Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere


The Myth of Independent Learning?

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Ulysses

There are certain phrases that become almost “dead” in the mind of teachers, in the same sense as those “dead” metaphors that we use every day: “climbing the ladder” or “under the weather”. They represent big ideas and processes that we probably haven’t mastered and possibly never will: my two favourites are “personalised learning” and “independent learning”. To me they’re a bit like Tennyson’s “untravell’d world”, every time we think we’re getting closer they seem to move further away. (I unashamedly love Tennyson by the way.)

Now don’t mistake me for a nay sayer concerning the supposed interventions of “progressive” teaching methods much discussed in recent days, in my job that’s career suicide, and I’m a big believer in try and apply and discard etc before making decisions or judgements. However, the evidence and misconception of the majority of colleagues over the two terms above is rife.

I currently run a cross curricular working group intended to enhance and improve the standards of learning and teaching across the school. The group has identified “independent learning” as the focus they want to go for with a vengeance and I want that to be the real focus of this post so, sorry to be dismissive, but I’m going to dismiss the term “personalised learning first”.

I don’t doubt the power of one to one interactions with students but I cannot subscribe to the fact that this is the key to “personalising” learning. I see, and try to discourage colleagues from, spending acres of time with each student and berating themselves and the limitations of timetables when they feel they have let their students down by “not getting to them”. Neither do I subscribe to the idea that a curriculum can be truly personalised. By definition, it is a body of knowledge, skills etc that, ultimately needs to be transmitted to students – this is a blanket thrown over almost every child and only a few crawl out from underneath without being touched by any corner of it. Instead, at the heart of the personalising agenda is differentiation, which again by definition aims to categorise students so as to provide challenge at an appropriate level.

Really, effective and integrated AfL is at the heart of personalising. Ensuring that students know “what good looks like” and that they can identify the deficiencies in their own work, possibly identifying it before you tell them and, crucially, acting on that feedback or feedforward. In this way, each student is encouraged to learn at their own rate, appropriately for their own work. In other words, stop trying to sit with every kid, some don’t want you to or need you to and others will monopolise you. Train them to use the teaching to support the learning and go to the ones that really need you. That’s true personalisation.

The Myth of Independent Learning?

My brother is a doctor in A and E and left school in the year that I trained to be a teacher. He did well at school, probably slightly above average and went and did a degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology, moving on to Medicine from there and never looking back. He discovered something in his first year at Uni that has always stuck with me. He told me, amidst a room covered in post it notes and other assorted cards, notebooks and other mnemonic devices that, if school had only taught him how to learn, he would have been even more successful there than he already had been. In his first years at University, he discovered how “he” learned, acquired information and used it from that point. And he’s, so far, been very successful.

But I wonder how true this really is. I have written before that a fantastic colleague of mine described students at our school as, “like running into jelly”. I fully agree that they need a healthy dose of responsibility? Autonomy? Respect? I’m not sure what. The adage of “knowing what to do when I don’t know what to do” seems appropriate here but still doesn’t catch all of what I’m getting at. I’m conflicted by the notion that, because students are kids, and we are teachers, there’s something to be said for the fact that, at some point, transmission has to take place. What is in our heads, at some point needs to get to theirs. And, ultimately, kids will be kids.

The Sutton Trust states that Metacognition is the second most powerful (or cost effective?) strategy for progressing learners. I don’t disagree but would contend that it’s a specialised field. From AfL to Claxton and countless others. From Mindmaps to Thinking Skills there is a body of evidence far and wide that contributes to the idea that teaching for independence in learners is something that we should be doing. But are we?

For me, the answer lies somewhere between independence and Mindset. The structure of the broad curriculum, through the Key Stages means that the transmission of knowledge and skills is a high stakes matter. It’s important that students “get” it or “know” it, particularly for the duration of the text or the exam because, as another colleague pointed out to me, teachers are judged by the data which does not necessarily point towards “deeper” learning experiences. We have a vested interest in making sure students have retained knowledge or honed skills by whatever means available to us.

Therefore, as we investigate what an “independent” learner is at our school in the coming months, we will need to balance these warring curriculums: that of broadness, creativity and enquiry with narrow transmission which also, arguably exists in great teaching.

I have written recently about a continuum of learners. From a mindset of “can’t do, won’t do” to “will do, will do it again” etc. what I am keen to do is put some clear gradations of Mindsets in the middle of the continuum and considering what strategies of “marginal gains” can be used to move them from one mindset to the next.


A perfect example would be the “Slow writing” technique, developed by David Didau (@LearningSpy) which has worked wonders with my students’ writing and forms part of my presentation at Pedagoo London. A simple technique such as double spacing writing and the necessity to stop and think, combined with the dedicated time to review and change, with the key AfL concept of actually acting on feedback, means that, as well as potentially transmitting or “actively” teaching a skill we communicate something “about learning”: that it’s not finished until it’s as good as it can possibly be.

(This is put much better by Alex Quigley [@HuntingEnglish] with his idea of DIRT time or “dedicated improvement and reflection time. Ron Berger is on my half term reading list too!)

Photo 17-02-2013 18 32 21True independence for me will develop but it will be attritional. The resilience of the growth mindset seems to be the obvious gateway to the concept of “independent” learning whose “margin fades” in other terms. I was lucky enough to attend some inset several years ago now with Barry Hymer ( dealing with, in the first instance, Philosophy for Children, but the thing that he shared that day which has always stuck with me, and chimes with the recent Twittering around the idea of learning as a messy business is the concept of the “learning trough”. Or, that point at which, when acquiring new skills or knowledge, you can either give up or “climb out”, represented here by my attempts at graph drawing and supported by images from this website where a more academic explanation is provided.

 Photo 17-02-2013 18 17 59Photo 17-02-2013 18 17 49

I like to use the analogy of learning to drive. You’re doing really well, just mastered third gear and going round corners and probably gone at around twenty miles and hour, then some genius suggests it’s time to consider going backwards and it’s a nightmare. Suddenly you feel thrust back to square one, until you persevere and eventually overcome the “trough” you were thrust into.

Independent learning therefore, for me, is in developing resilience, grit and growth Mindsets in learners. Using strategies that encourage reflection and fly in the face of concepts of “gifted” as opposed to “grafting” in order to develop a “never give up” attitude.

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Ulysses