Friday, March 25, 2016

'Independent learning' creates irresponsible excuse-makers entirely dependent on their teachers

It’s funny: the more independent we try to make our learners, the more dependent they seem to become.

After all, I suppose, at the heart of independent – or discovery – learning is the pupil’s right not to discover anything remotely valuable or, worse still, anything at all. They are masters of their own learning, encouraged to work at a pace that suits them and given the freedom to do as much or as little as they please. Unsurprisingly, given such options, many choose to do the bare minimum.

But instead of blaming the discredited teaching methods responsible, senior leaders stubbornly cling to the philosophy behind them and blame their staff for not satisfactorily engaging and motivating their charges.

So children are not only permitted to do nothing; they are also encouraged to blame their teachers for doing nothing – hardly conducive to the development of personal responsibility and independence.

Let’s take the profession’s longstanding obsession with group work, as an example. Apparently, group work cultivates ‘collaborative learning’ – another nauseating, meaningless term that sends the education establishment into paroxysms of joy every time it’s uttered by some self-satisfied university professor from the Institute of Education – and, by extension, and rather paradoxically, ‘independent learning’ through encouraging pupils to initiate their own investigations and work together on loosely defined projects. In short, group work is viewed as inherently beneficial to the development of pupils as independent, self-motivated learners.

In the real world though, and for the overwhelming majority of children, group work is absolutely useless as a method for encouraging independent learning. The most vocal kids invariably take control of the activity whilst the rest either demurely withdraw – too shy to take part – or take the opportunity to put their feet up and discuss the approaching weekend. It’s simply ludicrous to expect children to do anything else.

But in my experience and, I suspect, the experiences of many of my colleagues around the country, senior leaders stubbornly refuse to accept this reality – so wedded to progressivism they’ve become – and continue to insist upon a pedagogical approach that doesn’t work.

Frustrated at the dissonance between theory and practice, moreover, they lash out and blame us – the teachers at the chalk face. Apparently the frameworks we set aren’t fun, relevant and interesting enough. They therefore conclude that it’s nothing to do with the methods they themselves promote. The fault lies in their poor execution through badly designed, unimaginative lessons.

Yet when our pupils begin their GCSEs, if we don’t begin to actually teach them, make clear the need to work hard and keep pace with the content and timing stipulated in the course specification, they’ll fail their exams. We simply can’t afford to use the inefficient and unproductive methods central to discovery learning.

After ten years of progressive, so-called child-centred education though, and with senior leaders still insisting that pupils, even in Years 10 and 11, learn through discovery, they are completely unprepared for the demands of their courses and, as such, are destined to underperform. We are being forced to teach them using methods that don't work. It’s incredibly frustrating.

Incidentally, like consumers purchasing theatre tickets, pupils demand that their lessons are fun and amusing, as they’ve been led to expect throughout their school careers. And lest I forget: if these expectations aren’t met, many complain that their lessons are boring and bad behaviour ensues.

So there is a huge contradiction at the heart of independent – or discovery – learning. Children, largely left to their own devices, often choose not to learn and teachers invariably and often willingly take responsibility for such failures.

As the exam season approaches, we give up weekends, evenings and even holidays in an effort to make up for the inadequacy of our classroom provision. This evening I’ve spent over two hours organising intervention time for my underprepared Year 11 pupils. I’ve spent weeks chasing non-attenders, phoning homes and setting detentions. I’ve even drawn up spreadsheets to track the efficacy of this exhausting – eminently avoidable – strategy.

Now you tell me: how on earth does this encourage independent learning? Put simply, far from nurturing independence, progressive approaches cultivate passive, irresponsible excuse-makers entirely dependent on their teachers. It’s about time the powers-that-be woke up and accepted reality.

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