If there is one thing that successive lockdowns have taught us, as teachers and as parents, it is that independence in learners is a desirable thing! The patterns of stop/start face to face schooling, while not ideal, have undoubtedly helped children and young people to develop skills they may not have developed in those months at school. While there has been no universal experience of lockdown learning, the repeated and shrill cries from vast sectors of the media that children are immensely behind in their learning are patently untrue for all learners, quite obviously. It is an unhelpful narrative from an education perspective and nonsensical when we factor in that in many countries, children do not begin formal education until the age of 6 or 7. We are right to be concerned about the overall impact of the pandemic on children, but we do need an honest appraisal of the fact that some children have continued as expected, some may need to catch up on opportunities lost and many will have developed skills they may not have were it not for the pandemic. A degree of calm realism will help no end as we navigate the path ahead.
One development that has been noticed by some parents and teachers is a leap in independence; perhaps seen more clearly in some year groups than in others. I have certainly observed this in my year two son, who is developing an inclination for independent learning and is keen to take some of his lessons further after (home) school. This is a vast improvement on the first lockdown when he was in year one and his independence was less developed. But friends with older children have also commented the same – that their children are developing skills of organisation and independence through the challenges of lockdown. In addition, with online platforms such as BBC Bitesize and Oak National Academy it is easier than ever for children and young people to pursue what interests them independently. Perhaps the difficult circumstances of lockdown teaching and learning do hold within them some opportunities and possibilities for encouraging the development of young learners who become less dependent on their teachers?
One of the key tools we have to develop independent learning in children and young people is project-based learning. I recall as a child in primary school having to do independent projects – one per term – in the final year before transfer to high school. We had choice over the topic and control over content and design. It was in direct contrast with the usual proceedings in the classroom and therefore a highlight of school for many of us. Being independent from the teacher, able to pursue our own interests, and create a piece of work that we have designed ourselves (within certain parameters) was liberating. And becoming young experts in our chosen area of study was an immense confidence booster!
Project-based learning would ordinarily involve giving students the opportunity to learn through real-world and personally meaningful projects. It is a chance to work for a sustained time on something that fully engages and challenges, developing skills and creativity along the way. There is nothing new about it – early proponents include John Dewey with further developments drawing from the work of educationalists such as Maria Montessori.
My example of project work from the 1980s does not do justice to the potential of genuine project-based learning today. In his article for the Chartered College of Teaching Promoting independence through project-based learning – theeducation.exchange, Dr James Manion, director of Rethinking Education, explains that, “According to the Education Endowment Foundation (2020), teaching pupils in such a way as to develop metacognition and self-regulation provides ‘high impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence’.”
Through their work on projects, children and young people have the opportunity to thrive on a long-term activity – inquiry – that may be inter-disciplinary and more student-centred than usual. As Dr Manion explained to me, “In schools, teachers set the agenda for what needs to be learned, and how, and by when. We set deadlines for the students to meet, we remind them of those deadlines regularly and, if it looks like a student is not going to meet that deadline, we swoop in and ‘intervene’ – especially as they approach GCSEs. All of this of done with the best of intentions, to make the most efficient use of time. But the question needs to be asked: how can young people learn to regulate their own learning in such a top-down, micromanaged environment?”
Comprehensive approaches to project-based learning offer children the chance to explore open-ended questions in a critical way. They may be problem solving, creating, using student voice, developing skills, collaborating, thinking critically, reviewing and revising.
“If we are to help young people learn to manage their own learning, both in school and in their home environment, we need to provide them with the time and space in which to develop these skills and dispositions, Dr Manion said. “That’s why project-based learning is so valuable. It needs to be planned carefully, but project-based learning is really important in developing self-regulated learners. It allows the teacher to step back and the child to discover what they can and cannot do by themselves, in the absence of constant supervision. At first, some will struggle, but given time, space and support, they develop the ability to stand on their own two feet.”
Find out more…
- Dr James Manion: @rethinking_education, @RethinkingJames, rethinking-ed.org
- Promoting independence through project-based learning – theeducation.exchange
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.