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Is Independent Learning something you can do on your own?

“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

Since Csikszentmihalyi defined the concept of ‘Flow’ in the 1990s, many of us have been alert to those moments in our own life when we’re playing the piano, drawing, climbing a mountain or playing sport and we feel as if time disappears. We are in a state of happy concentration in pursuit of our goal. In education, we aim to provide those experiences for the boys as much as possible. It is tough to get right: the difficulty is providing a level of challenge that is enough to require complete concentration but is not so challenging as to cause frustration. In fact, lesson planning requires consideration of all the different stages of learning which might involve an element of ‘struggle’ with a new idea before the balance of challenge tips to a state of flow where the challenge feels intrinsically rewarding. A central aspect of why flow feels rewarding is that feedback is provided to gauge the effectiveness of your efforts. Think back to the example of climbing a mountain: we can feel the progress we are making, and all our energies lead us to our goal.

This leads me to a fundamental misconception about ‘independent learning’. Most people see it as a ‘good thing’ but without much thought as to what it is. It does not mean working on your own without supervision or a clear end point. Walking up a mountain would be pretty dire without a map or any sense of whether you would get there. It is also impossible to learn independently without being given the tools to do so. In the mountain analogy, this might be the specific footwear and other equipment; for learning, it is about having the skills in place to know how to structure an argument, to research and to reflect on what is working. In a DT project, it might be the knowledge of the design strategy, the understanding of how to use the equipment and the awareness of the correct materials to use. When the boys are learning independently, the teacher is their guide rather than their instructor. Here at Warwick the staff have all been trained in coaching strategies to ask skilful questions to allow pupils to reflect and refine their processes.

Metacognition has been a further focus of staff training. Staff at Warwick have been considering how to encourage boys to reflect more on their own learning processes. The fundamental principle of metacognition is being aware of the processes involved in learning and encouraging pupils to plan, monitor and evaluate their approaches to a task. The post exam period provides a particularly useful opportunity for boys to undertake independent projects and if boys are coming home saying that they are doing so, please don’t assume that this is the time when teachers are relaxing! This is where the boys are doing the vital work of setting goals and applying their skills to a clear end purpose

One of the most successful culminations of true independent learning is the EPQ and this year was another triumphant one with over 80 projects completed on topics ranging from the legacy of the Stephen Lawrence case to an investigation of whether driverless cars can be safe in traffic. To further develop these skills we have recently started the Year 9 Independent Project. For this task, the boys are able to drop an option that they are not intending to study for GCSE and write an essay on the subject of ‘Firsts’. The idea behind this project is that boys will be able to develop areas of personal interest whilst learning valuable research skills. As part of the project, the boys develop their ability to carefully select and critically evaluate sources and write a developed bibliography. The project is already in full swing and the topics look fascinating. Some of the topics chosen so far are: ‘How has the first mythology influenced world literature?’ and ‘Was the first female Prime Minister of the UK successful?’ as well as topics linked to the dropping of the first atomic bomb, the first artificial language and the first laws of robotics. As the boys refine their focus and begin their research journeys, we are all very excited to see what they produce. We hope that having chosen their own goal, they are “investing in it to the limits of their concentration” as Csikszentmihalyi described, and so enjoyment will necessarily follow.