Do you know what independent learning is?

Written by: Amy Forrester | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools quite rightly prize the value of independent learning skills, but students cannot learn independently about things they do not know. Amy Forrester considers why empowering teachers to create knowledge-rich learners is the first step to independence

Independent learning is a phase that we hear very regularly in the discussion around education. It is a concept that is often spoken about as a crucial part of education, a status that we should be aspiring to for our young people.

However, independent learning is also a phrase that has become increasingly abused and misjudged. There are a vast number of definitions and various ways that schools have interpreted “independent learning” and consequently implemented it.

If we are to save independent learning and its important role in schools and wider education, we need to consider what it means when it is at its best – a force for good in helping young people to achieve.

There are some excellent pieces of work which examine the concept in more detail. Research evidence (Hendrick & MacPherson, 2017; Murphy, 2017) helps us in our pursuit of understanding so that we can implement independent learning with impact.

Murphy (2017) describes it an aim that we might have for students, to “have enough confidence and capability to work for extended periods without prompting or help” – an educational nirvana, if you will.

This definition is a helpful one – it outlines the vision behind the concept. For too long, independent learning has become synonymous with students learning without the input of adults or teachers. It meant them finding out for themselves, or from their peers, rather than from the knowledgeable subject expert in the room.

In exploring Murphy’s definition of independent learning in this more precise way, it focuses the mind far more than the edu-faddish definition may do – all while preserving the integrity of learning from an expert teacher.

Why does this distinction matter so much?

Kirschner et al (2006) focus on exactly this. They outline that empirical research suggests there is “overwhelming and unambiguous” evidence that partial guidance for anyone other than experts, is “significantly less effective” than direct, explicit instruction from an expert. It’s an important point as we begin to consider what this means for schools and teachers.

The first strand of this comes from a whole school focus on teaching, learning and pedagogy. It is vital that a school’s teaching staff understand this and use their time in their classrooms in ways that are far more efficient, focusing clearly on expert teaching.

This means challenging previously accepted wisdom. It means empowering teachers as the experts in their subjects and enabling them to deliver their subjects without fear or worry about being the expert in the room.

Second, it is important to consider the way we talk about the typical areas we think about when considering independent learning. For example, generic skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and group work are areas often associated with the concept of independent learning. So how do we teach those in schools? By creating knowledge-rich students. Let me explain.

When we talk about skills such as critical thinking and group work, what these mean in practice can be quite different to how we might foster students’ ability to work in ways like this. They are often the skills that employers are said to be “looking for” in the next generation of employees. However, crucially, these are not generic skills that we are able to teach in isolation. They require students to be experts in the areas where they are aspiring to be able work in this way.

Hendrick and MacPherson (2017) state that “students cannot think critically about things that they do not know”. This basic, fundamental idea is too often overlooked in the pursuit of creating independent learners. Therefore, as school leaders and teachers, we need to consider the extent to which our curricula are enhancing our students’ abilities to become truly independent learners.

The worst way this can be done is through the generic. The edutainment fads of the early 2000s have a lot to answer for. Teaching children knowledge was considered wrong. Teacher talk was demonised. It seems crazy now to think in this way – that at some point in our profession’s recent history such underwhelming work was taking place.

The hours that were wasted as we slaved away at creating multi-sensory activities to inspire independence in learning. Which, in fact, just led to no-one learning anything and a teacher in need of a dark room and a cleaner in their classroom.

We became to detached from the vision we were aspiring to, firmly on a path to an educationally disadvantaged world of young people doing a lot but learning very little.

This is the very thing we must seek to avoid. We know all too well that education can come around in cycles. We seem to be an endlessly cyclical profession. However, as a profession, we are now more evidence-informed than we have ever been before. We know more and more about how to place our best bets in the classroom so that we can equip our students with the skills that they need to succeed.

We do so by prioritising subject knowledge, teaching wonderous, beautiful curricula and creating joy and wonder in the subjects we teach. It is only through this ambitious pursuit of knowledge that we will give students the best start in life. Once we create young people who have a rich a varied subject knowledge will we be able to develop the skills of independence in them.

  • Amy Forrester is the director of behaviour and futures at Cockermouth School in Cumbria and a member of the Chartered College of Teaching. Her recent article, How can pastoral and extracurricular learning enhance students’ independent learning skills? was published in the Chartered College’s book, Future of Teaching: Celebrating teacher expertise.

Further information & resources

  • Chartered College of Teaching: The CoT is a professional membership body for teachers offering support networks, resources, programmes, and research-based insights around teaching and learning excellence. Its book, Future of Teaching: Celebrating teacher expertise, was published in November 2021:
  • Clark, Kirschner & Sweller: Putting students on the path to learning, American Educator, Spring 2012:
  • Kirschner, Sweller & Clark: Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching, Educational Psychologist (41), 2006:
  • Hendrick & MacPherson: What Does this Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the gap between research and practice, John Catt Educational, 2017.
  • Murphy: Reading and Literacy. In What Does this Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the gap between research and practice, Hendrick & MacPherson (eds), John Catt Educational, 2017.


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