Independent learning beats teaching to the test every time, argues Karen Sullivan. She offers some ideas and resources

At the Independent Schools Show, Adam Pettitt, head of Highgate School, expressed his concern at the growing culture of tutoring, not just to get students into selective schools, but also to ensure that they acquire and maintain a top position in their class and year. He emphasised the need for children to become independent learners, and there is plenty of research to suggest that he is right.

The current focus on standardised testing creates a model where teachers are forced to rely too heavily on the “teach to the test” method of instruction to ensure good grades for all students.

This not only removes the opportunity for students to “learn to learn” – i.e. use their natural curiosity and problem-solving skills, make mistakes, assess where they went right or wrong, identify and use the best personal techniques and tools for individual learning and, of course, immerse themselves in subjects above and beyond the curriculum – but also reduces the chance that students will become passionate about learning.

Tutoring has much the same impact, as it acts to rehearse children for specific exams and targets, rather than encourage a love for learning. It can also create dependence upon a tutor, and actively inhibit independent learning, which can often occur freely in students’ spare time. If students are overworked, exhausted, overloaded and anxious, learning becomes a chore and that undermines the goal of education and, of course, the prospect of lifelong learning.

It is far more beneficial for students to work at their own pace, adopt the techniques that work best for them, and be given free rein to explore subjects from all angles.

In fact, independent learning has been shown to have a host of other benefits, including improved academic performance, increased motivation and confidence, and greater student awareness of limitations and their ability to manage them. It can enable teachers to provide differentiated tasks for students and foster social inclusion.

Whether it takes place in the classroom or in the form of homework, it can encourage time-management and other life-skills, teach students to deal with distractions, and imbue a passion, an interest in actively seeking out information, and creative and more logical thinking.

Teachers become facilitators and coaches, rather than simply passing on information and preparing students for exams, and there is much pleasure to be found in that role.
We can provide learners with resources and opportunities to test their own learning, offering feedback and advice, and supplementing a student’s knowledge so that they develop a true understanding of a subject.

There are many resources to support teachers who want to encourage independent learning, but you can start by allowing students some choices in what they learn, to reflect their own interests, within the confines of the curriculum. For example, organise project work for some topics, giving pupils scope to problem-solve and tackle a subject from their own angle. Help them set learning goals and manage their time at the outset, so they have something to work towards and the means by which to get there.

Ask students to contribute to planning lessons, incorporating the things that interest them. Not only will they have to delve deeper into subjects in order to work out what and how they need to learn, but you may also be surprised by the angles they come up with, and the parts of the curriculum that could be explored in more depth and with greater scope for creative learning. One of the most important elements of this is to empower students to take ownership of their own learning and take it in the directions that most interest and excite them.

It can be useful to incorporate self and peer-editing into the process, which plays a dual role of encouraging all students to become involved, teaching and learning from one another, and also allowing students the opportunity to self-assess and learn from their own mistakes.

They will learn to develop their own ideas, draw conclusions and make associations without relying upon a teacher or anyone else for information, and they will soon establish which strategies are effective as they work towards achieving their learning goals.

Offer feedback on their work, but at the outset avoid using grades, which can undermine developing confidence. A good strategy is to put responsibility for learning in the hands of students, so that it does not feel like “work”.

Open dialogue wherever possible by asking “high order” open-ended questions, which put responsibility for learning onto students. Respond positively to answers to encourage them to think things through and develop a deeper understanding of subjects. In other words, rather than teaching, encourage them to problem-solve and come up with the solutions themselves.

This also helps them to develop their own ideas and ways to access them, without turning to a teacher for answers. Allow them to discuss ideas among themselves and share information without judging, and respond positively to their suggestions and ideas to promote deeper understanding and enhance problem-solving skills.

When students leave secondary school and higher education, and move into the workforce, they will need tools to work independently, to think things through, make decisions and find solutions for problems on their own. Not only does independent learning set them on the road to success by making them more employable, but it can also help students to choose careers with confidence, based on the direction that their own learning has taken them.

With this comes job satisfaction and happiness, and if we can achieve that by making small changes to the way we educate, everyone wins.

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

Resources and ideas

  • Encouraging Independent Learning in the Classroom (entry on Freedom to Teach blog):
  • What is Independent Learning and What are the Benefits for Students? (DCSF, 2008):
  • 10 Reasons Why Educators Should Encourage Independent Learning (InformED blog, 2013):