How can we nurture independent learners beyond the early years?
As a teacher, it is striking how much teachers do for children.
Early years (EYFS) in most schools is geared towards a free flow style learning environment and the curriculum is adapted to feed off the curiosity of our youngsters. At such a young age, the children have a high level of responsibility for learning – but this soon changes though.
Children are all born inquisitive, and this continues through the early years in school. Then, around the age of six, children have their independence wrestled from them by the education system. The teacher leads the learning.
Dependent learners quickly become ‘a huge sap’ of a teacher’s time. I’ve lost count of the number of times a queue of children has appeared next to me during independent work. Often, these children had issues such as ‘wanting to let me know their pencil has broken’ or telling me they “don’t get it.”
Sometimes they just hadn’t read the question.
Less time to assist …
Of course, there are also those who have a valid reason to come and ask for help, but they would never get assisted very quickly because of the inefficient system I was running. It became difficult for children to achieve any kind of flow because I was their first and only point of call.
What happened next?
A well-timed, increasingly rare day of professional development (CPD) out of school helped me to see the flaws of the unspoken system, and I took a number of measures to create engaged and independent learners in my class.
First of all, I felt compelled to find a metaphor for the children’s dependence on me and I found a video of two people who are riding an escalator. The escalator breaks and the two people stay standing in the same place and shout for help.
Subsequently, the mechanic comes along, but on his way up, he gets stuck on another escalator! Obviously, the children found this hilarious and commented on the stupidity of the people in the video, but quickly realised they regularly do the same thing …
A solution …
Encouraging children to use their initiative to solve their own problems has been one of the most effective changes I have made to my practice.
I now have a helpdesk – nothing jazzy, just an extra table in the corner.
On it, there are some dictionaries, textbooks, calculators, pencil sharpeners and an iPad on it. Children are allowed to visit the helpdesk if they are stuck, but cannot take anything back to their table from it.
Additionally, children are expected to use the first 4Bs before coming to talk to me (i.e. the 5th B – Boss). If they do come to talk to me before they have exhausted every other option, I signpost them to the next ‘B’ to try; sometimes with teaching assistant support where required. This allows me to target my support to the children who need it the most.
A few months on, I am nurturing independent learning as a priority, and I am still trying to find new ways to improve the independence of all learners in my class.
Another aspect to explore further is that we could support our year one children by emulating some of the excellent practices that EYFS foster. Independent learning is one of those areas. There is an increased need for this post-pandemic.