Right, I’ve been meaning to post on this for ages. Jane Shuyska (at the beginning of the holidays, sorry I didn’t read it before!) sent me a link to some research carried out by Sara Hennessy, Rosemary Deaney and Kenneth Ruthven of the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. (You too can read it – it’s online. Oh, and check out Sara Hennessy’s page at the Uni of Cambridge Faculty of Education, there’s some really interesting looking stuff here, which I’ve not yet had chance to read, including a really interesting one about teachers’ practical theories about ICT). Reading this research has caused a sort of coagulation (urg!) in my mind about several things and I’m going to blog about them shortly.
The most urgent concept for discussion is that of independent learners. It is really important that we carefully consider what we mean as independent history students (or students of any subject for that matter), and not only for the obvious reason that we should be clear about our objectives in teaching students to become more independent. The phrase (and connected phrases discussed below) is just the kind that develops a glossy attractive shell, which resists penetration and understanding. Shiny phrases like these, if not examined, become a shortcut away from thought, take on a million shiny mini-meanings in the minds of thousands of different practitioners, often with un-intended and unwelcome effects (as indeed the research cited above shows).
“Independent Learning” is a phrase that one hears bandied about a lot. In our last ofsted one of the (few, it has to be said) criticisms made of the school was that pupils need to take more responsibility for their learning. It’s something that we’ve therefore talked alot about. Indeed encouraging responsibility and independece in learning sounds like a worthy goal. In the field of e-learning these key words and phrases are joined by a third; ‘personalised learning’, under the promise of an approaching dawn, when students will independently take responsibility for their own learning, helped by the power of ICT to enable personalisation for students at an individual level.
The idea of independence is also connected with the idea of digital ‘nativeness’. People who have seen digital natives in the wild (at home on their own computers, on their phones making calls in lessons, on telly playing violent computer games, or on the internet posting mobile phone footage of their tap-dancing routines) attest to their ‘wizziness’ with computers, and worry that in school we’re holding back their independence and creativity by not finding enough opportunities for them to learn using ICT.
Hennessy et al have some really interesting things to say about independence. The first is that pupils + ICT doesn’t necessariliy add up to independent learning. They point out that, although it is ‘plausible’ that ICT offers opportunties for ‘open-ended, exploratory learning [through] pupil reflection, experimentation, manipulation, explanation, interpretation’, in fact ‘effective pedagogy for supporting these kinds of learning with ICT is currently underdeveloped’ and that as a result ‘haphazard, unproductive or routinised uses of ostensibly interactive forms of ICT are still observable’ (p.4).
For the writers of the report, what appears at first to be a potential tension between the desire for autonomy and independence in the learner infact seems to for a mutual dependency. In a later post I’ll describe how they found that well planned lessons with tightly defined objectives and increased but focussed teacher intervention actually enabled pupils to show more autonomy than lessons which took a more open-ended ‘discovery’ learning approach.
Certain themes of pupil independence do emerge from my reading of the report. Firstly they noted a decrease in teacher direction, and an increase in pupil interaction, whether that be between teacher and pupil or between pupil and pupil (9).
Also noted was a increase in the willingness of pupils to ask for clarification or help from teachers (10) and an increased desire for teacher interaction and intervention (11). This could be interpreted as a ‘Bad Thing’ for pupil independence, unless we take this as a grasping for understanding. Such grasping, asking for help when one needs could be a form of independence, especially if the response from the teacher is an enabling rather than a didactic one.
This idea of independence through active questioning of the learning and learning process should also be considered in the light of another of Hennessy et al’s findings that working with ICT enables teachers to offer and for pupils to respond to feedback more immediately (11). In this light, the learning takes on the aspect of a conversation, a transaction between teacher and pupil (and thus more independent on the pupil’s part than the traditional ‘banking’ view of a top-down distribution of knowledge).
Similarly it was found that increased collaboration between students using ICT, where such collaboration was geniune, actually increased the independence of those students. Again, it might seem odd to consider that working with someone else might increase independence. However, considering what the authors actually report in the way of collaboration, we can see some real benefits for the independence and confidence of learners. Pupils ‘worked towards joint outcomes’, were ‘discussing and checking suggestions with each other’ and ‘generating and exploring ideas’ (p15).
The authors of the report also note important ideas and conceptions of both teachers and students in respect of ‘independent learning’. One teacher described how ‘the ict does the teaching’. Their judgement that this is ‘unreaslistic’ is supported by the observation that this teacher’s lesson lacked ‘teacher direction, supervision and task focus’ with the result that ‘pupils floundered’. However, many of the teachers used in the study were interested in the goal of more independence for learners through ICT.
So, what do I take from all this. Well, it’s much the same as some of the other stuff I’ve been banging on about here. Just as the emergence of video didn’t mean that plonking hapless students infront of TVs would automatically enable learning, so it is with ICT. I We want our students to be independent learners, and not merely because this will ‘equip’ them with skills for ‘the real world’, but because an independent learner is part of the world, and part of the world-wide conversation in which the world is named, renamed, constructed and re-constructed. Turning them into monitor-fodder is not the way to do this. Instead we must create learning opportunities and contexts in which we’re able and willing to give students freedom, but to encourage them, and frame their activities in such a way as to enable them to learn. Next time I’ll be blogging about what Hennessey et al found out about the ways that successful lessons were constructed, in other words what teachers did to bring about this enabling context.
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