Independent learning: Leading by example

Written by: Dave Rankin | Published:
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In a bid to boost independent learning skills, raise aspirations and build relationships, teachers at Saint Thomas More Academy led by example. Dave Rankin explains

I could never have imagined that starting work in a new school would lead to me becoming a magician.

I began my first substantive senior leadership role as assistant headteacher in charge of staff development, CPD and NQTs in September 2015.

I was thoroughly looking forward to the challenges of these roles but I also wanted to see if I could also make an impact on students’ independent learning. This was an agreed priority on the school improvement plan which stated that “independent learning should have a positive impact on student achievement and attitudes to learning”. And so began my path towards the conjuring arts...

A far cry from Hogwarts, Saint Thomas More Catholic Academy is a secondary school serving Longton, Stoke-on-Trent. This is one of the most deprived areas in England and unsurprisingly we are above average for Pupil Premium students. The school was judged as requiring improvement in teaching quality and pupil achievement in May 2015.

There seemed to be many barriers to pupil achievement. Many pupils, and even some teachers, had fixed mind-sets about what they could achieve. In many cases, pupils lacked positive role-models who they could relate to and there was a lack of cultural capital.

Pupils told me that it was individual teachers who made the biggest difference to their motivation in lessons rather than whether they were passionate about the subject itself. My new colleagues said that many pupils needed “spoon-feeding” because they could not take responsibility for their own learning.

I wanted to prove that this is all smoke and mirrors and that we could ignite a cultural shift where all of our pupils wanted to aspire for more and work hard. It is vital to have high expectations for students and to accept no excuses for underachievement – instead focusing on what we should try next. Applying and modelling these values as school leaders means that we are always returning to the mission to raise the achievement of children, regardless of background.

I was determined to create a culture where pupils would feel a sense of pride in their own achievements and where teachers fostered genuine passion rather than breaking work down into pixie-sized pieces.

First, I spoke to all staff about “concerted cultivation”, and how this type of parenting, often practised by middle class parents, leads to improved relationships with adults and better attitudes to learning. It would take extra effort on our part to build the strong relationships with students that would enable them to focus on working hard.

My plan was to approach the issue from two angles: inspiring every member of the school to independently learn a new skill and then using this to encourage all pupils to be more independent in the classroom.

Inspiring everyone in the school – staff and students – to learn a new skill was vital to the project because it would help to build positive relationships between adults and young people.

This began with the headteacher and senior leadership team sharing which new skill they would learn with the rest of the staff, and continued with members of teaching and support staff having a photo taken demonstrating them learning their new skill so that pupils could see staff modelling the initiative.

One colleague even let her tutor group choose her new skill from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award skills list. They suggested that she should learn Urdu and I have seen her trying out her new skill with pupils around the school.

I pledged to learn “conjuring and magic” and I let everyone know that I would test my new skill by performing in public in the summer. A fantastic surprise was to find I wasn’t the only one with a few tricks up my sleeve – several of our students have shown me their own tricks with me and I regularly get asked for impromptu displays of magic at break and lunchtimes.

We have also had staff training sessions focused on conquering challenging behaviour for effective learning. This included a strong message: “Do not underestimate the importance of building relationships through after-school clubs – and these should not just be about PE!”

With this in mind, I let staff know there would be a huge poster of activities going up in the dining hall to help promote clubs and support pupils in choosing and committing to a new skill. This led to many exciting clubs being offered, such as Lego, knitting, running, horticulture and, of course, magic!

Encouraging pupils to be more independent in the classroom meant launching the initiative in assemblies to all year groups and bringing in inspirational speakers who had worked hard to become successful in their own right.

Greig Trout, an inspirational double cancer survivor and founder of 101 Things To Do When You Survive, delivered a talk to our spellbound year 11 and 6th form pupils about positive visualisation and the buzz you get when you first realise you are going to achieve your own goals. The marketing director from a leading international supermarket talked about the secrets of successful people and the importance of hard work and being self-motivated.

The student council also generated ideas for the independent learning campaign and came up with inspirational figureheads and some eye-catching logos to go with the simple slogan “Brain, Book, Buddy, Boss”. These were used on everything from posters in every classroom to competition flyers and large screen televisions around the school.

During briefings and through department meetings, I frequently reminded staff that we can’t just wave a magic wand. Getting pupils to be more independent and learning new skills requires perseverance and should be explicitly modelled by us to ensure our young people take up the challenge.

Trying to change to a learning mind-set is important, and it will hopefully have an impact on this year’s GCSE results and beyond, but it can be difficult to quantify. I had a few different ideas on how to measure “independence”, but I wanted to avoid any extra work such as data entry for already busy teachers – so I decided to use the “Attitude to Learning” system already in place.

Attitude to Learning scores are already entered as numbers 1 to 4 for every pupil, every lesson, where 1 equals outstanding and 4 equals poor. The criteria for an “outstanding” attitude score includes several aspects of independent learning, including using initiative, handing in quality homework, and staying focused on the task.

We made pupils and staff aware that being an independent learner and following the “Brain, Book, Buddy, Boss” posters should be recognised with outstanding scores where appropriate.

During the first six weeks of the initiative, the percentage of outstanding scores have increased. Staff are realising the need to push pupils harder to complete tasks and achieve goals independently. One colleague told me: “My year 8 pupils are finding it difficult; I think they are still giving up too easily, but I am talking with them about ‘Brain, Book, Buddy, Boss’ and explaining that this is how we become stronger learners.”

Other members of staff have said that the initiative is really starting to work and is shifting the mind-set of their classes. I used these anecdotes several weeks into the initiative when I reminded staff that this is where it gets difficult: when the novelty wears off, we have to persevere with the work or we cannot make it stick.

We have made a small investment in a some shiny bronze, silver and gold badges to reward pupils for their effort with independent learning. I have asked form tutors to record the progress of pupils’ new skills on a shared spreadsheet and then I have linked individual progress and percentage of outstanding scores to the bronze, silver or gold award. For example, to get the silver badge pupils need to have 60 per cent outstanding for the half-term and they should have proved to their tutor that they have started to make good progress with their pledged skill.

Hopefully, as more students start to see the rewards and benefits of being independent, the uptake of skills and the positive relationships with staff will continue to grow and in the summer we will celebrate by making a video showing off all of our new skills.

I have been asking the question “what is independent learning?” to several pupils recently and just before we finished for the last half-term break I sat and listened to a year 9 girl, often a reluctant learner, as she told me her understanding of the term.

She said: “It is very important that we have tried as hard as possible to work something out for ourselves, because the teacher won’t always be there.”

Realising the message was getting through, I gave her a hearty “thank you” and disappeared with a swish of my invisibility cloak.

  • Dave Rankin is an assistant headteacher at Saint Thomas More Catholic Academy in Stoke-on-Trent.

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I like all your conjuring ways long may it continue...!! Good work
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Well done Dave sounds like a fab journey
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