Independent Learning

It has been a real treat this week having Iain Henderson from Wellington College in England visit us here at the school. Iain is a Deputy Head, primarily responsible for Educational Developments and Partnerships and has been here talking about the importance of coaching as well as Independent Learning which is a subject very close to my heart. As Iain has explained, it is also something that has many definitions and can be easily dismissed as irrelevant, or a less important skill or attribute for our pupils than it really is. Below is an article written by Iain that I hope you find interesting and useful. In terms of our own teaching, I wonder next time you visit and see a class in action, what step along the “Continuum of Helping” you would consider that teaching and learning to be taking place. Please read below for more information:

Independent Learning

Anyone doing a trawl through school websites, prospectuses and mission statements will find that most schools make some reference to developing independence in one form or other.  This is usually termed independent thinking or independent learning. Given that learning is a change in long-term memory, or as the residue of hard thought, it is safe to consider the two as connected.

Independence is a much sought-after quality at university and in the workplace. Indeed, even truly exceptional exam results will guarantee nothing when it comes to gaining entry to top universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale Princeton, Stanford and MIT.  These universities require much more than the basic requirements of top grades: they are looking for the ability to deal with new and complex material; to be intellectually curious, independent of thought, flexible and articulate in their specialist domain.

Yet, while most schools say they aim to generate this independence, very few can articulate either what they mean by it, or how they can train teachers to develop those skills in young people. Independent learning is usually described as “when the students work on their own”, which is at best simplistic, and at worst, simply wrong. In “What does this look like in the classroom?” (Hendrick and MacPherson 2017), a collection of educational experts describe it as a desirable end-state, but not the best way to achieve it. In other words, you don’t learn to be independent by working on your won. The Educational Endowment Foundation has a 7 point plan for developing metacognition and self-regulation in learners: independence, in other words. At Wellington, we have combined this with other research to describe the “Continuum of Helping”. We guide teachers to choose the most appropriate form of interaction for that pupil, that class, and that moment.  Teachers are encouraged to respond, and to change, to move back up the continuum, when they feel the student needs more support.

The continuum looks like this, from maximum teacher input and scaffolding, to the minimum:

  • Telling or ordering
  • Instruction
  • Explanation or inspiring story
  • Showing, demonstrating, or modelling
  • Advising
  • Mentoring
  • Coaching
  • “Now you do it on your own”

This process is clearly illustrated by the way in which we learn to drive.We learn from a driving instructor, and for good reason: there is information that is needed to be passed on, or instructed. This is crucial information, and if you get it wrong, the consequences are unthinkable. However, if that is the only teaching method, to tell the pupil what to do, they will never really learn to drive.

Even on a 5 mile journey, there is an infinite number of possible situations that you can encounter.  If you do the same 5 mile journey every day, each one is different, and since we certainly aren’t restricted to just one route and just one time of day, rote-learning how to drive can’t be the answer.

To be safe and competent, we need to learn to be independent.  So good instructors don’t just instruct.  They move appropriately along the continuum described above.

They explain. They demonstrate, show and model.

They adopt more of a mentoring approach, where they are having a dialogic conversation, but in the process, passing on further information, expertise and advice. They are, after all, the expert, so they ought to know.

But the best instructors also coach. They extend that dialogue into more open questioning, and they deliberately withhold information and advice, in order to enable their pupil to take responsibility themselves, and to know how much the pupil owns themselves. That way they know when it is time for that pupil to take their test, pass it and to go off onto the roads as a fundamentally safe and capable driver, who can make decisions in the moment, independently.

This is one of the central reasons why Wellington is leading in the implementation of coaching in schools. Coaching is perhaps the key stage in the development of independence, and it is proven to improve results. Coaching can be the subject of a future piece!