Independent learning for GCSE and KS3 students

Independent learning is a vital skill for school-level students to develop

What is independent learning?


Learning is an action that we perform throughout our lives, although some of us take it much more seriously than others. A common theme when students first start at university is how they won’t be spoon-fed information and there won’t be hand-holding. What does this mean exactly? It means that students will be expected to learn on their own and that if they don’t try they won’t succeed, or at least they will not perform well. We’re all familiar with this once we’ve been through the process, so why isn’t independent learning promoted to GCSE students? We will examine this conundrum throughout the next section. The benefits of being able to focus, find appropriate sources of information and understand the most integral parts are highly valuable for further education and have important applications in the workplace. Those who get a headstart could improve their chances of achieving top grades at university and performing well when they enter the working population. 


Why is independent learning missing from GCSE classrooms?


There are a few potential reasons why the concept might appear to go under the radar at schools. A common assertion for example is the volume of students in classes is simply too high to expect good results which we might link to independent learning. Unfortunately, this assertion isn’t nearly as important as one might expect, as was shown by a Department of Education report which reviewed the scientific literature and found that the effect of class sizes and attainment is relatively small. This suggests that we need to look elsewhere for our answer. What about the excessive workload of teachers? Could this be preventing the development of a more independent learning centred approach to schooling? A recent study showed that secondary school teachers in England work on average between 46 and 48 hours a week, notably longer than the typical 37.5 or 40-hour full-time role. The same study showed that in 2018 in England, secondary school teachers spend an average of 13.8 hours a week on preparation/marking and a further 2.7 hours on student discipline. These numbers seem to match with the presumption that teachers are too busy to work on instilling the virtues of independent learning with students and merely trying their best to get through the material. The final figure might be surprising to some that less than 3 hours a week on average is spent on student discipline, this should dispel the notion that classrooms are full of troublemakers. Additionally, such a low amount of time spent on discipline may suggest that the classroom is a more suitable arena for independent learning than one might expect. 


What is wrong with learning in a classroom?


As the above shows, teachers, as well as students, seem to have a problem. Teachers would like to have more time for teaching and work more reasonable hours and students could benefit from a more independent learning approach. There are a few characteristics of the typical classroom which are somewhat unsuitable for such an approach. The first is the simple fact that there are not enough computers available to students. Learning on your own is severely limited by the lack of the most fundamental shift in information availability afforded to us by the technological advancements of the recent decades. The most important of which is the internet. A second reason why the typical classroom is less than ideal is the curriculums that are set for students to follow. There is little room left for individual expression based on a wide-ranging bank of reading materials, such as the published scientific literature. Whilst some subjects such as maths and physics change very slowly and are largely established, other subjects are dynamic and growing over time. Some subjects are so vast and subjective that limiting students to textbooks is certainly less enriching. Consider history, for example, there is a near unlimited amount of historical events and eras which must go unexplored at school. GCSE students could undoubtedly find interesting and historically significant episodes on the internet which are outside of the established curriculum, assuming they are taught which sources are reliable and which are not.  


Whilst it sounds like an improvement to introduce more computers to the classroom and to change the curriculum to be more flexible, there are a collection of barriers that prevent these innovations from becoming a reality. As for access to computers, it would require massive and ongoing investment from the government and perhaps ultimately parents to achieve universal access to students during school hours. One might argue that most students have access to personal laptops that they might use in school time, but such an introduction comes with its problems. For instance, how do you ensure that all of these devices have sufficient charge? Perhaps using tablets is a reasonable suggestion? In the case of the curriculum, it is not clear whether or not it should be changed and it is certainly beyond the purpose of this article to discuss it. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in tandem over the next decade or so. 


How do we teach independent learning?


Given the issues we have discussed above, what can we do to promote students to develop the skill of independent learning? A good place to start would be to provide more opportunities to develop this skill. There are likely many schools and individual teachers who would push back on this argument and who already give many opportunities for self-reliance. However, it is clear that on the whole, we could do more. To give teachers a break, I suggest that a large chunk of these opportunities for autonomy could be outside of school hours. Homework set in school could play an important role, insisting that a wide range of sources are used and then listing the sources in the homework would be a great start. Parents, if they have the time, could play an active role in guiding their children to the right sources of information and vetting unknown sources. A certain amount of grit, or persistence to put it another way is required for independent learning and students will build it over time. There are a host of resources that can help students with determination and also avoiding procrastination, we suggest this article.


What is the role of a tutor?


A professional tutor might have an important role to play, working with the student by setting homework tasks, marking them and going through suitable examples of well-sourced work. Science tutors could for instance ask students to prepare a long answer question, with an open book style approach. A question like, “what are the advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels for electricity production” could be a strong example, where the student is told to come back the following session with the question answered, using a minimum of three separate sources. The tutor could then give suitable feedback and the process could be repeated and the number of sources increased over time. Critical thinking is a side benefit of the above approach and it is hard to argue that we do not need the ability to think logically and identify trustworthy sources of information in today’s society. 


Key takeaways


Independent learning is not some kind of dark art that should be only accessible to those who reach university, rather it should be encouraged early on. GCSE students should certainly have opportunities to practice this skill in school and ideally, it could be practised as early as KS3. Homework can be considered an opportunity for students to practise their independence with parents, tutors and teachers all playing a role in promoting the use of reliable and accurate sources of information. 

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