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Independent learning

Former Deputy Head (Academic), Dr David James, reflects on the importance of independent learning.

Bryanston has a long commitment to promoting independent learning: in every weekly assignment period, correction period, and subject room, this approach is visible, pushing our pupils to take ever greater responsibility for their own learning. Of course, that does not mean that the teacher removes him or herself from the process. Instead, an effective teacher knows when to give direct instruction, and when to provide the appropriate levels of support the pupil needs to go beyond what is prescribed in the National Curriculum.

But how is that balance struck? How does a teacher know when to intervene, and when to allow the pupil to try, sometimes fail, and learn to succeed? To some extent the answer is: we never know for sure, and there are challenges within every aspect of ‘independent learning’ that pupils, parents, teachers and policy makers have to be aware of before they start advocating it as some sort of panacea for every conceivable educational situation.

Independent learning is often a matter of judgment by an experienced teacher. Get it wrong, and difficulties may arise, but get it right, and you can inculcate in a pupil an attitude of mind that can last a lifetime. However, we live in an educational system that seems to conspire against it: increasingly prescriptive curricula, more rigorous assessment, league tables, high stakes final examinations, among other factors, contribute towards creating a situation where anything that is not clearly focused on measurable outcomes - on the part of the school and pupil – is considered a potential distraction. 

But teachers have to persevere in trying to make pupils increasingly responsible for their own learning because the alternative is...what? Spoonfeeding? Do we conspire in creating a culture of risk-averse, over-dependent young people who are ill-equipped to deal with the demands of higher education and the pressures of work (but who might get good examination results)? Few teachers have gone into the profession to do this, although all will have felt competing pressures to do just that.

What we have to do is develop in our young people an ability to work on their own, and with their peers, both in the classroom and outside. We have to provide them with the skills to self-monitor, so that they know that they are progressing (or not), and to see work not as something to endure, but as something that is enjoyable and, ultimately, liberating. But we cannot assume that pupils will somehow, instinctively, know such things, and have the intellectual apparatus, to achieve an independence of mind.

Great schools develop in their pupils a real pride in their progress, but also an understanding of how they develop. And great teachers give their pupils the vocabulary to make sense of their own learning. Key to this is discussion, and reflection. Bryanston does both through the weekly charts, and through our unique tutorial system, but these can only ever work effectively if the pupil learns to play a full and active part in each: it is in both that a personalised focus of academic achievements (and challenges) is developed. And when this happens, ideally, pupils begin to learn that education is not something done to them, but with them, a joint endeavour undertaken between teacher and pupil, and with a shared destination in mind: independence in the truest, and most empowered form, because it comes with a real sense of purpose and responsibility.