Recent Government advice suggests that schools should aim to achieve flexibility in their approaches to pupils by:

  • developing pupil independence in learning;
  • using a wide range of teaching methods appropriate to different learning styles;
  • considering the nature of the relationship between teachers, support staff and learners;
  • reviewing learning and teaching materials and resources.
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This article looks at increasing the first of these attributes, namely developing increasing pupil independence in learning. Independent learning skills are an essential preparation for life and for transition to, and success in, vocational, college or HE courses. Independent learning skills promote pupils’ ability in reviewing, recording and reflecting on their learning. They also encourage independence in problem-solving, decision-making and organisation. However, they take time to establish and, for many pupils, require deliberate teaching and modelling. Therefore if pupils are to become actively involved in increasing their independence in their own learning, they need firstly to acquire the ability to learn how to learn.

This is particularly important for pupils with SEN, who may find it difficult to assimilate and generalise skills, but for whom the ability to generate their own learning can lead to increased success, self-confidence and self-esteem. A supportive environment, that allows pupils to learn from mistakes and build on their successes, is a pre-requisite. Ideally, such skill building will be started early and sustained throughout an individual’s learning.

To ensure that the environment is in place to encourage independent learning, schools may need to review how they build and support the development of these skills. For example, they could consider whether they have in place:

  • a whole-institution approach to the development of learning skills
  • curricular and other activities that provide structured opportunities for their development
  • a consistent approach to skills development
  • clear and consistent expectations of learners.

Specific skills that need to be developed

Observation of pupils can lead to decisions being made regarding what skills individual pupils already possess in independent learning. It can also assist in raising awareness of those abilities that need to be assimilated in order for pupils to further enhance their skills, and what areas need targeting for improvement. Specific skills might include the ability to:

  • complete set tasks without adult intervention for increasing periods of time
  • preview or skim materials before reading them in detail
  • accurately decode and understand written instructions and text
  • summarise the main points of the task
  • use a number of different sources to locate required information for the completion of tasks
  • predict likely outcomes • organise, plan and re-draft written responses
  • work in co-operation in a group or individually to complete assignments
  • demonstrate persistence when a task appears challenging
  • demonstrate determination and organisation skills to meet deadlines
  • display effective note taking skills to aid recall
  • transfer learning to other areas of the curriculum
  • present materials in a way that allows reader understanding of response
  • ask for help when needed
  • see mistakes as part of the learning process
  • set themselves high goals and aim to achieve the best they can.

The role of the teacher

Teachers need to set and clarify learning objectives, expectations and boundaries and to share these with pupils. They need to assist students to acquire the knowledge, skills and understanding and plan structured opportunities in which to demonstrate, practise and apply these skills and to reflect and build on their learning. This may require consideration of strategies and procedures to increase flexibility so that the curriculum:

  • is delivered through a varied but balanced range of teaching methods (e.g. didactic, active and experiential)
  • meets the needs of all learning styles (e.g. visual, aesthetic, kinaesthetic,reflective, theoretical, pragmatic and active)
  • helps pupil to make connections with other learning by breaking large tasks into manageable steps and demonstrating the relevance of what is being learnt, now and in the future
  • encourages pupils to participate by ensuring they understand outcomes and have opportunities to review, record and reflect on their progress
  • supports assessment for learning through teacher, peer or self-assessment.

Materials and resources

Increased emphasis on involving pupils in learning and helping them to take more responsibility for what they do, makes the availability of sufficient quality materials and resources vital. This applies to classroom materials (e.g. textbooks, videos, tapes, CDs, software and worksheets) that can support independent learning, and to other provisions such as departmental and centralised provision (ICT hardware and resource centres). Institutions planning to adopt a flexible approach to curriculum provision and learning might want to consider the extent to which:

  • existing materials and resources are sufficiently differentiated and varied to meet student needs
  • materials and resources are readily available and accessible to those who need them
  • there is a coherent strategy for using and giving students access to resources, including multimedia
  • staff and students have the skills they need to make full use of the materials and resources available
  • there is a team approach to developing materials and resources.


Learning to learn demands a solution-focused approach to classroom tasks and determination to overcome obstacles. It requires pupils to be empowered to influence the way in which they approach and complete their learning. This suggests trust between teacher and student and a sharing of identified targets that are negotiated and agreed. Learning to learn increases the responsibility upon the pupil to accept their role in directing their learning; and for pupils who are familiar to more didactic schooling, this may appear unstructured. However, it can lead to greater engagement with learning, reduce disaffection and support skills for learning throughout life.

Reproduced by permission of Special Needs Information Press.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, December 2004.