Independent learning is a complicated term. In practice, it can mean any number of things to any number of people. It’s useful, therefore, to think about a clear definition which captures the essence of its meaning. Dianne Murphy (2017, p. 211) outlines that ‘what we generally mean by independent learning is that students have enough confidence and capability to work for extended periods without prompting or help’.
Hendrick and MacPherson (2017, p. 203) outline that ‘most educators would want to see students leaving school with a robust ability to self-regulate, to plan and to see through long-term projects with an enhanced ability to cope with challenge and adversity’. This, I believe, outlines what the school system is aiming for, but this does not make it any less problematic in terms of pinning down what this means in reality for teachers. Hendrick and MacPherson go on to outline that there is a paradox in independent learning, in that it may be a desired outcome, but it is not in itself a means to achieve this outcome.
By this, they mean that it is common within the school system to see that, in practice, this can mistakenly mean that the most common vessel for creating independent learners is through minimally guided instruction, low levels of teacher talk and students working in groups independently on projects and problem solving. Whilst this may be the goal, relying upon these approaches will not help to achieve the desired outcome. Clark, Kirschner and Sweller (2012, p. 7) outline that the past half century of empirical research has provided ‘overwhelming and unambiguous’ evidence that partial guidance, for anyone other than experts, is ‘significantly less effective’ than full, explicit guidance.
With this in mind, how can we use the pastoral and extracurricular curriculum to aid the development of independent learners? It is not uncommon to see pastoral curricula aiming to deliver content which aids the generic skills of independent learning, such as critical thinking, problem solving, group work skills, thinking skills. While these may be desirable attributes, there is a growing range of evidence that suggests that these are domain specific skills, rather than generic skills that students can possess (Neber and Schommer-Aitkins, 2002). It is entirely possible that students may display these skills in English, but not in Maths, or vice versa. Daniel Willingham (2008) outlines that approaches which aim to teach these generic thinking skills are suboptimal. He argues that, for example, in order to think about an issue from different viewpoints or perspectives, students will need to know a lot about this issue. Without a solid knowledge base, a student cannot think critically about an issue. Hendrick and MacPherson (2017, p. 204) support this in stating that ‘students cannot think critically about things they do not know’, which is a key concept for the development of any pastoral programme or curricula.
A pastoral curriculum should, therefore, aim to focus not on this generic development of skills, but rather to create a knowledge base from which to build independent learners, as well as supplementing the work of the academic school curriculum. Dunlosky et al (2013), in their comprehensive review of research, suggest that effective independent learning looks different from what students think works. It is on this principle that a pastoral curriculum can help to contribute in a meaningful way to the development of independent learners. They go on to describe some of the desirable, effective study techniques that true, effective independent learners show – self testing, distributed practice, practice tests, interleaved practice, elaboration. He also outlines strategies that are less useful – re-reading and highlighting, summarising, keyword mnemonics. Pastoral curricula should aim to teach this explicitly to students in order to provide them with the knowledge of study techniques that will have more impact on their long-term learning. This can be done over time, but beginning in the lower years will ensure that students will maximise their study time throughout their school career. In the examination years, it is vital to incorporate this regularly and methodically into your pastoral programmes and assemblies.
Pastoral programmes would also benefit from time focussed on making the theory behind learning more explicit to students. Deci and Ryan’s (2000) self-determination theory, for example, would be a useful theory for students to understand. By knowing that they need to get proficient in certain areas, even if they don’t enjoy it, students will become more effective at managing their own learning, even when it is of relatively little interest to them. Ultimately, in adult life, these are skills that students will need, and by making this explicit, and effectively providing them with a manual for managing their brain when it comes to work and learning, we empower them with a far more efficient set of skills. Wiliam (2017) surmises that ‘we should share with our students what we’re learning about how we learn’. While some of this will naturally occur in subject disciplines, the pastoral curriculum can supplement this, by enhancing the level of exposure to effective ways in which we learn, but also with the opportunity to discuss these with professionals in order to receive guidance about how to apply the theory in a more efficient way to their own areas of study or areas that they are finding challenging. By aiding academic resilience in this way, the pastoral curriculum will help to shape and mould independent learners for life.
The role of the extracurricular curriculum is to broaden and enhance the range of subjects and interests that students develop during their time in school. Ranging from sport to art, to performance to Dungeons and Dragons, the extracurricular offering in a school varies wildly based both on staff areas of interest, but also in students’ interests. This wide-ranging potential can also help support the development of independent learners, but in a more implicit way to that of the pastoral curriculum.
Martin Robinson (2017, p. 14) outlines that independent learning is ‘about giving structure, giving rituals, giving ways of doing, ways of seeing, ways of thinking, ways of arguing, ways of debating’. This wide-ranging definition lends itself way to the wide range of offerings on an extracurricular curriculum. In this sense, having a broad range of extracurricular opportunities for students helps them to have a varied range of exposure to different thinking, arguing, seeing and debating. It is important that a school offers these experiences as these are often where students’ passions lie, and where they find out about their own resilience and strengths. As well as this, it is important to note that these areas will also have their own attributes of independent learning. Rose (2017) argues that independence isn’t something that you can do straight off and this will be true for those subjects on offer in a school’s extracurricular offerings. The sports club will expose students to new areas of guidance and scaffolding of their sporting interests; the drama club will expose them to new techniques that are modelling by expert staff; the debating club will expose them to expert orators. All of these areas are just as valid, and will lead students to becoming independent workers in their areas of interests. This is the goal – young people who grow into lifelong learners in the areas that they love. Extracurricular opportunities will further develop and enhance specialist, subject specific attributes of independent learning.
As we can see, the more that schools expose their students to subject specific expertise, with appropriate modelling, scaffolding and true understanding of how we learn, the more they will develop their young people into successful independent learners.
Some of the key questions to ask, especially around pastoral and extracurricular learning are:
- At what point do we need to begin teaching students about learning?
- How can we design a 5-year pastoral curriculum which moulds students into young people who understand how to be independent learners in different subjects?
- How broad is our extracurricular offer and we are ensuring that this is sufficiently enhancing our students’ learning skills?
Clark RE, Kirschner PA and Sweller J (2012) Putting students on the path to learning. Available at: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Clark.pdf (accessed 2 June 2020).
Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsch EJ et al. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1): 4–58.
Hendrick C and MacPherson R (2017) What Does this Look Like in the Classroom? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
Murphy D (2017) in: Hendrick C and MacPherson R (eds) What Does this Look Like in the Classroom? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
Neber H and Schommer-Aitkins M (2002) Self-regulated science learning with highly gifted students: The role of cognitive, motivational, epistemological, and environmental variables. High Ability Studies 13(1): 59–74.
Robinson M (2017) in: Hendrick C and MacPherson R (eds) What Does this Look Like in the Classroom? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
Rose N (2017) in: Hendrick C and MacPherson R (eds)What Does this Look Like in the Classroom? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
Ryan RM and Deci EL (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55: 68–78
Wiliam D (2017) in: Hendrick C and MacPherson R (eds) What Does this Look Like in the Classroom? Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
Willingham D (2008) Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach. Arts Education Policy Review 109(4): 21–32. Available at: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/AEPR.109.4.21-32 (accessed 12 June 2020).