Tags: Classroom Teacher | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

Andy Bowman explores strategies for promoting and supporting independent learning.

Our world is ever-changing. As we move out of what has been named by many as the ‘Technological Revolution’ of the 1980s and 90s, we find ourselves in a world in which the nature of both communication and information has transformed beyond recognition. Countless jobs now exist that were unimaginable 20 years ago. Primary school children of the 1980s typically shared three or four BBC computers. You had a phone to talk to people and a camera to take pictures, and there was never a need to combine the two. ‘Digital’ referred specifically to a type of watch, and web-browsing was something spiders did when they were house-hunting. The change has been spectacular.

With this in mind, who can possibly predict what adult world today’s pupils will find themselves in? If there is one thing we can be certain about, it is that in order for a person to thrive in the future, they will have to be able to learn and re-learn over and over again. For some, this learning might be about developing specific skills; for most it will be about learning several different trades or professions during the course of a career. In today’s classroom, how can we help to prepare pupils for this level of risk-taking?

It is first important to clarify the term ‘independent’, to avoid the notion that independent learning and collaborative learning are opposite poles. Learning is considered by many to be a social activity. There were aspects of mathematics that I had never really understood, until I had to stand in front of Year 6 and try to explain it. Admittedly, this was possibly leaving it a little bit late, but the point is that verbalizing their thinking is, for many learners, the best (or even the only) way to make the connections necessary for effective learning to take place. Furthermore, for a pupil to take the risks necessary in order to learn, they must feel safe in their environment and for many, this security comes from contact with their peers while they are learning. In this article, I use ‘independent’ to mean self-managed learning, with the learner rather than the adult making the decisions. This could occur in both a collaborative and an individual situation.

Taking risks – displays

In order for a pupil to grow as an independent learner, he or she must develop an awareness of their individual learning preferences. Displays can be an excellent way of promoting critical thinking about learning. A ‘Learning Tips’ board,for example, can be a valuable source of discussion and debate in the classroom, providing pupils with the opportunity to share and analyse their own learning preferences. This sort of self-awareness is crucial if pupils are to make valuable choices about their learning, but it will only be developed if the teacher allows the time for pupils to reflect upon and refine their understanding of themselves as learners.

Displays are also vital for providing a secure environment in which learners feel confident to take risks. Learners should be encouraged to ‘get stuck’, as this is the only point at which new learning begins to take place. As a class, ‘stuckness’ can be celebrated – if a child tells you they are stuck, reply with a sincere ‘Well done’. However, once a learner has fearlessly travelled to a point where he or she is stuck, it is important that some form of support is in place to allow them to move forward again. This is where displays can provide invaluable reference points.

Note the expectation that at least two alternative strategies must be tried before the pupil approaches an adult. When a pupil is able to get themself ‘unstuck’ without being told the answer, it not only has a significant impact upon their confidence as a learner, but it also enables more profound learning to take place.

If, for example, a learner spends two or three minutes looking up a word in the dictionary, many layers of learning are taking place. Knowledge of alphabetical order is being revised and further embedded and other similar words may be found along the way, broadening the learner’s awareness of vocabulary. Depending upon the word, different forms or tenses may be laid out clearly for the learner to see, helping connections to be made.The time spent focusing upon the spelling of that single word will increase the likelihood of its spelling being remembered in the future. Had an adult simply dictated the spelling of the word, the pupil would only be engaged mechanically in order to write the word down, rather than being engaged cognitively in a learning process.

The step ‘ask a friend’ is also a significant one – who better to support a stuck learner than a peer who is going through the same experience? If you want to help someone to learn how to climb a tree, it is surely better to climb alongside than to yell instructions down from the top!

The challenge with younger pupils is to present similar ideas in a way that is less reliant upon text. I would recommend including fewer steps to try, and using the board as a reminder of the resources available to them.

Making choices – resources

One of the most valuable features that an ‘independent learning’ classroom can have is an easily accessible bank of resources. Every teaching resource can be re-branded a ‘learning resource’ and handed over to the children. Make it clear to them that the resources are there for them to use as and when they need them. It can be surprising how creative learners can be. A dictionary might be used to clarify the meaning of a mathematical term that then supports some numeracy learning or a ruler could become a number line. It is genuinely exciting to see a young learner in the middle of a teacher-led session move from where they are, fetch a whiteboard and pen and then return to where they were to make a list of the main points covered so far, or begin a Mind Map to explore how the week’s learning fits together. This shows a person fully engaged in what they are doing and who is able to self-manage their learning effectively.

Making choices – environmental

One of the biggest challenges in providing an environment in which a wide range of learning preferences is considered, is preventing our own preferences from dominating our judgements about what is right or wrong. Traditionally, classrooms suit the pupil who prefers to remain quietly seated in a chair, in a well-lit room, receiving information aurally and visually. This pupil will have their learning needs met fairly consistently throughout school so they will be able to focus solely on the challenge of getting themselves stuck and unstuck. It is likely that they will be successful throughout their school career, gain good grades, maybe continue to higher education and end up in a position of influence – where they can dictate the way a classroom should be!

But what about the pupil who prefers a darker environment? Perhaps they prefer to stand or pace around when they are thinking about a problem, or need to talk about an idea in order to make sense of it. They are immediately disadvantaged simply because of the environment in which they are forced to exist. If they are already operating out of their comfort zone because they are not allowed out of their chair, how can we expect them to take the additional risk of learning something new? Is it significant that many successful performers state on record that they found school difficult and that performing for their classmates became their survival strategy? They have found success in the most active, vocal and social professional roles. Surely they should have been given the opportunity to feel successful long before they left school.

However, it is clearly impossible to be able to create an environment tailored to suit the individual preferences of every learner. Instead, we should aim to create as much choice as possible and support pupils in developing their self-awareness in order to inform their decisions.

Here are some features that might be included in a classroom in order to provide environmental choice:

Shady area – Self-adhesive blinds can be bought for a few pounds and hung from the ceiling. Often a row of lights can be turned off independently from the rest, and if nothing else works, ask the caretaker to remove a strip light or two!

Natural light – Not all pupils are distracted by sitting near a window. Many love the natural light and will actually stay far more focused.

Floor space – Including space in the classroom for pupils to sit on the carpet should not be considered solely a Key Stage 1 feature. Many older pupils often prefer to sit or even lie on the floor, and the quality of their learning will often increase when they are given that opportunity. Creating space also makes spontaneous kinaesthetic learning easier to manage.

Chairs at tables – We must not forget that a significant number of pupils do prefer to sit on a chair at a table. However, do you need enough tables for every pupil to sit at one at the same time? Losing a couple of tables can free up lots of space.

Room to move – Are you able to create space for pupils to move around? Some may need to be able to pace around while they are learning (think of the actor marching up and down trying to learn lines).

Flexibilty – Why not have two or three different classroom layout plans that you can display on sheets of paper, from a laptop using a projector or using an OHP? If you invest a small amount of time with the class rehearsing how to move the furniture quickly and safely, you will find the classroom can be changed in minutes to support the type of learning needed, be it collaborative, kinaesthetic or individual. With the right preparation and a suitable piece of music, pupils as young as Year 1 can transform their environment in this way.

Creating the climate for change

A common barrier to creating an environment in which pupils are able to make meaningful choices about their learning is the teacher’s concern with classroom management. Making any change to expectations or routines could be a recipe for disaster, particularly if the change seems to involve handing a significant amount of control back to particularly challenging pupils. Creating the climate for change is important, and needs careful consideration:

1. Give the pupils ownership

Let the class know what you are thinking, and most importantly, take the time to listen to their ideas. They are the experts when it comes to their learning – they will probably know what works and they will almost certainly be able to tell you what doesn’t! Why not give them a blank plan of the classroom and see what ideas they come up with for layout? Ask them to write down their top five pieces of equipment for learning or, if you’re feeling very brave, ask them to evaluate one of your recent lessons. This can generate some fascinating class discussions about learning and will give the pupils a real sense that their opinion counts.

2. Explain the reasons

If there is going to be something different happening in the classroom (eg perhaps a change in your expectations or an adjustment to the layout) give them plenty of warning and most importantly, explain the reasons behind it. Tell them that you are giving them the opportunity to make important decisions about their learning, and that you expect them to make these decisions responsibly in order to help their learning. Providing you make this expectation clear from the start, you have a reference point for addressing any behavioural issues that may arise and the option of taking the control back from any pupils who don’t take the opportunity seriously.

3. Easy does it!

Don’t try to do too much too quickly. Most children need a certain amount of familiarity and so transforming the classroom overnight is likely to result in having to deal with the most intense dose of ‘novelty factor’ imaginable. It is much better to take small steps, discussing each one with the class and so gradually create their independent learning environment. TEX

Andy Bowman is an Advanced Skills Teacher for Learning and Thinking at Bailey’s Court Primary School in Bristol.

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