but, as with many virtues, overexposure can turn it into a vice.

Excessive help and support denudes students of the opportunity to think for themselves. It stops them having to work through difficulties or solve problems. The tacit message is that there will always be someone else there to do it for them.

An alternative approach sees the teacher thinking critically about whether or not to intervene in any given situation. Sometimes it will be appropriate – necessary even – sometimes it won’t. In these latter cases, it will often be better to say something along the lines of: ‘Try to solve it yourself first,’ or, ‘Come up with three possible solutions and try them out before asking me,’ or even a question such as: ‘Well, what do you think is the best way to proceed and why?’

Repeating this approach over time is likely to cultivate a habit of independence in your students.

A second technique I have found useful involves setting up activities in which pupils are given a framework within which they have to make various choices. This is akin to a football manager developing a formation and then allowing the players to express themselves within that formation. By providing a structure, you are setting the boundaries for the learning and situating it somewhere specific inside the vast mass of all that is possible. By giving pupils options and choices within that framework, you are encouraging them to make decisions and to be independent.

The third and final approach to consider involves formative feedback. This is feedback which gives students a clear sense of what they need to do to improve. For example: ‘In your next report you should aim to begin the analysis earlier so as to avoid too many passages of description.’

Effective formative feedback encourages students to be independent because it allows them to take control of their own learning. If they know what they need to do to improve, they are in a position to make those improvements, therefore acting independently. The converse would see a summative grade being given which offers no scope for action and which, psychologically, encourages students to become dependent (as they look to similar grades in the future for reinforcement of the sense of self generated by the initial grade).

Overall then, we can see that creating independent learners is a long-term project. It is about cultivation; the development of habits of mind over the course of months or longer. By focussing on this goal you will likely find yourself able to step back, safe in the knowledge that the faith you have in your students is justified and that they are working truly independently.

Mike Gershon