Ten Steps to Standing Alone: Developing Independence in your classroom

After attending a GCSE English course today with the key focus being how to ensure achievement for all at Key Stage four as we enter linear assessment, my thoughts returned to my semi-ranty post about interdependence and how we can develop this invaluable skill within even the less confident of students. There must be a happy balance between guiding students towards success and allowing them to consider their own independent, analytical enquiry in response to a text, or their own work with regards to written pieces. I have segmented this into ten ways in which we are classroom practitioners can make adaptations to teaching that can help students complete their education with a more independent mindset; whilst Key Stage four will provide a measurable process for this in the shape of their final linear exams, I feel that Key Stage three needs to be of equal focus so that students recognise the value of their own responses and opinions.

1. Stop Providing the Answers

It is such an easy trap to fall into to give what we believe the be the ‘right answers’ or ‘the way to do it.’ But this can often be at the detriment of leading students to believe that we are the omniscient presence in the classroom. By acting as a facilitator, passing over the onus onto the students may feel risky but the act of presenting questions and encouraging the questions of the students, particularly at the start of a unit can avoid this corner of learning that leads to a tick or cross situation. This could be displaying questions from students that can then be used to respond to at a later point, or providing students with the capacity to lead a Q&A forum within lessons where you simply chip in to encourage elaboration from particular learners. There will always be an element of the non-negotiable within a subject, but that knowledge will ‘stick’ if it is they that provided such criteria.

2. Provide the Opportunity for Leadership and Ownership

Develop your own confidence to sit back and led the students lead particular parts of their learning, In the same way that you would use the strengths of teachers within a department, utilise and share the talents of your students. Student led learning is key to enabling them to have a mental rehearsal for an exam situation. How should we tackle this question? Who could provide a toolkit within your classroom for particular aspects of a response? I like to carry out a ‘Genius Bar’ lesson prior to assessments, where students act as a help tool for others in order to move towards the same goal. This develops the concept of challenge and allows those students that can quite easily become complacent when set a series of tasks to explore beyond the confines of a lesson structure.

3. Use Student Voice as a Springboard for Learning

I regularly use student voice to gauge the success of my teaching and their honesty is priceless for informing next steps as a teacher. End of unit student surveys- Survey Monkey, exit slips, short email homeworks to you directly, discussion boards- provide you with concrete, qualitative data that can then adapt both future teaching of that unit but also that of the particular class. The process also allows students to develop the confidence to own their learning journey by being provided with a voice that has an explicit and active impact within your classroom.

4. Open with Learning Questions

Linking to number 1, and something that I repeatedly harp on about is providing a question as a Learning Objective/Intention. This allows a framework for less confident students and a starting point for further challenge. By handing over the process to reach a developed answer to that questions, the student then feels a sense of accomplishment- they have achieved the response independently and to the extent that they feel comfortable. The higher attaining of the group can adapt the question to push their response further; by deciding on that adaptation at the start of the lesson, they can then stand back and recognise the progress that THEY have made, unaided and self-created.

5. Ask for Fears!

It is an old-age saying but one that students do not buy into often- failure is the first step to success. Failure is vital to learning and by addressing fears as a first step to a task or skill, it helps to then allow students to reassure one another, plays once again on the strengths within the room and builds a sense of compassion within the group. Fears identified can then inform future lessons or be addressed at a later point to demonstrate to students their achievements and capabilities. I am unconvinced from experience that students’ fears of their own areas of development and the reality match up- often, their own lacking confidence obstructs their sucess. By vocalising these, as a teacher you address the elephant in the room and they then provide the coping mechanisms and resolutions for said elephant!

6. Incorporate Collaboration Within Your Planning

Peer assessment, Group Writing, Peer created success criteria, tasks and challenges created by students not only creates a healthy, can-do mindset within the classroom, but also provides the stepping stone to interdependence. It is well documented that peer assessment is the middle ground to reaching a point of being able to become self-reliant in terms of self-assessment. The more the students can unpack success criteria for themselves, identify, prrof read and contribute to one another’s work, the more likely it is that in an exam situation, they will be able to evaluate their own work. By doing so initially with a structured framework and then over time, handing this strategy over to them, it will ensure that in a timed, pressured situation, they can recall these skills. Again, mental rehearsal.

7. Move Away from the Gimmicks

During my training year, I developed a format of processes to develop skills, with very little impact. Whilst a visual accompaniment to a term or point in assessment can be handy, the student will often (in my experience) recall the gimmick but not the skill itself. Engagement is possible without reliance on a process formula and can lead to confusion on the students’ part. I refer to a blender to ‘blend ideas’ or a pea for ‘PEA chains.’ The student recalls that there are three steps to analysis but is still none the wiser as to what to include or how to do it effectively. If students are to excel in terms of a skill, then they must recognise the requirements rather than us provide it for them. One size does certainly not fit all.

8. Create a Context

This acts as an alternative to 7. Develop tasks within the lesson that provide a real life setting to a process- those lessons will be memorable for the student because it linked to a situation that they can relate to in some way. The memorable lessons for skills focuses will ensure stickablility- Dragon’s Den for persuasion, using local information or a news story as a base for lessons. I like to carry out music quizzes to link to themes of a text prior to assessment (my recent lesson for Scrooge’s development in A Christmas Carol featured ‘I Don’t Care’ by Icona Pop and ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson!). The more than students can relate to a character or concept, the more likely they are to discuss it convincingly on paper.

9. Remove the Mist

Similar to 6, students seem most afraid of the Unknown. This has been a point of contention with teachers that I have worked with, but I start a unit by emailing out assessment criteria and the assessment that we will work towards. Could you teach without knowing what you were working towards? The more informed the students are, the sooner they can identify possible gaps in their own learning- this can even stretch to setting out one key target that they aim to fulfil before the final assessment, to understand or demonstrate a particular skill required in the assessment criteria.

10. Have fun!

You remember the teacher that took a risk over the teacher that taught by a specific strategy or focus. Move outside your own comfort zone and experiment. Handing over the controls to students can be terrifying and with the time constraints and pressures of teaching as they currently stand, it seems that the idea of moving away from a plan is simply not an option, but it will be the very thing that makes you more effective! We are facing a one size fits all end point, but there are many different ways to reach the end point. Do not be afraid to go off the beaten path for a bit!

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