Independence vs independent learning

Last weekend #SLTchat was on fostering students’ independence. As you’d expect, there were lots of great suggestions shared, as well as some not so great ideas. One comment I tweeted in response to the idea that to promote independence we should get students learning independently got quite a lot of feedback:

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This seemed to really divide opinion; some people got upset with me, and some others agreed enthusiastically.

Having read Daisy Chistodoulou’s fabulously well-researched, cogently argued and clearly expressed eBook Seven Myths About Education, my thoughts on teacher talk and independent learning have started to coalesce.

On Tuesday this week I was training some particularly lovely teachers on embedding literacy across schools and we got into a great discussion about teacher talk and independent learning. Everyone ended up getting pretty angry about the fact that they feel forced to conceal their teaching of knowledge. We all know that sometimes students need us to explain new concepts if they are going to have any hope of understanding them. Equally, we all ‘know’ that Ofsted and SLT want to see independent learning and minimal teacher talk. If you’re unconvinced, have a read of this and this.

Daisy points out how ridiculous this is with particular reference to Ofsted’s critique of MFL lessons:

In nearly all these lessons, pupils are praised for knowing things and doing things spontaneously. The methods used to teach them are never mentioned; indeed, the impression we get is that they were never taught. Pupils are praised for having ‘took to spelling in French’. If it were really the case that they took spontaneously to spelling in French, why would such pupils need a school or a teacher? If, as I suspect, their ability to spell in French is actually down to teacher instruction and explanation that happened prior to the Ofsted inspection, then such descriptions are highly misleading and even dangerous.

The implication is that in good or outstanding lessons students will just know stuff. There should be no need for teachers to explain anything; if a teacher does explain something they are often criticised for talking too much. This insanity has led to teachers showcasing lessons which don’t require students to know anything outside of their own experiences. And this leads, inexorably, to stuff like writing persuasive letters to headteachers about school uniform. Teachers, especially in observed lessons, are unwilling to risk teaching students anything new because this would require them to speak for too long and wouldn’t demonstrate students’ ability to learn independently. If this is true, and instinctively, I think we know it is, Ofsted as an organisation is largely, if not entirely, responsible for the ‘dumbing down’ Michael Gove criticises schools for perpetrating.

Anyway, back to the literacy training. We were discussing the teaching & learning sequence for developing students’ academic language, used by Lee Donaghy at Parkview School in Birmingham.

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I pointed out that stage 1 and 2 are very difficult, if not impossible, to properly accomplish without talking. Stage 1 requires teachers to explain a new concept clearly and precisely, providing subject specific vocabulary and structures. You could possibly use a text book or worksheets to do this but I doubt that Ofsted would approve of this approach any more than they would of the teacher having to talk. You can, in some circumstances use a jigsawing approach, but to do this too often is inefficient, open to students’ misunderstandings, and would soon become dull. How much easier would it be to simply skip this step and go straight to some independent learning about something your students already knew?

And then we have the modelling and deconstruction stage of the teaching cycle. Here the teacher will explicitly show the students how a text works within the domain they are studying. There are lots of ways to reverse engineer texts to show how they are structured and some of these can be done independently with students discovering the structures for themselves. But when I trained to be teacher the Teaching Sequence for Writing, which involves lots of deconstruction and modelling, was considered best practice. In this National Strategy document from 2008, teacher talk is held up as an essential component of teaching writing and is described as “the verbalisation of the reader and writer thought processes involved as the teacher is demonstrating, modelling and discussing”. It goes without saying that verbalisation is quite hard to do without talking.

The joint construction phase is all about scaffolding language and providing students with enough guidance for them to attempt a task successfully. We could at this stage just let them get on with it independently. They might, through a process of trial and error, be able get the hang of constructing an academic text. It’s more likely though that they will revert to using everyday, non-academic language and produce a response which is lacking in the qualities we look for in the most able. So, the problem in doing this is one of low aspirations for our students. Making them practice independently before they are clear on what to do runs the risk of encoding failure. Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. Without sufficient instruction from an expert, students will get good at doing tasks badly. And who, in their right mind wants that? That said, there’s a fair bit of scope for independent learning here and Ofsted might approve of a lesson at this stage of the cycle as long as the teacher was able to conceal the fact that at some stage they had to talk in order to explain the concept being studied, deconstruct examples and model expert processes.

Then, at stage four, students will be ready to work independently. If Ofsted came to observe a lesson at this stage of the cycle they might expect to see the students working in silence and the teacher with his feet up drinking coffee. Or even better, in my classroom they would find me working silently as well. As I’ve explained in the past, modelling every part of the process is important and I take care to write with my students at every available opportunity. This is true independence. This is what we teaching students to be able to do. We want them to have the confidence and ability to complete tasks by themselves without us there to nag and prompt them. It is, however, at complete odds with the nonsense that’s pedalled as ‘independent learning’ and is predicated on teacher being able to talk to their students.

Tom Sherrington wrote recently about observing teachers at his school and how single lesson observations are a poor way to judge a teacher’s quality. If you only ever saw teachers presiding over group work and independent learning this might a serious cause for concern. Likewise if you only ever saw a teacher engaging in direct instruction we would worry about students’ lack of opportunity to practise what they’d learned. Teaching through direct instruction and independence are part of the cycle. Trying to shoe-horn this cycle into a single lesson robs students of the time they need to develop their thinking and engage in extended practice.

This is all bound up with the myth that learning is neat and takes place conveniently in 50 minute or 1 hour chunks. It doesn’t. Teachers know this. We know, at certain stages in a topic, that we will want our students to do different things if they ever going to be independent. Sometimes this will require us talk, sometimes it won’t. But to expect every lesson to show evidence of independent learning is madness.

As Tom says:

If you drop in on a lesson that is part of a sequence, you need to ask some questions:

 – Where does the lesson fit into a sequence? Where are they along the arc?

– Is this learning activity compatible with an overall process that could lead to strong outcomes?

– Is it reasonable for progress to be evident within this lesson or might I need to see what happens over the next week or so?

– What general attitudes and dispositions are being modeled by teacher and students? Do they indicate positive learning-focused relationships compatible with an overall process that leads to strong outcomes?

– Does the record of work in books and folders, with the feedback dialogue alongside the work itself, tell a better story than the content of the one-off performance in front of you?

Independence is the end, not the means.

If we really want our students to be able to use language with facility, solve complex equations, and spell in French we need to avoid the pointless horror and inherent low expectations of ‘independent learning’ as a thing. Compelling teachers to talk less and facilitate students’ independent learning has the unfortunate consequence of making students less independent. If we really want to promote students’ independence we need to train teachers to model and explain more effectively and encourage them to practice these vital, and sadly neglected skills.

Related posts

Teacher talk: the missing link
Mind your language – a language based approach to pedagogy
The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance

25 Responses to Independence vs independent learning

  1. Heather F says:

    Great post. I teach history and always try to line up observations so the ‘dirty business’ of knowledge transmission is out of the way before the observation. For the inevitably rather frequent lessons in history when you need to get on with the story, your chances of getting great observation feedback are greatly diminished.

  2. Jose Picardo says:

    The quest for independent learning is schools often appears to me to be intrinsically paradoxical. It seems to me that dependence is in a school’s nature: Students need to attend school; they need to come to our lessons; they need to do as we say; and they need to pass the exams we set. Students are, by design, very dependent under this model of schooling.

    I do agree with you entirely, however, that modelling and appropriate teacher intervention are essential to foster independence. And it seems to me that, perhaps as part of a wider approach, we need to look beyond the clarity of what is familiar and allow our students the (guided) freedom to design and implement their own independent learning programme to suit individual needs and interests. In this model independence can be seen as both the means and the end. I’ve never been a fan of dichotomies!

  3. David Didau says:

    Jose – I’m not a fan of dichotomies for their own sake, but as you say, there’s a paradox here. Students cannot become independent if they are only ever ‘taught’ through the means of ‘independent learning as a thing’. The guided freedom you mention is part of the cycle you describe – the joint construction phase. But you only have to read Heather’s comment above to see how deep the misunderstanding runs in schools. We are forced to pretend we don’t transmit knowledge!

    I had a great lesson with a Year 9s today where I spoke extensively to model and scaffold how I wanted them to write using Slow Writing techniques. The progress demonstrated between their first and second drafts was considerable and would not have happened if I’d decided to let them try to learn this independently.

  4. debaser says:

    Good post, but aren’t you misrepresenting Ofsted a tad here?

    Surely Ofsted’s much-maligned concept of ‘rapid and sustained progress’ indicates that the students must have been taught something new before achieving independent mastery? Otherwise it would be pretty much impossible to demonstrate progress at all.

    Are Ofsted really out there rewarding teachers who are presiding over 50 minutes of nebulous ‘group work’?

    In an ideal world, how would you redesign Ofsted’s critieria for an outstanding lesson? Would you have a different set of critieria for a ‘setting of the context’ lesson and an ‘independent mastery’ lesson? Or would you expect to see all these four stages as part of really succesful lesson?

  5. David Didau says:

    “Surely Ofsted’s much-maligned concept of ‘rapid and sustained progress’ indicates that the students must have been taught something new before achieving independent mastery? Otherwise it would be pretty much impossible to demonstrate progress at all.” You’d think, wouldn’t you?

    Read @oldanrewuk’s analysis of inspection reports (links above) and Daisy’s book. The reality appears to be that Ofsted only praise independent learning and only criticise teacher talk.

    How would I redesign? Good question. I’d start by acknowledging that skills cannot be taught independent of content and would look at measures to improve the effectiveness of teachers’ explanations and modelling. I would also acknowledge that learning is part of cycle – see Tom Sherrington’s post above.

  6. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Ratio of teacher words to student words in middle-school mathematics classrooms according to the TIMSS video studies

    USA: 8 to 1
    Japan: 13 to 1
    Hong Kong: 16 to 1

    ‘Nuff said?

  7. Chris Moyse says:

    Interested that Debaser talks of Ofsted’s criteria for an outstanding lesson. It doesn’t exist. Yet another myth. The is no one way of achieving engagement, enjoyment and success

  8. Leon Cych says:

    I really am not a fan of Ofsted but the trouble with this perception of Ofsted is that it is still supposition and polemic based on a few case studies of a system that doesn’t aggregate or collect data about teacher effectiveness in any meaningful way other than exemplar material based on what they think might be good exemplars. So what do you then get? A shadow of a shadow retreating into the distance like Banquo’s issue held up in a glass. Why else would you have the chief inspector say one thing and many teachers feed back that teams appear to be doing another. We are still at the stage of all shall have opinions rather than prizes. Technologies like Iris connect will begin to bring into high relief what actually is the case rather than very selective highlighting of pot-holed data. What is obvious is that Ofsted needs to be reformed and I not sure the top down localism model of fiefdoms is the best way. That is the bottom line not quibbling over what is thought about teacher talk. A school’s internal assessment mechanisms should allow for a diverse approach to teaching and learning and be confident and robust enough to tackle the perceptions of Ofsted. Anything else merely marks people out as victims of fortune.

  9. David Didau says:

    Dylan – thanks for this: very useful data. But not quite sure it is actually enough said. One must be wary of conflating correlation with causation after all.

    Leon – you’re quite right but what else have we got to go on? Igf all Ofsted publish is guff about independent learning being great, what chance have we got for finding out what really works? I’m much more impressed with Doug Lemov’s methodology. He looked first at the data to find out where the outliers were, and then went to learn from them. The result is Teach Like a Champion.

  10. 4c3d says:

    The stumbling block for many in developing independent learners is the teacher thinks like a teacher and not a learner. The key is creating a learning environment in which the learner can learn to become independent. This also involves developing in the learner something I call “Learning Quotient” (LQ) or learning intelligence. Put simply it is the way in which a learner manages their learning environment to meet their learning needs. There are a number of factors in developing LQ not least of which is a conversation about and the modelling of learning by the teacher. For an in depth discussion and examples of what LQ means for the learner and the teacher read a series of articles at: http://wp.me/2LphS I think you will find it a refreshing approach to developing independent learners.

    Kev

  11. […] Independence vs independent learning Great teaching happens in cycles Stage 1: Explain Stage 2: Model Stage 3: Scaffold Stage 4: Practise […]

  12. CraftyTeacher says:

    I believe that independence comes after initial instruction. In a sequence of lessons there will need to be chunks of instruction, followed by practice, repetition and consolidation. Working independently within that framework is positive, however the expectation that students can learn independently presupposes that they can access new knowledge from books and internet sources. I have very few students that I could put a set of books in front of and get to construct new knowledge. I know that 15 minutes instruction at the start of 95 minute lesson will give students enough to hang the next steps off. Sometimes, like today, I will use a consolidation lesson where students have a set of levelled, open ended questions which they then work on independently. I then become a resource as much as the books they have available. This is lovely when it works, but the scaffolding has to be put in place first. I hope that observations happen at this point in a lesson sequence…

  13. […] Independent Learning – Linked to the above really, the notion that students can learn successfully without input or support from the teacher is an odd one…but often encouraged! About 15 years ago I worked on a county project with other science teachers where we planned a whole scheme of work, based on students finding out themselves and from each other, without any input from the teacher!  Suffice to say they didn’t do very well! In truth, they probably did OK with the very simple ideas, but certainly didn’t grasp the more tricky scientific concepts.  What we should be doing is developing independence by effective teacher input, modelling, discussion, questioning and then providing students with the opportunity to practice what we have taught them.  Then they will be able to move towards mastering the ideas with a greater degree of independence.  More from David Didau on this here. […]

  14. johnpearce1 says:

    Just one little thought to drop in here…(irrespective of how you DO it) I get more and more frustrated when I hear teachers espousing independent learning… I promote interdependent learning – which I believe is a far higher order of things. (I also think most who say independent mean interdependent – pedant moi?) We move from dependent learning – to independent learning and hopefully up and into interdependent learning where we share, help, challenge, debate with others…Like we are doing here and now… independent learning, like other lonely pursuits, a bit sad and it makes you go blind… rant over…

  15. […] Last weekend #SLTchat was on fostering students’ independence. As you’d expect, there were lots of great suggestions shared, as well as some not so great ideas. One comment I tweeted in response to the idea that to promote independence we should get students learning independently got quite a lot of feedback: This seemed to really  […]

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  20. […] I understand the reasoning but it rests, I think, on the same fallacy that suggests independent learning will result in independence. In order to perform like experts, we must first be experts. Emerson tells us that “Every […]

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  22. […] that we see independence as a process – something to be obtained.  In a very succinct blog sub-heading, David Didau accurately asserts: Independence is the end, not the means.  Not only is […]

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