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Independent Learning: What role does the teacher have to play?

Last night’s UK Ed Chat was on the topic of Independent Learning. It was fast and furious and left me buzzing so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the role of the teacher in independent learning. I’d love your feedback – please take the time to comment.

Independent Learning: What role does the teacher have to play?

Independent Learning defined

There are more definitions of independent learning than I’ve had hot dinners, but one rather neat one that I’ve come across is this:

“Independent learning is a process, a method and a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation”

Essentially in promoting independent learning we are encouraging and enabling our students to become self-directed in their learning experiences and to have more autonomy and control over their learning.

What this means in real terms:

In practice, most learning involves independent elements such as:

  • Finding and collecting information
  • Making decisions about what to study and when
  • Carrying out investigations or projects
  • Learners learning at their own pace using ICT or VLEs
  • Completing homework, extension work or coursework assignments

However, even within these independent elements there is a great deal of range over the degree of true independence a learner has. For example, we might imagine that homework would always represent independent learning – which it does to a degree – but think of the difference in learner experience and autonomy between completing a fairly tightly pre-defined worksheet compared after each lesson compared to completing a much more loosely defined, longer term project on a topic related to the lessons but not entirely driven by the classroom learning.

Essentially true independent learning unshackles the learner from being tied down to very specific learning experiences and will allow them to direct themselves a lot more in determining exactly what they will learn about and how.

Surely the teacher is redundant?

A drive for independent learning within and beyond the classroom certainly means a change in role from the teacher. With more emphasis on learners taking responsibility for their learning the teachers’ role becomes one of leader rather than controller of learning.

Instead of an ‘imparter of knowledge’ the teacher becomes a ‘facilitator of learning’

The role of the teacher is far from redundant. In fact, arguably, it is more important than ever.  Old style ‘chalk and talk’ learning can realistically be completed by anyone brave enough to stand up in front of a class and with enough knowledge / memory or preparation to be able to impart the appropriate amount of information. At it’s worse, directed learning of this type is entirely pre-prepared, there is very little deviation and the teacher’s job is really just one of imparting information – and controlling the crowd!

Conversely, in an independent learning environment, the teacher’s role is a lot more complex. They need to have a far greater level of or access to skills and knowledge in order to respond to the inevitably far broader curriculum covered by pupils with diverse strengths and interests. They also need to be infinitely flexible in order to help facilitate a wide range of learning opportunities. Most importantly they need to hone the very difficult skill of teaching learners to learn – this is a lot harder than simply teaching facts and figures – but it is also infinitely more valuable to learners.

Teacher as facilitator, mentor, coach and guide:

Teachers are able to help learning in a myriad of ways and these will vary with every lesson and every student, but some key ways that teachers can act as facilitator, mentor, coach and guide are by:

  • Providing learners with resource materials
  • Whetting learners appetites to learn
  • Providing learners with opportunities to test out their learning
  • Giving learners feedback on their progress and
  • Helping learners to make sense of what they have learned

What’s so great about Independent Learning anyway?

Directed learning, or teaching to the test usually results in pupils passing the exams and jumping through the hoops that the educational system requires of them. But it doesn’t prepare them at all for life beyond the classroom – and in most cases it squeezes out any passion, enjoyment or spark they might have had for learning in the first place.

Independent learners have abilities that will stand them in good stead both during and beyond their education such as their ability to:

  • Acquire and deploy information
  • Communicate effectively using different media
  • Organise themselves
  • Problem solve and
  • Relate to others

How to promote Independent Learning:

One of the most important roles of the teacher is to promote independent learning. There are a number of practices you can build into your teaching to encourage independent learning during every lesson. These include:

  • Giving pupils choices so they can reflect on their own interests and preferences
  • Encouraging group work so that learners can learn from each other
  • Collaborate with pupils to set shared learning goals
  • Involve pupils in lesson planning
  • Encourage pupils to reflect and plan in learner diaries
  • Encourage self and peer editing before work is handed in

Independent Learning needs teachers too!

So in short, the teacher doesn’t become redundant once independent learning becomes firmly embedded. In fact, quite the contrary is true. The teacher’s role becomes more important than ever.  It does, however, change beyond all recognition.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your feedback.  Do you think we should be promoting independent learning and why? How has your role changed as a result of a drive for more independent learning? What has worked particularly well for you in terms of encouraging independent learning?

11 responses to “Independent Learning: What role does the teacher have to play?”

  1. Avatar @mjowchs says:

    Independent learning in its ultimate is letting pupils decide what to learn, most of my pupils would see that as being able to learn to play free rider or call of duty all day young minds need guided learning to develop the intellectual capacity to see what they need to learn and we are kidding our selves if we think most secondary pupils don’t need quite strict guidance.

    In response to one of your comments:

    ‘Directed learning, or teaching to the test usually results in pupils passing the exams and jumping through the hoops that the educational system requires of them. But it doesn’t prepare them at all for life beyond the classroom’

    Unless you are an entrepreneur running your own business, you are working for someone else, doing your job with someones support and guidance, sure you need to manage your own time/list of priorities to a greater or lesser degree but independant ?

    Independant learning should mean, “what can I do to help me complete this task without getting someone else to show me/do it for me” but to have the confidence to ask for help when they are beyond their learning envelope and really starting to get stuck.

  2. Avatar Anne says:

    I am not in education, but from what I see around me in daily life and also what I encounter when interviewing graduates, I believe there has been an erosion in the ability of young people to engage in rigorous analytical thinking. It would seem to me from reading your blog post that independent learning is all about that. And the role of a teacher/mentor is crucial. You need someone to explain to you how to go about obtaining information, how to evaluate the usefulness and veracity of that information and how to formulate your own thoughts and arguments on the basis of it. That’s what we try to do with Orla now, and I have to say, the closer we get to her entering the education system, the more anxious I become that it will be stifling and not stimulating. But that’ probably just me being Eeyore-ish about it.

    • Avatar Sue Dixon says:

      Sadly, the curriculum and exam driven system education system we are all bound by works against even the most dynamic teacher. We need to be overtly teaching the skills of thinking and learning and building in all the opportunities young people need to become creative, critical thinkers: room to make lots of mistakes, to build resilience and know HOW to learn anything they choose to. The curriculum needs to give all young people a huge ‘toolbox’ of thinking skills – that they can choose from at the most appropriate moments. That doesn’t mean we don’t teach the basic skills of literacy & numeracy but we choose skills driven methods to allow children to see the different ways there might be to learn things.

  3. […] Independent Learning: What role does the teacher have to play? Thoughts on the need for greater independent learning among students, the resulting benefits, and changing role of the teacher. The author suggests some ways that teachers can act as facilitator, mentor, coach and guide — and they're all strikingly similar to what home educators do every day. (With great results. Just look at the stats and studies comparing homeschool student's achievements to those of their public school counterparts). Source: […]

  4. Excellent summary, thank you. Independent learning seems to me to be a method to return to a more natural style of learning, a style that predates compulsory schooling. Basing learning on the interests of the student rather than the teacher, the school or the government seems to be an admirable objective.

    • Avatar Tom Hesmondhalgh says:

      It’s a good point. And it’s also much more akin to the learning that students will engage in after their education has finished. We can’t truly claim to be enabling kids to be lifelong learners if we don’t get them in the habit of self directed learning early.

  5. […] A look at what role the teacher has to play in independent learning: Creative Education […]

  6. Avatar Allison Burley says:

    Great stuff! Please use spell-check to find those misspelled words.

  7. Avatar Navarathna says:

    Thanks for providing such valuable insights on the subject of self-learning. Although I am not into education but i help a couple of teachers in their course work and hence i self learn their subjects.

    All the points you have mentioned in this article are valid and well written.

    • Avatar meena says:

      That’s great. It’s always nice to be able to help. Please feel free to sign up to our blog updates and continue reading :)

  8. […] And then, can I use the same skills in school with the pupils. I guess in some ways the problems are similar. Rusty needs strict behaviour guidelines and therefore has a tendency to look to us for permission. We do also behave occasionally like slightly over indulgent parents towards him which perhaps feeds his reliance on us. How do we create that independence in our pupils. Yes, we have strict behaviour guidelines. Yes, our parents are exceptionally caring towards their children. Like Rusty maybe they become slightly too dependent when what we are trying to achieve is self-motivated, independent learners. I found this article that I think is ideal for pupils although I may struggle to apply all the concepts to rusty. […]

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