Inspiring independent learning


While many classrooms do contain technology, not all make use of it to promote independent research. Karen Sullivan on fostering the ability to learn independently.

The other day I sat across from three teenaged boys on a bus. They were chatting about the jubilee celebrations and the conversation turned to the Tower of London and the kings and queens who had been held or beheaded there.

A minor argument ensued, at which point all three got out their phones and began to Google. They leant over one another, reading each other’s screens, and had what I would consider to be a fairly intellectual debate.

The immediate access to information we now have has got to be a good thing for education. In my house, we are constantly bringing out the iPad to counter an argument or prove a fact, and even my seven-year-old is Googling for information.

For example, on the back of a comment by a presenter during Euro 2012, he did a little research into why Poland had been invaded so many times in its history. He joyfully recounted his findings to various friends the following day. If I’d told him the answer, I doubt he would have been as interested.

This is important for a number of reasons. First, immediately satisfying curiosity can, according to research, encourage higher levels of thinking, inspire interest, promote learning, and aid retention and memory.An interest is often driven by enthusiasm or excitement and emotionally charged learning (where the emotions are aroused) makes it that much easier to remember.

Second, individual interest is associated with a psychological state of “positive affect” and persistence, which tends to result in increased learning. Third, interest sparks independent learning, which has been proven, to enhance memory and comprehension on all levels.

Determination is the product of interest and enthusiasm and wanting to know an answer for personal reasons is an important means of inspiring scholarship. It seems increasingly important to implement this research in the classroom. Large classes do not allow the average teacher to respond to the individual interests of every student immediately and a genuine enthusiasm can fade away if it is not nurtured. 

While many classrooms do contain technology, not all make use of it to promote independent research. One school I know has a “Google centre” and children are encouraged to find and check facts on the available computers, as and when required. The satisfaction achieved by successfully gaining information also inspires confidence and the act is then much more likely to be repeated in future.

Obviously some subjects lend themselves more easily to this approach, but even areas like maths can benefit. For example, teams of students can be given research projects based on various problems to help them to identify mathematical concepts before reporting back.

The fact that this type of work can produce an immediate result will enhance the motivation to continue; the fact that children may learn more than one way of doing things will broaden their mindset and boost learning.

Although there is no question that classroom activities are curtailed to some extent by the national curriculum, time invested in working out ways that students can work independently, upon their own interests and with access to technology that will provide immediate answers, will undoubtedly reap rewards. 

We live in an information-rich, instant-access age that our students are increasingly interested in exploring. If we provide them the tools with which to do this, taking advantage of interest and enthusiasm, even reluctant learners will begin to take part and, most importantly, learn.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert.


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