“Independent learning is a process, a method and a philosophy of education whereby a learner acquires knowledge by his or her own efforts and develops the ability for enquiry and critical evaluation” (Wood, 2010:84)
should be encouraged to be independent learners.
Government support for the concept of independent learning has been made plain in the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage and other educational statements. Unfortunately, I feel this enthusiasm for the dissemination of independent learning strategies has not been accompanied by adequate definitions of strategies that can be implemented. Despite the support from not only the government and decision makers but also teachers, there have been problems encountered in implementation of child independence and autonomy into classroom practice.
I truly believe that children should be provided opportunities to be autonomous, independent learners, whereby they choose their learning style, interests and develop their own skills. Independent learning is based on the belief that teaching can only be effective if the learner understands and takes responsibility for their learning process. Recent research works have focused on methods of teaching younger children in particular to become independent learners (Featherstone & Bayley, 2001; Williams, 2003). Moreover, the popular educational philosophy of Reggio Emilia focuses on helping young children to acquire an understanding of their own learning and encouraging them to take an active part in the process.
Independent learning has featured in many recent government educational papers and curriculum advisory documents, together with materials to explain the process and facilitate its use. For example, recent teacher training has included directives within its QTS Standards to ensure, according to Standard three, that delivering the effective lessons required will encompass making learning objectives transparent and will encourage pupils to adopt a dynamic and independent approach and understand how to design and oversee their own learning. (Qualifying to Teach DfEE/ TTA, 2002). Additionally, the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (2000), includes a set of principles for early years’ education, one of which is that lessons should include not only activities planned by teachers but also activities that the young learners are stimulated to design and carry out themselves. (DfEE/QCA, 2000 p.3).
"Time for children to follow their own ideas, make their own choices, and develop as self-regulating learners, has been sharply diminished. Increasingly, practitioners and policy-makers are beginning to see the importance of restoring this balance." (Anderson et al, 2003)
Governing requirements or Practioners values?
The problems appear to exist both at the policy-making stage and at the point of delivery in the classroom (Rose & Rogers, 2014). At policy level, the test, target and achievement-driven climate of learning in primary schools, particularly the new testing process to be implemented in the upcoming early years, does not sit easily with the philosophy of independent learning. It is deemed that successful learning has a rather constricted definition and assessment process at the present time in schools, and it is hard to see how an independent approach to learning - where children are encouraged to think out their own learning paths - can flourish in this framework (Ebbeck et al, 2014). It would appear that educational policies need a clearer overall approach and justification.
The wide-ranging series of classroom observations which underpinned the ORACLE studies of Maurice Galton (1989) have emphasized the conflicting classroom demands in this area and his work is echoed by other educational experts. Teachers may in all sincerity encourage children to be creative and independent and to think for themselves but if this does not match the surrounding classroom culture the learners will be reluctant to adopt this approach.
Is independent learning possible in Early Years?
In the real world of the classroom, I have found that a range of issues also prevent the easy establishment of independent learning practices. The teacher has the task of designing a well–organized set of learning activities for pupils in an orderly classroom setting with limited time and resources, and additionally has to deal with government targets and pressures from parents and head teachers. Reflecting upon previous experience, I have faced the challenge of creating an environment that promotes independence whilst meeting governmental requirements, due to a limitation in resources that can effectively develop a child. It is not surprising that these factors can seem to work against rather than support the setting up of an independent learning approach. Edington (2004) suggests due to the ongoing pressures teachers face that children will never gain opportunities to drive their own learning based on their interests and aspirations.
Research into the theories and emerging practice of independently regulated learning and the contribution parents and teachers can make to this have often been cast within the socio-cultural Vygotskian model (eg: Schunk & Zimmerman, 1994). Many studies have explored how adults can use instructional techniques to help students move in stages towards understanding and independence in the learning process. These techniques were reviewed comprehensively by Collins & Newman (1989) - in which children are gradually made aware of the process of learning are known as the ‘cognitive apprenticeship' model.
Whilst I understand the difficulties teachers face to conform to academic documents ensuring that children are ‘achieving’, I feel that I have and will continue to provide children autonomy over their learning through various pedagogical techniques such as; ‘co-operative group work’ as described by Forman and Cazden (1985), as an opportunity for children to begin expressing their own ideas permitting them to positively reflect on their own learning. A further strategy of; ‘self- explanation’, suggested by Siegler 2002, as an instructional practice which provides children a platform to think about ‘how’ and ‘why’, for example on my last placement I found that children would develop independence through explaining scientific phenomas or the events in a story, allowing children to reason and challenge their own ideas. Galton (1989) has also made an important contribution to this topic in his
Independent or Dependent Strategies?
investigation of the importance of enabling children to make decisions in the classroom which he sees as an important step towards ownership and responsibility in learning.
Perry et al. (2002) undertook a study in British Columbia in relation early years learning. They discovered that independent learning by children can not be promoted at such early stages, as they do not possess the intellectual capability and maturity to do so, which is contradictory to traditional theorists’ perspectives. Perry et al (2002), evidenced that the opportunity teachers have to plan, monitor and assess early years allows children to be think and effectively problem solve thus leading to independent skills. Furthermore, their findings suggested that teachers should offer choices based on curriculum requirements, however children should have control over the level of challenge in tasks, thereby providing them belief that they are in control of their learning.
It is evident that there is an ongoing discussion in relation to how much autonomy and independence a child can have over their own learning. This leaves me to ponder over the impact that Early Years policies, governing documents and practitioners’ interests have over the independent development of a child.