At Horndean Technology College (HTC), we believe we have a ‘duty’ to create and develop independent learners for the 21st century, so when we realised staff were working harder than the students, something had to change.

To raise standards further, we realised that we had to improve attit­udes and behav­iour and enable pupils to work harder, which in turn would improve their life chances. Other reas­ons for our move to a more indep­en­dent and personalised approach to lear­ners are set out in the box below.

School context
Horndean Technology College is a slightly larger than average community secondary college open seven days a week for our community and extended services programme. Located on the northern edge of the Havant suburban ribbon development that extends along the A3 (M) in East Hampshire, our learners come from a range of back­grounds from poor social housing stock to relatively prosperous owner occupied dwellings. Only 7.1% of students register for free school meals (FSM) and 18% are on the special educational needs (SEN) register with 11.15% at school action, 5.5% at school action plus and 1.3% with a statement: both of these indicators are below the national average. We have a well-developed community dimension with a pre-school, and a before- and after-school club. The college has succeeded in raising standards of attainment and progress from 46% five or more A*–C grades including English and maths (En/ma) in 2005 (60% A*–C) and 999 contextual value added (CVA), to this year obtaining 58% 5A*–C En/ma, 90% 5A*–C and 1,011.9 CVA. Our specialist technology status, achieved in 2002, has had a major impact on standards – technology and science are now two of the strongest and most popular departments and all students study technology and IT. Teachers and students have the benefit of using interactive whiteboards and computers on a campus-wide network.
Reasons for our focus on independent learning

  • ‘Lazy’ students – staff working harder than students; too much ‘spoonfeeding’
  • Post-Ofsted action plan 2008 – ‘develop independent learning skills’
  • Government initiatives – personalised learning, workforce reform, 14-19 curriculum
  • Developments in neuroscience
  • The relentless pressure to ‘raise standards’
  • Quest for independent, lifelong learners
  • Behaviour/motivation issues
  • Shift of thinking from ‘what’ to ‘how’ we learn (although in the present political climate pressure is on to change this)
  • Positive impact of technology status on our technological environment
  • Diverse and inclusive
  • personalised curriculum
  • Strengths of senior and middle leaders
  • Focus on developing T&L
  • Appointment of two internal advanced teachers
  • Inset focused on T&L led by key teaching staff, in particular AST and ATs

Independent learning skills within our curriculum

We had experimented with teaching indep­en­dent learning skills in discrete ways through such programmes as ‘learn-2-learn’ (L2L), a well-thought-out programme devised by Alistair Smith and Mark Lovatt, which we delivered through discrete lessons and tutor periods. But for HTC, we did not feel this to be the most beneficial way forward – the box below lists key reasons why.

Reasons for failure of bolt-on approach

  • One or two specialist staff – not able to deliver to whole cohorts and so a lack of continuity ensued (even though the programme was rigorously planned and monitored)
  • Mixed delivery and lack of awareness by subject specialists so subject staff did not reinforce in lessons
  • Student perceptions – no end product/qualification, so they didn’t value or see L2L as a subject in its own right

Students need to apply knowledge and understanding and the best context for this to be delivered has been in and through lessons covering all areas of the curriculum from English and maths to PE, the arts and construction or hairdressing, rather than learning indepen­dent thinking skills as a discrete subject in isolation of the curriculum. For us, it is not so much the ‘skills’ of independent learning but the ‘attitudes to learning’ that facilitate the acquisition of these skills.

So we set about developing a curricu­lum aiming to promote a set of skills and habits that facilitate self-awareness and resilience in learning. These included:

  • being able to transfer skills and learning from one context to another
  • understanding how you as an individual learn best and how to use this effectively.

This approach has developed an accept­ance that acknowledges whether or not you are an independent learner you will: be motivated to learn; manage your own learning; and reflect on your learning. These attributes will enable you to become a successful learner and/or provide you with some insight into your learning achievements that will enhance your motivation to continue learning. The responsibility for this is yours.

Ian Gilbert of Independent Thinking Ltd has been influential in helping us to under­stand and shape our principles. It was some time ago that he led whole-staff Inset on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences (see: Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences, 1993, Harper Collins), motivation and brain-gym techniques that saw all staff standing up and waving their arms around in different directions. Has this been sustained? Not in its entirety, but the principles remain, and to keep things ‘fresh’ (and motivational) we have evolved and developed systems of our own (see the box below), that advocate, but do not dictate (save a couple), motiva­tional and independent approaches to learning.

Fundamentals of outstanding lessons

  • Pupil enjoyment and motivation
  • Challenge, pace, range of learning styles and differentiation
  • Progress
  • Safe, secure and encouraging environment for students
  • Consistent and regular assessment of learning and for learning
  • Student engagement
  • Clear appropriate learning objectives
  • Good behaviour and positive relationships
  • Independent learning & thinking skills
  • Wait time
  • On-task student talk is greater than teacher talk!

Role of training

Appointing our own ‘advanced teachers’ (ATs) as well as homegrown advanced skills teachers (ASTs) has enabled us to deliver planned programmes of Inset delivered by teachers (and in some cases students) based around teaching and learning (T&L) with a subtext of independence running through all areas. Our last Inset, entitled ‘Developing indep­en­dent learning’ was run by 10 different teachers all sharing strategies focused around what we believe facilitates an independent learner. These related to setting meaningful and engaging objec­tives, differentiating work relevant to the individual learner wherever possible, showing progress, emotionally intelligent pedagogy and ratio of student talk to teacher talk. This was followed up by what we called our ‘global tour’ fortnight, where every teacher produced a lesson plan to illustrate what they had learned and would implement following the Inset. In turn, all teachers observed a colleague and gave positive feedback relating to the Inset aim. Lessons learned from this were shared via the staffroom T&L noticeboard where staff photographed images of lessons with narratives describing their experiences, including those set out in the box below.

Examples of teachers’ independent learning lessons

  • ‘Learning tokens’ where students follow the ‘usual’ Q1, Q2, Q3 routine but on reaching Q3 (ask the teacher) they have to give the teacher a token in order to ask them a question; each student is given three tokens per lesson and students with tokens left can be rewarded as appropriate
  • ‘Teachers being on strike’ where, to promote independent learning, teachers ‘pretend’ to go on strike; students are assigned to take over and the teacher holds back for as long as they can!
  • ‘Millionaire’ is used where students are given three lifelines at the start of a scheme of work; this encourages all students to be actively engaged and answer questions, affords instant differentiation and provides a competitive element that students enjoy

Many teachers ensure pupils set their own lesson objectives and targets using a formula created by one of our ASTs:

to be able to (insert challenging verb)+ (subject specific task) using/applying (subject specific resource or material).

Each teacher has a set of cards that contain verbs, adjectives and key words/connectives that helps to create higher order/thinking objectives, and students are given these to create the learning objective(s) for the lesson.

Supporting teachers

To afford less teacher talk and more student engagement, we have given staff a simple checklist to reflect on and keep in their planners as well as sticking on their desk – see the box above (Fundamentals of outstanding lessons).

All staff are reminded of active learning through the ‘cone of learning (Edgar Dale)’ active Inset. Strategies we have developed for staff to use to increase student engagement with independent learning are set out in the box below.

Examples of strategies to increase independent learning

Q1–Q4 scheme
Our Q1–Q4 scheme promotes independence by encouraging students to think for themselves. If a question is asked by a student the teacher should respond by asking them to ask themselves and give them ‘thinking time’ equivalent to an 11-second wait. If after this a youngster still does not know, they are directed to ask a friend and work collaboratively to find a solution and if this fails and they are in a computer suite or have access to the internet they are encouraged to ask the computer. If all strategies fail, then the teacher will come and work with the student to enable them to try and find the right answer.

PechaKucha 20×20
PechaKucha, drawing its name from the Japanese term for the sound of conversation (‘chit chat’), rests on a presentation format that is based on a simple idea: 20 images x 20 seconds. It is a format that makes presentations concise and keeps things moving at a rapid pace, holding the attention of the audience, challenging our students to think quickly, developing their confidence in delivering presentations and inspiring them in lessons.

In Key Stage 3, students are not set traditional homework; instead, they are given ‘Passport to Independence’ (P2i) activities. Each subject sets an assignment-based activity for students to complete over a four-week period every term or half-term. The tasks are introduced in lesson time and staff provide ‘stepping-stone’ guidance to help students complete the tasks.

Our aims for P2i are to:

  • stretch and challenge all students
  • improve students’ attitude to out-of-college-hours learning
  • develop their lifelong learning skills
  • allow students to become more responsible for their own learning
  • prepare students for GCSE coursework and study in Key Stage 4.

Encouraging pupil reflections

We are developing ways in which we ensure all staff encourage learners to talk to them about their learning through assessment for learning (AfL) strategies, peer and self-assessment, along with pupil evaluation and feedback. AfL is part of our T&L policy and all schemes must have activities built in to ensure AfL approaches occur. Increasingly, and on a voluntary basis (at present), staff have been giving students evaluation forms to see how they feel about the lessons they are receiving, via such questions as those set out below.

Pupils evaluating lessons: example questions

  • What have you enjoyed/found useful in these lessons?
  • What could be done differently to improve these lessons?
  • Are you concerned about anything in this subject area? If so, what?
  • How much progress do you feel you have made in your understanding so far this year?
  • How much do you feel you are being challenged in these lessons?

Student voice is strong at HTC and there are a number of vehicles via which pupils are encouraged to be reflective. Students observing lessons and giving feedback to the teacher has been part of our department review and quality assurance programme for a number of years. However, we have now shifted the focus to students observing students about their performance and giving feedback. It is early days as we have just trialled a dozen observations where students look at student response to behaviour, progress and what we term as standard operating procedures.

The use of debating and ‘ping pong’ – an educational discussion where one person/group ‘hits’ an opinion to another person/group who returns it with a counter viewpoint, continuing in this way until the person/group is unable to respond and a point is won – have been led and fed in to Inset sessions via a couple of key staff. These ‘fun ways’ of learning promote experimentation and reduce the fear of getting things wrong.

Use of new technologies
Being a technology college we have also promoted the use of technology wherever possible and in all subjects to deliver, empower and enrich independent learning and teaching. Students and teachers have worked together and produced more than 40 podcasts in a range of subjects. Similarly, students produce the weekly ‘thought-for-the-week’ movie and message giving topical reflections about current issues that is played to tutor groups to consider, enjoy and reflect. Seeing their work published and others using it increases students’ confidence and self-belief – essential ingredients to be an independent learner.

The advent of social networking has led to many students emailing teachers to clarify understanding, ask questions and seek advice. We do not allow teachers to correspond with students through social networking sites, for obvious reasons.

But we do acknowl­edge communication of this type is a great way to develop the attributes of an independent learner.

On our old virtual learning environment (VLE) there was a facility for teachers to set up discussion forums and blogs that students would participate in. This was beginning to evolve but we have unfortu­n­ately had to dismantle this platform as it was fraught with other technical issues. We are currently rebuilding and devel­oping our own platform where discussion forums, webinars (online seminars/discussions) will be present. The ability to interact and ask questions over the net is for some more likely to engage than a traditional lesson or discussion. Similarly, we use Wallwisher as an online noticeboard for students to discuss new ideas, give feedback and voice opinion. This has produced some excellent responses with students who would not normally engage. Some teachers have also created writing blogs to encourage student engagement and our own twitter page has generated interest from parents as well as students.

Gaining staff commitment
We use our T&L newsletter, bookmarks and prompts (produced by the ATs, under the supervision of the director of teaching – see the examples in the box below ) to drive home the key messages about quality practice and provide resources to help teachers develop their skills in facilitating independent learning.

Examples of our bookmarks and prompts

Bookmark to engage independent learning

  • Q1, Q2, Q3
  • Minimise teacher talk, maximise on-task student talk
  • Create the right climate for learning
  • Develop positive relationships
  • Role model
  • Ping pong
  • Debate
  • Pupil-led objectives and target-setting
  • Go on strike!

Prompts to develop objectives

  • Ensure your objectives take a similar form to ‘know that’ (factual information); ‘understand/be able to explain how/why’ (concepts, principles and processes and so on); ‘develop/be able to’ (skills and techniques and so on); ‘develop/be aware of’ (attitudes, values and so on)
  • The objectives should be driving the lesson and the learning
  • Choose objectives that will easily be assessed to determine if students have met them
  • Ensure that your objectives are not a list of tasks, such as ‘complete project’

Bookmark for differentiation

  • Differentiate by task, resource, objectives, outcomes and support
  • Use an able pupil to recap on the previous lesson’s learning
  • Step the questions – start simple and then challenge
  • Use ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘could’ when setting classroom tasks
  • Make it competitive – rig the groups!
  • Add structure (by providing word banks, writing frames, starter sentences and so on) for the less able or remove it for the more able

Collaborative planning in departments followed by lesson observation in the following week helps to focus staff attention on incorporating independent learning within all lessons.

Inset time is spent addressing areas for development identified by observation and then teachers engage in joint plan­ning to integrate some of what they have developed into lesson plans for the week ahead. Subject leaders and senior leaders then observe lessons to see if key mes­sages from the Inset have been success­fully incorporated into lessons. This gives immediacy to the work, is a powerful tool for moving from rhetoric to reality, and enhances the role of the subject leader.

Securing ownership of learning
All departments now have their own student subject leaders who attend department meetings, some Inset, and challenge and support the development of learning and teaching in their ‘specialist’ subject area.

The personalised nature of an individual pupil’s curriculum along with support from learning mentors nurtures those that need it. Learning support provides fur­ther help for anger and stress management, boosting empa­thy and optimism.

The development and use of support staff, in particular through intro­ducing non-teaching year leaders and engagement with our Local Children’s Partnership (LCP), has enhanced some of our more vulner­able pupils’ ability to be independent.

Our curriculum is now made up of 40% BTEC and 60% GCSEs. The onus on coursework for BTECs has encouraged higher-order thinking skills and research activities. BTEC assignments focus around these skills for higher level grades, which the students aspire to achieve.

Evaluating progress and making improvements

Monitoring quality of T&L
Subject leaders (or their delegate) must formally observe each member of their department at least once per term. Additionally, subject leaders, year leaders, ASTs and advanced teachers and senior leaders are carrying out learning walks and ‘drop-in’ observations on a regular basis. This means we have a large database of evidence regarding the quality of teaching and development of independent learning skills.

All lesson observations, whether formal or informal, are tracked on a comprehen­sive spreadsheet, allowing us to gauge the quality of teaching easily and to interro­gate the data to look at subjects or individuals via a half-termly dashboard. This impacts on developing independent learning as staff know we look for strat­egies and approaches to encourage this.

The assistant headteacher and an AST have worked for a day with a strategy consultant to begin to unpick how to develop and address some of the development areas, including independent learning, identified through observation. They have looked at ways to develop use of learning objectives and ways to demonstrate progress, which have been fed in to Inset sessions for staff.

The director of teaching led the team of ASTs and ATs in the research and produc­tion of a self-evaluation document that would allow teachers to evaluate their own T&L practice, scoring them­selves against the criteria for an outstanding lesson that facilitates independent learning. This information has then been collated into a single spreadsheet so staff training needs can easily be identified.

The evaluation document allowed staff to reflect on their practice and identify a suitable focus for observations of their peers. Each member of staff will observe three other members of staff, at least one of which has been selected for having strength in the area of focus of the observing teacher.

Monitoring of long-term planning and modelling the format of long-term plans will drive up standards and model good lesson structure and content. This has not commenced yet, but we intend to start this process with subject leaders in the summer-term meetings.

The monitoring calendar is a line management tool that ensures a consistent approach. Once per half term subject leaders report back with evidence against specific criteria and progress in subjects and by all students and different sub-groups of students – boys/girls, FSM students, children in care, SEN and so on.

The main ethos of the subject leaders’ meetings is to use them to model how they can influence their departments and monitor and improve T&L. Alongside this is the strategy of involving subject leaders in discussion, decision-making and development so that they are carried on the developmental journey and are full participants rather than recipients.

Individual intervention
The ASTs and ATs, under the direction of the director of teaching, identify staff to coach and support to improve their teaching in general but also their teaching of independent learning skills. They may work with staff by request or be part of a package of support provided in instances of inadequate lessons being observed.

We are piloting the use of a 10-minute coaching strategy. A teacher is observed by an observation pair (for example, the two ATs). Points of immediate feedback are noted during the observation. The teacher is removed from the lesson while one observer supervises the class, and the other has a professional conversation with them eliciting strategies that can be used on return to the classroom.

In another pilot, ATs are carrying out electronic student-voice evaluations. An AT comes to the class to interview pupils using the Smart response software, which offers teachers an easy and effective way to monitor pupil comprehension of lesson materials. Col­lated responses are comp­ared to college averages and can give teachers quality information to aid their development and provide a way in for coaching. We are also piloting the use of feedback given to students about their performance. This is pre-arranged with the teacher who plans a lesson for a formal observation that is five minutes shorter than usual. An AT or AST observing a lesson will also look at the performance of students against seven standards. The findings are fed back to the students, in the presence of the teacher, in the last five minutes of the lesson with ideas of how to improve.

Taking stock

As we have started to embed practice, we have witnessed a shift in relationships and dynamics so that students and teachers are working in closer partnership than before. There is also an acceptance and understanding from both the teacher and student that the teacher is not the font of all knowledge. In various lessons, students often lead and teach aspects of the course either as part of the planning by the subject teacher or because, quite frankly, on occasions students know more than some teachers. This and a combina­tion of personalised courses gives youngsters greater confidence to take risks, to carry out independent research, to become more resilient and develop the skills, qualities and behaviours to equip them for their future lifelong journey.

Employers and society need people who are able to adapt and apply their knowledge and skills to different situations. Youngsters need the core knowledge and skills afforded by the curriculum, but the ‘softer’ (and if you like more ethereal) qualities are just as important in today’s ever changing and developing society.

The core benefits of our multi-layered approach to developing independent learning skills across the school have been a shift in culture. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach and is also not about the curriculum alone. We are on a never­ending journey that will continuously evolve and develop. The core challenges we continue to face are student and some (but very few) teacher engagement. Some students like and even to some degree expect (depending on their previous experience) to be ‘spoonfed’. This is a challenge we are addressing on an ongoing basis.

Strategies we use to develop indepen­dent learning need to be monitored and reviewed, changed or developed to keep them fresh and motivating. It is the day-to-day, lesson-by-lesson learning environ­ment where these skills and attitudes are fostered and embedded, so a cross-curricular approach to developing students’ independent learning skills has been key. The change in direction of the new Government could be an inhibitor. But, we remain steadfast that we are the experts when it comes to educational development of the individual student and will find a way to continue to develop independent learners.

Nigel Sheppard, Deputy Headteacher, Horndean Technology College, Horndean, Hampshire