The Key Elements in a 'Truly Independent Education'

The Key Elements in a 'Truly Independent Education'
By James Mullan
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When you find a truly independent school in the tradition of the best from the UK, there are many tell-tale signs which set it apart from the rest.

Last week’s article on this site identified the visible and measurable attributes a prospective parent might choose to assess when selecting a school for their child, such as examination results, special events, parent’s evenings, communication channels, school trips, extra-curricular activities and food.

There is also a less tangible question which must be addressed when parents assess the quality of a school – how independent are the children?

In a very large school it is easy to lose sight of the individual and assume that a one size curriculum and pastoral programme will suit all. Conversely, the larger a school, the more personalisation is essential to facilitate the progress of the students.

A high level of personalisation can only be achieved if the students take ownership of their learning and become independently minded from an early age. To achieve the necessary level of independence, teachers must trust their students. They must promote responsibility over regulation, create enough time and space in a busy school day for thinking and reward rather than reprimand the day-dreamer.


International Studies
Studies, across a number of different countries, have all shown that using independent learning approaches have enabled teachers to organise a wider range of activities in their classrooms and to focus more on teaching and learning than on organisation or behaviour; they have promoted problem solving, encouraged students to develop new strategies in their learning and promoted the ability for students to form their own opinions; and resulted in the raising of academic standards.

Two studies from the UK suggested that students, who are independent learners, work to higher standards, are more motivated and have higher self-esteem than other children.

A study from the Netherlands suggested that students in self-regulated learning environments are more motivated to learn, report more enjoyment of the material and are more actively involved in their learning than those who study in more restrictive environments.

A study from the US found evidence that empowering students to use self-regulation, providing them with regular feedback and helping them to identify and highlight progress was found to be especially important in improving attitudes to learning and supported their independence.


Essential Skills
To engage successfully in independent learning, students need to acquire certain skills:

Cognitive skills: such as being able to construct informal rules for solving problems; form and test hypotheses; and reason logically;
Metacognitive skills: students need to be able to describe how they learn, and to identify key activities essential for learning such as listening, remembering, applying previously learnt knowledge and using formal strategies. Students should be able to reflect on what they had done, monitor their progress and use self-assessment in order to take responsibility for their own learning; and
Affective skills: motivation is the most important affective attribute in relation to independent learning. Related to motivation is ‘delay of gratification’. This refers to the ability to wait for achievement outcomes and to demonstrate patience as a necessary step towards improvement.


The Role of the Teacher
Teachers play an essential role in assisting students to acquire these high level skills and become independent learners by ensuring that their students are actively involved in learning. They do this by:

• providing a supportive structure which gradually transfers responsibility from the teacher to the student;
• responding flexibly to students’ responses rather than following a predetermined teaching path;
• providing students with opportunities to establishing goals, receive feedback from others and self-evaluate;
• encouraging students to model their own behaviour;
• developing communication that includes language focused on learning; and
• providing feedback which enable the students to be reflective and seek to improve.

A successful independent learning model requires the teacher to shift from being an expert transmitting knowledge to that of a ‘coach’ helping students to acquire the strategies necessary for learning.


The Role of Technology
Information Technology plays a vital role in independent learning because it:

• offers opportunities for the easy assessment and measurement of self-directed learning;
• increases the speed of access of information; and
• provides a medium for interaction between learners and between learners and their teachers.

Teachers should plan classroom activities to encourage creativity and diversity of responses. This might include opportunities for students to present their work in different ways, including video and blog, as well as through written and oral presentations.


The Role of the School
Aspects of whole-school policy and practice which help support independent learning include:

• support for teachers: it is essential that a comprehensive and fully supported professional development programme is in place for teachers to challenge themselves, share best practice and continue their learning;
• academic clinics: there is a strong connection between independent learning and study support since it enables students to voluntarily choose their learning activities and set their own learning goals;
• student voice: by giving students the opportunity to influence school strategies they will assume ownership of new approaches to learning and assist the spread of best practice;
• leadership opportunities: students make excellent mentors for other students; they are also very well equipped to help mentor teachers, sharing their point of view and, in a responsible way, sharing the success of the school; and
• decision making: arguably the most important skill students should have when they leave school is the ability to make good decisions when faced with choices; students should develop as critical thinkers who form evidence-based ethical opinions.


Building Relationships
It’s really all about relationships – the interactions which bring together teachers and students; the lack of barriers mean that the learners actively seek help and share their goals, set target and reflect on their progress.

The key ingredient in independent learning is to shift the responsibility for the learning process from the teacher to the student. This involves students acquiring an understanding of their learning, being motivated to learn and collaborating with teachers to structure their learning environment.

This requires a flexible approach to the time that teachers give students and regular one-to-one communication is at the heart of this model.

Positive relationships between teachers and students, based on trust, which are supplemented by the students’ experiences in their family and local community, are necessary in the growth of the independent learner.


There are a number of practical things schools can do to foster true independence:

• hesitate before writing a long Rule Book for students – emphasise responsibility over regulation;
• provide leadership opportunities and a strong and effectual mechanism for the Student Voice;
• encourage independent thought through open questions in lessons and independent study tasks which encourage and reward innovation;
• ensure learning is individualised both in the classroom context and in the follow-up challenges a student has in their private study time;
• provide academic clinics for students to take ownership of their learning and instigate their next steps;
• build a strong partnership with home;
• develop a visible and high-value staff Professional Development programme;
• move from whole-class directive teaching to more of a coaching approach ;
• build into lessons help for students to acquire thinking skills, such as classifying, comparing and suggesting hypotheses;
• provide opportunities for vertical mixing through a House system, so that older students take on positions of responsibility and younger ones associate with a team in which they play a very important role;
• provide personalised weekly Tutorials for students to reflect upon past achievements and set new learning goals, with a mentor acting as a coach;
• engage students in peer and self-review to support Assessment for Learning and prompt students to take responsibility for their own learning;
• promote learning for life and enable teachers to model reflection, self-evaluation and improvement; and
• most importantly, build lasting relationships between teachers and students.

Dr. Paul Silverwood, formerly of Queen Margaret's School in York, is the Founding Principal of Hartland International School, Dubai - - which will open in 2015-16.

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