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


Author: Gordon Baillie

I am an Advanced Skills teacher in a large comprehensive school in the North West of the UK. Trained in Scotland, I have worked in a number of different settings in my almost fifteen years of teaching. I have been working with both my own and other local schools and their teachers to both enhance and improve learning and teaching for a number of years now. I am an experienced trainer of both trainee and experienced teachers and have contributed to both local and national conferences around learning and teaching, particularly around Assessment for Learning as well as being asked to contribute to keynote addresses around other, more generic areas of teaching. I believe that teaching and particularly learning are deeply creative pursuits and that the only way to continue to enhance them and the practice of teachers is to collaborate.

12 thoughts on “The Myth of Independent Learning?

  1. Hi Gordon

    I’m delighted to hear how well Slow Writing is working out for you – would you believe it came to me during an after school revision lesson with a room full of reluctant D grade writers. They ALL gots Cs!

    Anyway, I really agree with you that independence is a blind alley. I think what we actually want is resilience. I’ve written a post about it here:

    Thank you, David

    • Thanks David. Especially for Slow writing but for general support too. I’ve made a bunch of statements and have taken on board your idea of using them randomly, pulling out of a hat/box too before starting to decrease the scaffolding. Currently working on a random selector too. (I’m a geek!)
      I’ve enjoyed your most recent posts. This ones been brewing for me for a while but yours seem to be building to a bit of a crescendo.
      Good luck with it.

  2. One of the great things about Twitter and the people on it who blog is that they are not afraid to ask questions and scrutinise what is often the ‘given’ view. I know from personal experience that all the skills teaching I can muster will not enable students to access some complex texts – tricky poetry, for example. At times, there I simply no way round leading through the learning, particularly if you are ambitious in stretching them.

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  4. I don’t think there’s any real difference between independence and resilience as you have presented them here. Of course we want students to have a progressive growth mindset, but in order to develop one they have to want to progress independently.

    As your brother’s experiences illustrate, what we’re concerned with here is the explicit teaching of learning skills. I’m afraid I find this semantic pedantry a little contrived.

    • Hi. It’s interesting that you think of it as “semantic pedantry”. My experience is that the use of the two terms in the piece is that they are used imprecisely, often to disguise less than good approaches to teaching the highly specialised area of learning to learn. What we can control is the culture and expectations rather than applying something thought to be progressive over and above transmission or cognitive models that involve more teacher talk.

  5. Thank you for your response. I’m glad you haven’t taken offence as my intention was to instigate discussion. My point is that you begin your post by announcing your intention to “dismiss” two terms that are over-used to the point of becoming meaningless, and then proceed to argue that replacing them with the term “resilience” will make all the difference.

    Having re-read your post, I find myself nodding and agreeing with your analysis of what makes an effective learner. I put considerable time and effort into fostering a growth mindset in my students and have repeatedly seen the benefits of this in terms of their attitude and achievements. Please have a look at this as an example:

    I’m just concerned that dismissal of the term “independent learning” in this way is wasteful. Perhaps what’s needed, as you mention above, is a re-examination of what this actually means.

    • Hi. “Semantic pedantry” did feel slightly direct but the opening of discussion is always welcome.
      I like your lesson outline and the scaffold you offered for students to build their arguments and opinions into something more coherent.
      For me there’s a choice here beyond the terms that the National Strategies have left behind. CPD would be the obvious way to ensure that colleagues really knew what the terms meant. Encouraging independence is great but a specialised thing that has to be consistent across a school to be effective. I don’t want to replace anything but feel that resilience is the direction that could make the other things successful.

  6. The focus on ‘independent’ and ‘personalised’ seems to be hugely at the expense of remembering that we are cleverest when we learn from each other. Teachers have teams of kids to work with but we still tend to organise them to learn in parallel and fail to exploit the power of creative collaboration.

    • Thanks for commenting.
      I agree.
      I do think that training for teachers almost avoids effective coordination of collaboration. It’s a difficult skill and one that isn’t focused on enough.

  7. Pingback: Should schools get into the ‘person building’ game? | Room F08

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