“I don’t know how to get started…”
“I need help…I can’t do it on my own…”
These phrases are often heard in our classrooms. They could suggest low effort, low confidence, misunderstanding and misconceptions, or a lack of independent learning skills. For some learners, it may be a combination of all of these factors. Some learners are naturally more independent than others, but what is very clear is that these are skills that can and should be taught. If we wish to have a classroom full of independent learners, we need to consider what our end goals looks like (what behaviours, attitudes and attributes will learners demonstrate in the classroom) and then explicitly plan how and when we will develop these skills.
Here are four strategies that you can embed into your planning and teaching to help your learners practice and enhance their independent learning skills. Not only will this help them in school but will also prepare them effectively for post-16 and post-18 education and the workplace.
1. Embed retrieval practice into your lessons
If something is taught once, it is quickly forgotten, whereas the spaced retrieval of content supports information being moved from the working memory to the long-term memory. This helps to free up learners’ cognitive load, enabling them to focus on the task and applying their knowledge. This can reduce the sense of panic that learners feel when faced with a blank page.
2. Use Fisher and Frey’s Gradual Release Model
Ensure learners are set up for success. This is more commonly known as the ‘I do, we do, you do it together and you do it alone’ approach. First, explicitly model your thought process and deliver clear explanations to learners. Then model with the learners whilst questioning them, before giving them an opportunity to complete examples with peer support. Finally, they should then have plenty of time to work alone without interruption. As suggested by the name, this gradual release of control helps to build learner confidence.
3. Carefully scaffold tasks where learners are unable to complete them without support
It is important with scaffolding to make sure we are not just replacing learner dependence on the teacher’s support with dependence on additional resources. In order to do this, think carefully about how and when any scaffolding you introduce will be removed.
4. Consider how learners can use formative assessment to develop their independence
Rather than just seeing this as a tool for your benefit, check in with learners on how they can use assessments tools. Teacher feedback, self-assessment and peer-assessment can be very powerful at helping learners to become less reliant on you. Finally, remember that creating independent learners is not a quick process: plan carefully, go step-by-step and review your progress regularly!