Andy Bowman explores strategies to begin to develop independence and resourcefulness in young learners.

You may have heard the saying, ‘Give a man grain and he will feed his family for a week. Give him the tools and he will feed his family for life’. In the context of education, how much of our time in school is spent aiming at providing grain, and how much at providing learning tools that will serve the person for life?

The classroom is buzzing. All pupils look happy enough, and all are very comfortable with what they are doing. Apart from one. He is slouched, arms folded, with his chin pushed into his chest, and is slumped so far down under the table that from behind, he looks like a toupe balanced on the back of a chair. As I approach, trying to spot a sliver of face between the jumper and fringe, I ask the question: ‘What’s the matter Craig?’ The reply is emphatic, if not a little predictable: ‘I’m stuck!’

In true educational video style, let’s pause the video there and analyse this scene with two ques-tions. Firstly: Why is Craig stuck? His answer would probably be along the lines of ‘I’m thick’, but the reality is that he is in a position where he is facing something new, different or challenging. In other words, he has pushed himself to an exiting point: he is about to learn. He should be celebrating.

This leads us to a second question: Why aren’t the other children stuck? There are two possible answers here. The first is that actually they would be stuck but have become skilled at avoiding the challenge. Like Craig, they are afraid of getting stuck, however unlike Craig, they have learned how to manage the situation so they stay well within their comfort zone, repeating familiar tasks or rehearsing well-used strategies. In other words, they are not actually learning anything new. The second possibility is that they are truly independ-ent in their learning. They are able to face challenges by making choices about their use of physical and mental resources, and in so doing scaffold a route from the level at which they are stuck, to the next one.

So, how can we create a classroom environment in which getting stuck is celebrated as the gateway to new learning? It sounds like a tall order, but here are some ‘tweaks’ that may help begin to create such a climate in the classroom:

Displays are a powerful way to embed messages within the classroom environment. Phrases such as the following can begin to alter the way ‘getting stuck’ is viewed by learners:

“Stuck? Excellent – You’re about to learn!”

“How many times have you managed to get stuck today?”

“If you don’t get stuck, you don’t get better!”

Displays are also an ideal way to provide the ‘scaf-folding’ learners need to be able to move themselves forward from the point where they are stuck…

Resources

Why not take every teaching resource you can find in your classroom and re-brand it a learning resource? Take them out of drawers and from behind cupboard doors and put them all together in a central place where pupils can access them freely, as and when they need to. If in the middle of a whole-class input a pupil quietly stands up, collects a whiteboard from the learning resources, returns to her seat and begins to use it to support her learning because she prefers to explore information visually, she is demonstrating the self-awareness and confidence needed to take control of her own learning. If the whiteboards were in a box under the sink she wouldn’t be able to enjoy this independence.

Given a free choice, the majority of adults probably wouldn’t choose to restrict their internet use to a set time on a particular day. We access our e-mail, search the internet, use various pieces of software as and when appropriate. Are we really preparing pupils for this flexible use of ICT when they have a timetabled slot once or twice a week in the ICT suite or on the classroom computer? Perhaps for a certain portion of each day the ICT suite could be available as an ‘information centre’, with pupils moving freely to and fro, accessing the right piece of information or carrying out the necessary task before returning to their classroom with the results.

Scaffolding Learning

For learners to feel truly independent in their learning, the nature of activities planned for them needs to be carefully considered. The more open ended a learning activity, the more opportunity each individual learner will have to operate independently, creating their own ‘learning story’. The challenge is to ensure all learners have the choice and freedom to learn independently, whilst feeling sufficiently supported to take risks. Here are three ideas that can help to create a learning ‘scaffold’:

TASC – Belle Wallace’s TASC (Thinking Actively in a Social Context) wheel provides learners with a structure that can guide them through a totally personal learning experience. It can be used with all ages, both for individual sessions and for longer-term projects, and supports learners firstly in setting their own agenda for learning and then pursuing it independently.

Group Roles – Organising the pupils into learning teams can be an effective way to structure learning, particularly if each member of the group has a different role to play. Each group could have a time-keeper, a note-taker, a researcher, a materials manager, a facilitator, a technician, a messenger… The roles can be chosen to suit the task and create a structure within which each individual is pursuing a focused, individual aim towards a shared outcome.

Sharing Expectations – It is easy to see the value of sharing the ‘success criteria’ for a piece of independent learning in order to provide learners with a clear aim. However, to provide further choice and control, why not also share what outcome would be below expectation and, most significantly, what would be above. There could be several ‘above expectation’ options, enabling pupils to make a conscious choice about how, and to what extent, they push themselves forward, creating a self-directed, personal learning experience.

Learning is about taking risks and about leaving the comfort zone. In order to do that, learners must feel secure. They must trust that the adult will understand that they have to first get things wrong before they can get them right. They must trust their peers not to judge them for getting stuck, instead to praise and encourage them. They must be confident that the resources are there to help them to learn and move forward and they must have faith in themselves as independent learners.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, September 2005.

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