The Hypocrisy of Independent Learning

One year I decided that I needed to expand my ability to use Office programs – essentially, I felt that there were many things I didn’t know how to do, and I wanted to learn them. I enrolled on a course focusing on Excel and Access. In the years since then I have used Excel extensively, for everything from assessment tracking to personal budget management, going beyond basic addition and multiplication formulae to macros and linking numerous spreadsheets for simple statistical analysis. I haven’t used Access since the end of the course – that’s probably more my fault than Microsoft’s or the tutor’s though!

The tutor gave an introductory talk about the benefits of each program, and showed examples of how how they are applied. He then went through all the features, and showed us how to begin using them. With Access, he showed us how each part builds up to a database. We were encouraged to copy what he did, in order to familiarise ourselves with inputting information and data. Later, we were given examples to work through, with the tutor on hand to help us out. Finally, we were given a CD which summed up what we had been taught, so that we had a handy reference. We were told that our course came with a fortnight’s follow-up support, and that we should try some of the exercises on the disc and email him our efforts if we needed any more help. I learnt a lot, and felt that it was money well spent.

What had happened, of course, was that the tutor had actively taught us. If I had merely been handed a list of websites to look at, or a few books to work my way through I would have been justifiably aggrieved, what would I have spent my money on, that I could not buy for myself? What, in fact, I had paid for, was an expert to teach me how to do something that I had no prior knowledge of.

Unfortunately, I am not allowed to take the same approach with the pupils I teach.

And yet, when I attend courses to further my professional knowledge, I am on the receiving end of that very type of instruction – the one that I am not allowed to use. I find this, in addition to being utterly baffling and of questionable value, to be hypocritical in the extreme.

Over the course of my teaching career I have attended numerous CPD courses, INSET days and training days. A number of these have been on teaching styles, including independent learning and child-centred teaching. Others have included subject specific training, child protection and indoctrination into various new educational initiatives and assessment schemes dreamt up by various governments and random members of SMT.

Interestingly, they have generally followed the same formula, differing only in the practical element, which depends on the topic.

  1. Speaker introduces himself and gives a brief outline of what we will be learning
  2. Speaker talks about their topic, usually for at least 25 minutes, makes much use of PowerPoint
  3. Speaker describes some element in detail, often involving audience participation
  4. Speaker continues to talk about topic for another 10 minutes, giving detailed instructions about task attendees will be asked to undertake
  5. Attendees are given a task to complete, either individually or in groups
  6. Speaker asks for feedback from task, and launches into part 2 of session lasting at least 20 minutes, often involving detailed analysis of theoretical element of topic or recent reesearch
  7. Speaker repeats all facts and evidence covered in presentation and distributes handouts which have whole contents of presentation written on them
  8. Speaker holds Q & A session.

If it was an observed lesson it would be graded ‘Unsatisfactory’. Why? Because the speaker (the teacher) has given the attendees (the pupils) all of the information needed before they are asked to undertake the task.

In itself, this is laughable. When the session is about independent learning, it’s invidious. Do as I say, not as I do.

And it isn’t just in INSET or CPD that teachers are given information directly, rather than discovering it for themselves, it happens in teacher training too. Students attend lectures where they listen, take notes, receive information and then review this before attempting to put it into practice. In fact it happens in practically all higher education areas – few people can claim that their university course was entirely free from lectures. Why? Could it be that by directly communicating the information, the tutor ensures that the student is on the right track and can therefore make some meaningful progress on their own? Is it because it is simply the best model for educating people?

But instruction is deeply unfashionable now, whereas independence is the Holy Grail. So why isn’t independent learning the usual model for CPD sessions? Is it because teachers, as adults, are viewed as less-able to undertake independent research than children? Is it because the speaker feels that independent research would not be the most efficient use of time? Is it because they don’t think any learning or research would take place if teachers were sent off to do their own thing for the duration of the session? Is it because the school would take a dim view of paying someone to say ‘find out for yourself’?

Or is it because they don’t actually believe in independent learning themselves?

If the proponents of independent learning don’t actually use that model in their own teachings when extolling its virtues, then why should anyone else believe that it is the best method of educating the pupils in their classroom?

I constantly hear that we should lead by example, that teachers should model good practice to their pupils. As a general concept, I don’t disagree with this. But when it comes to training sessions or talks by SMT about the value of ‘independent learning’, they too, should lead by example. Start the session by writing something on a board (or PowerPoint, if you insist), give out the learning intention, then let the teachers in the room disperse to find out their own information. They could then email this back to the speaker the following day.

Don’t tell me it won’t work – it’s the model of best practice to encourage true, deep learning, remember?

Anything else would be hypocritical.



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10 Responses to The Hypocrisy of Independent Learning

  1. David Didau says:

    I’ve suffered a multitude of ‘independent learning’ INSETs and CPD sessions. They usually involve post-its, markers and big paper. They are sometime quite good fun, but all you learn is that the loudest person in your group says.

    I on the other hand always resort to direct instruction when training. Anything else just pisses people off. I try to avoid invidiousness by never recommending independent learning as a means: it is an end.


    • Posters, mind maps, role play, post-its – yes, I’ve come across those, but usually found in the ‘activity’ part I mentioned, and always accompanied by lots and lots of presenter chat – certainly much more than Ofsted (or they themselves, as observers) would allow.

      I’ve also noticed most teachers doing those activities also end up gossiping about anything other than the set task – do they really expect pupils to do anything different?

  2. David Didau says:

    Probably not. So, are you actually criticising the INSET formula or holding it up as a good way to structure lessons?

    • Neither. I simply find it odd that despite being told over and over that independent learning is the model to follow, I’ve never yet seen anyone who promotes this actually using it.


      If the model is so perfect, and promotes such understanding, then why do they not use it in their own training sessions? Is it in fact, because they acknowledge that it isn’t very efficient and there is no way of controlling the message (or information) that participants would take away?

  3. Jonathan explains it all says:

    I made this point in an INSET and was told rather haughtily, “This is a training session, not a lesson.”

  4. I’ve seen teachers waste time in both styles of delivery. Like lots of pupils: many staff really would rather be doing something different!

  5. Laban says:

    Are you saying that “independent learning” is the only method of instruction in schools now? Surely not.

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