Doing Independence Right

Reading “The Confident Teacher” this week by Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) started me thinking about the idea of Independence. It is one of the key pillars of teaching and learning that we focus on at my school but it is something that still causes confusion.

The big issue seems to be that people think of “Independence” as something pupils should be doing. As a type of activity. I was carrying out a learning walk recently and saw a class who were sat in groups and in theory preparing a presentation together. In practice they were looking confused and a bit panicked as they didn’t have the knowledge to begin such a task. Their teacher told me with a smile “They are doing Independence”.

On another occasion I was in a meeting planning a new scheme of work. One lesson we were discussing was to look at the difference in human and physical geography between different parts of the U.K. A suggestion was mooted that we could ask them at the end of the lesson to answer the question “Should Scotland leave the UK?”. I asked if they had picked up the knowledge and understand necessary to answer such a question. “It will encourage Independence” I was told.

Independence is something we need to teach. It is not something that pupils simply do. For me Indepedence should be about how pupils respond to their work. How they plan, review and evaluate their own work. This doesn’t happen naturally but like any other skill it needs guidance.

It is reminiscent of old schemes of work I would see where people were instructed to show where they were teaching literacy. Any lesson where pupils read or wrote would proudly be labelled as “literacy”. Sorry, no. If you aren’t teaching it or giving feedback in it then it isn’t being learnt. At best it is being practiced but without input the same mistakes are being repeated and progress isn’t being made.

In The Confident Teacher, Alex Quigley writes;

No doubt their is a common confusion about exactly what we mean when we talk define Independent Learning. It is too often caricatured and associated with discovery learning or the vague notion of ‘discovery learning’ – often depicted as pupils working on their own, finding their own problems and devising their own solutions – the role of the teacher sidelined as inessential, a mere spare part.

This I think is the key problem. It starts with the assumption that children can not only work independently but that they will also make progress that way. It is also beautifully summed up in this cartoon.


Instead I see Independence as an outcome of education. I expect that by the end of KS5 pupils will truly be able to work independently. In fact this is a key component of the new Geography A Level specification where pupils have to plan and carry out their own investigation. Even here though there is the expectation that they will be taught how to do so.

So how do we teach pupils the skill of independence? Here are a few of the strategies I intend to embed.

  1. Teach pupils to review their work after they feel it is complete. I intend to produce a checklist that pupils can refer to when they feel they have finished their work; directing them to check their work with a partner, check for use of geographical language, check for use of evidence etc.
  2. Ensure that pupils understand what we expect from their work and encourage them to use this to review their work as they go against these high expectations.
  3. Teach pupils how to plan a piece of extended writing. Model good practice frequently.
  4. Encourage pupils to set their own enquiry questions at the start of topic and then go back to them at the end of each lesson to see which they can now answer.
  5. Teach pupils how to plan an investigation and how to collect primary and secondary data. Teach research skills. We have included this as one of our key strands on the Life After Levels Pathways.

Most importantly I intend to remember that Independence is a skill I am teaching and not simply pupils working without me.

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