Building Independence 


At our school, we build our idea of excellent teaching and learning around four pillars. The first two, challenge and feedback, are fairly uncontroversial but the other two, engagement and independence, sometimes raises eyebrows. I think this is because the two terms get so misused in education out of a desire to make everything something you can observe and rate; they need reclaiming. 

Engagement is often used in one of two (equally irritating) ways. 

  1. “My class won’t behave themselves. I’ll stick on a DVD so that they are engaged”
  2. “That was a good lesson. The class were all engaged in their work.”

Engaged seems to end up meaning either they are quiet or the activity was fun. This is a great shame. To me, engagement is so much more. If I am engaged in something I am intrinsically motivated. I’m giving it my all. I am prepared to go further. I am taking it seriously. 

Likewise, independence is something that has been horribly misused and abused in our schools. It often becomes a task where children are working something out for themselves or doing some research. The problem is that whilst this mimics independence, it can often lead to very little being learnt other than a lot of uncorrected misconceptions. 


Perhaps instead we should look at the level of independence that is appropriate for different stages of education so that they leave us as independent learners. If we start with the end point, in A Level Geography, students are expected to carry out a completely independent enquiry. They need to set their own title, plan their methodology and sampling strategies, collect their own primary and secondary data, work out how to present it and analyse it, reach substantiated conclusions and evaluate their work. All within 4000 words. 

Does this mean that they should practice doing this from Year 7 onwards? I don’t think so. Instead we need to consider how we ensure they can complete each of these stages. Do they know enough to be able to work out a suitable hypothesis? Do they know how to collect a range of data? Do they know how to run analysis? These are the things we can start putting in place much sooner.

These are all fairly subject specific skills but there are other, more generic, study skills that pupils need in order to be successful independent learners. At the start of Year 7, most pupils need (or at least want) constant supervision for every decision. “Should I write the title?” “Should I go on to a new page?” “Do I draw a diagram in pen or pencil?”. Over the first couple of weeks they work these ones out but other areas of self regulation elude them. 

Pupils need to be able to proof read their work, apply success criteria, read a text and select relevant information, identify bias. I am not for a second suggesting that pupils have lessons in “independence” but I do think we need to picture that independent learner who leaves us and then work backwards to ensure that in our lessons we are making these things explicit so that they are trained to do them. Perhaps we need to approach this like the rest of our curriculum with a knowledge organiser that clearly spells out what they should be able to do independently by the end of each unit, and then make sure we have taught them to do it. 

I am increasingly concerned that 11 years of education have left pupils starting their A Levels ill equipped for the level of independence they are expected to show. They still expect to be told exactly what to read and when, they still want rough drafts read and corrected for them, they don’t know where to start when it comes to meaningful research. Many have not become independent and engaged learners. 

This is an area I want to develop as we go into the next academic year. I want to make sure that we start the course with very clear expectations of what it entails and the support in place to help our students become the Geographers they need to be. 

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3 thoughts on “Building Independence 

  1. Your thoughts mirror my own. It is frustrating when teaching final year students skills they should already have acquired rather than focusing on what they now need to master. Engagement is far more than enjoyment or compliance. Challenging and meaningful lessons throughout school should be all teachers’ goals

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with everything you said. I teach Science to years 7-13 and it is the same. A level students struggle with the independence, they still need a lot of guidance and many times do not know how to do their own research, how to write an essay or how to reference their sources. It is something that has to be done gradually, they can’t just be dumped into it at the beginning of year 12.

    Liked by 1 person

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