This document is the culmination of a series of discussions with pupils, HODS and SLT and provides a roadmap for the broader enterprise of independent learning.
The College is committed to the wider concept of developing independence: independent thinking, learning and coping. All of these three are inter-related, and are developed holistically through the wider school experience, through pastoral care, tutoring, co-curricular interaction and parental approach. Everything that is written here about learning should also be applied to thinking and coping.
Some useful starting points:
- Independent learning can be thought of as “the ability to take charge of one’s learning” – Holec (1981)
- Independent Learning should be seen as an desired end but perhaps not the best means to that end.
- Independent learning is rooted in effective questioning and dialogue. (Coaching is a core driver here)
- The ability to make informed choices and to take responsibility for your own learning activities with planning, support and guidance from teachers.
- It represents a shift in responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student. This has to be gradual with scaffolding in place and a flexible path to independent learning with it embedded in all schemes of work.
- It should encourage the following characteristics: curiosity, passion, inspiration, discernment, self-motivation, self-examination, accountability, critical thinking and persistence.
- It should develop the ability of the pupil to know when they need support.
- To that end, strong and productive teacher-pupil relationships are key.
- Metacognition is a key element of independent learning. Students should develop the capacity to learn how to learn.
- Independent learners are able to transfer knowledge across a wide range of contexts and to that end memory and retrieval are key components in this process.
- Independent learners have strong ‘affective skills’ which refers to the ability to manage feelings – the most important of which is the ability to delay gratification.
- Independent Learners have a strong sense of purpose.
Purpose is what keeps us going. Paul Dolan tells us in Happiness by Design that we need purpose as well as pleasure to feel fulfilled. But if we’re only interested in short-term goals like passing exams, what happens when the goal is achieved? Teaching students who seem only motivated by threats and rewards and give every appearance of hating everything to do with school can be a joyless exercise. Teaching students whose purpose is to learn for its own sake is an altogether different proposition. They listen attentively, work conscientiously and strive to relate new concepts and information to what they already know. Having a purpose gives us the desire to master tricky content just because it’s there. (Didau, Rose 2016)
What is not meant by independent learning?
- It does not mean working on your own without any supervision or guidance on long term projects.
- It does not mean less teacher guidance but rather specific guidance with the end goal of student independence.
- It does not mean a rigidly predetermined path to instant independent learning for all and at all times.
- It does not mean students using technology without a clear sense of focus and direction.
“Teacher instruction is vitally necessary to become an independent learner.” (Christodoulou, 2014)
What are the benefits of independent learning?
- It is a skill that is highly valued at university and in the workplace and is vital in life preparation. Whilst the world will change, this skill and associated benefits will remain invaluable.
- It will enable students to feel in control of their academic studies, hence reducing stress, increasing wellbeing, and leading to improved academic performance.
- It will enhance student organisation and the ability to set tangible goals.
- It will increase student motivation and confidence.
- It will enable teachers to provide differentiated tasks.
- It is consistent with our philosophy on coaching.
- It will develop resilience for academic purposes and beyond.
- It will ultimately have a positive impact on end performance in particular in the 6th Form.
What will make independent learning successful?
- Students must develop the necessary organisational skills to work towards independence.
- Students must develop the necessary motivation and confidence to thrive in an independent learning culture.
- Students will learn how to collaborate effectively in a meaningful way.
- Teachers have subject passion and drive to lead the learning, and model independence and intellectual curiosity.
- There is a critical balance for teachers to establish between using subject specific expertise, and challenging students through effective and powerful questioning and dialogue.
- Positive relationships between teachers and students that are based on trust and a mutual responsibility for learning.
- Marking is not the same as feedback. The quality of feedback is fundamental to the success of independent learning.
- Students will need to learn cognitive and metacognitive skills.
- Teachers will all need to develop the ability to ask the right questions to elicit independent thinking.
Independent Learner characteristics:
- Independent learners are firstly well organized with a clear sense of success criteria for each subject unit.
- Independent learners have a positive relationship with their teachers and tutors and ask for help and guidance when needed.
- Independent learners have developed a robust set of digital skills to enable them to use technology and navigate the Internet in a discerning and critical manner.
- Independent learners focus less on poor revision techniques such as the storage of information (re-reading/highlighting) and more on the generation of questions and answers themselves through self-quizzing/regular low stakes testing.
- Independent learners are able to evaluate exemplar material from their peers or from the exam board to reflect and improve on their own work.
- Independent learners have a sense of agency over their future. They have strong self-regulation and metacognitive skills and are deeply reflective about their individual strengths and weaknesses.
- Independent learners have an intellectual curiosity bolstered by a wide range of extra-curricular activities.
- Independent learners have a well-developed capacity for intrinsic questioning as opposed to extrinsic questioning.
- Independent learners are empowered, unstressed, and in control.
Further discussion: Independent Learning Pathway
Independent Learning is a desired end but perhaps not the best means to that end. What might independent learning look like at different stages of pupil development?
What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology (Didau, Rose 2016)
Seven Myths About Education (Christodolou, 2014)
Harkness teaching and UK education
Head of VI Form and leading Harkness practitioner Dr Guy Williams on a US-developed pedagogy which is growing in use over here.
‘Harkness’ teaching is a pedagogy based on round-the-table discussion between students, in which peer-to-peer dialogue is emphasised. This is different from a teacher-led dialogue, in which points keep being referred back to or get directed by a teacher. The whole point is to get students talking to one another, so that they become responsible for the intellectual content of the lesson. To put it visually, you can imagine a teacher-led dialogue as a map on which all roads lead to Rome: comments and questions keep coming back to the hub of the classroom, the professional educator. A Harkness map meanwhile would look like a mesh of many intersecting routes, as the impetus for the dialogue comes from all corners.
This approach to teaching was developed by a small group of private schools in the US, starting with Phillips Exeter Academy, which put in place a new system of small group teaching in the 1930’s (naming the philosophy after a major benefactor: Edward Harkness). It spread among other prominent US schools (Andover, Lawrenceville, etc.) and now table-based seminars are fairly common in American private schools. Given this success, it’s curious that Harkness teaching hasn’t been much imported into the UK education system. In fact, the Harkness method itself is partly a product of UK teaching – staff from Phillips Exeter identified good teaching with the tutorials and seminars of Oxford and Cambridge while developing what would become their philosophy. One might imagine that it would made a natural fit in British schools.
At Wellington College, we see great value in promoting Harkness as part of our tool kit for teaching and learning. The advantages are many: it puts the onus on the students, requires independence and critical thinking, it works through collaboration and constructive discussion (not point scoring), and so it develops a lot of the intellectual and social skills that we require of our students. To be successful in Harkness, you must be a good listener, a thinker, empathetic, articulate, and unashamedly intellectual. Given all of these advantages, introducing Harkness at scale would seem to be a good move for any progressive school wishing to develop an open and academic culture.
However, there are a few hurdles to overcome before Harkness can take off over here, partly based on the way in which we perceive the educational cultures of our schools.
It could be argued that Harkness is skills-based and process-driven, chiefly interested in how students behave in a learning environment, whereas the UK system puts emphasis on performance and outcomes. Most teaching in US schools is not related to a specific, external, high-stakes assessment, whereas UK 6th formers are all taking A Level or IB courses. In other words, Harkness is how we would like to teach in an ideal world, but we are trapped in the iron cage of league tables, inspections, UCAS, and other performance-driven systems. Harkness is a luxury we cannot afford.
There are a couple of misconceptions at work here.
Firstly, it’s wrong to assume that student-led dialogue is light on content. Quite the contrary, successful dialogues are all knowledge-based. A good dialogical teacher understands this and so puts in place a consistency of expectation and assessment that prevents a blind-leading-the-blind scenario. A good Harkness lesson starts from significant preparatory work, student questions, rigorous standards for participation, and a teacher who guards the process carefully. Teachers who set the prep work and demand that students follow through will cover prescribed course content just fine. It’s not a soft regime, except where it’s misunderstood.
Secondly, it’s just an assumption that teacher-led lessons are necessary to meet performance outcomes. We often think this way: teachers ‘know the system,’ can ‘explain the exam,’ and so on. Teachers act as a kind of guide through dangerous territory. Perhaps there is some truth in this and there is something to be said for teachers speaking frankly to a class about their experience and insight of an assessment system, having been through it many times before. Nevertheless, it is also perfectly possible to construct a genuine dialogue around the system itself, with students taking responsibility for interpreting the course, its components, assessment system, etc. It’s a question of setting up that dialogue carefully and thoughtfully, rather than just leading the class on a guided tour.
So, Harkness can nurture genuine academic performance and isn’t just a cosy learning environment. But the question then arises of how schools can make the shift towards this philosophy. The most important step is obvious – just give it a go! Set up the parameters of your dialogue, explain your objectives to the class, and take the risk of trying something.
However, the wider process of introducing an educational philosophy is subtle and difficult. One interesting idea for engineering a school in which Harkness can succeed is the use of Harkness for admissions. At Wellington, we have started to use Harkness discussions as part of our interview process, putting less emphasis on plain interviews and taking more of an interest in the academic virtues on display in the classroom. Can candidates work constructively, engage with material, and respond positively to each other in discussion? Having run both admissions interviews and admissions Harkness sessions, I have a sense that it is actually the latter that is more revealing of candidates, rather than their thoroughly prepared interview pitch.
It might be better to see this in terms of shifting the academic culture of a school and setting expectations to students, rather than mastering a new ‘technique’ for teaching. Can you educate your students to be independent, confident, open learners? Can you get them to buy-in to the kind of change you want to make in teaching? If you can do that, your lessons will break out into serious academic dialogue of their own accord.
So, will we finally see Harkness teaching take off in UK schools? To some extent, I think it’s just a matter of time until we catch on to the importance of a grown-up learning environment, remodelling our learning spaces with seminar tables, and shifting some of the dynamics between the students and the teachers. Having said that, there are also fundamental challenges that should not be underestimated, not the least of which is financial. But with some creativity and investment, it may be possible to make positive changes to the academic culture of our schools through learning from and, as far as possible, implementing the Harkness ideal.
Guy Williams, Feb 2016
Want to find out more about Harkness teaching? Consider taking part in one of the exciting Harkness courses for educators taking place this summer. Both courses will be led by expert Harkness teachers from the US.
Humanities and Social Science: http://wctsp.org.uk/course-detail.php/Humanities-Social-Sciences-CPD-course-with-The-Lawrenceville-School-USA-69/