Some rainforest thinking: how a pupil might feel if faced with independent learning without the support!

Independent Learning is not a new thing. The best pupils have always been the ones that thought for themselves and delved deep into the intricacies of the subjects they enjoyed. But, as this wonderfully biased selection of quotes demonstrate, old-fashioned education systems demonstrate a correlation between the autocracy of the teacher and the stifling of creativity and original thought.  So it makes perfect sense that in our changing world independent learning is, de facto, the best possible form of learning we can instil in the culture of our education systems.

Not surprisingly, the only way pupils can be successful independent learners is if they take ownership and responsibility for that learning. Asking children and teenagers to take responsibility is, well, all part of growing up I guess. But it isn’t a straightforward business. They don’t grow up at the same rate as each other, and so they don’t always possess the maturity to maintain the learning dispositions we want them to. Headguruteacher talks about ‘rainforest thinking’ over ‘plantation thinking’ when it came to his staff development – I would also apply this to pupils: that we need a high challenge, high trust culture which in turn is motivational and rewarding.

If you combine this line of thinking with John Hattie’s findings summarised in the TEDx talk below, then Independent Learning becomes a key element of what a good teacher must engender in their pupils.  The emphasis of a statement about pupils taking responsibility for their learning isn’t about the pupil – it is about their teachers.  Because it is the impact of the teacher-as-a-person that matters most upon a pupil’s development:

Whether or not you accept Hattie’s effect sizes method, what he says strikes a chord with most teachers – it doesn’t matter what fancy new development is on the cards, pupils can only really make amazing progress if their teachers are having a meaningful impact on them.  Just pause for a moment to recall your best teachers from your own education.  I bet you that they had an impact on you: they were a role model to you, and they did something that brought you on significantly.  And so because of them, you became able to do something that previously you were unable to do.  And you did it yourself, independently.  That wasn’t chance, you know.

Independent Learning isn’t about leaving pupils to their own devices to learn things for themselves; they should be clearly directed by the teacher, who has already decided what the learning outcomes should be. It is the pupil’s job to discover the information, not to discover what it is they should be learning.

When teachers model good practice, such as being known for academic rigour or for demonstrating a growth mindset, then it follows that many of their pupils will start to mirror this behaviour.  Pupils need to be encouraged to develop a sense of mastery and ownership over their learning so to encourage a desire to accomplish and sharpen their abilities.  As John Hattie claims, it is the teacher themselves who has the most amount of influence over pupils’ learning and attitude to learning.  And that teacher has to focus on the progress that individual pupils are able to make.  Otherwise pupils can never really be expected to take responsibility for their learning, as we wouldn’t really be letting them do so.

Effective teaching occurs when the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have been told tying it all together with closure.

John Hattie (Visible Teaching, 2009)

“New undergraduates seem to expect to be told what to do at every stage. It is almost as though the spoon-feeding-and-teaching-to-the-test culture at school has drained them of independent thought.”

Professor Tim Birkhead, Sheffield University, 2009