Oxford dictionary online version defines independent as:-
- not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence
- capable of thinking or acting for oneself
- not connected with another or with each other; separate
- free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority
I’d want to argue that, for me, independence is not a skill. It is more a point in time, with an accumulation of capabilities and competences. As we grow, live and learn, we develop capabilities and skills which, when practiced regularly allow a level of competence where they can be applied without support. We are independent in certain things. I’d still turn to an electrician or a mechanic, deferring to a higher competence, but I am happy with plumbing, as long as I remember to turn off the water first, or carpentry.
I don’t remember learning to walk and talk, but looking at black and white photos of myself, I must have learned to do the former quite early. I was in a better position to watch my own children as they first rolled around, doggy paddled, crawled, then hauled themselves up onto their legs, got stronger, then took first steps unaided. Their babbling became more defined by repetition, copying, more babbling (practice and rehearsal) to create sentences and framing ideas and, over time, independently generating talk. Then it might have been pleasant to have some quiet time!
On a recent visit to youngest grandchildren, including 3 yr old twins, while getting ready to go out, one of the twins collected her own shoes and coat and brought them to be put on with assistance, so demonstrating a level of independence, but also the current limits. Later in the day, the second twin demonstrated the ability to turn on dad’s smart phone and watch a cartoon, independently. Their brother, at six, has had his stabilisers taken off and can ride unaided. All are taking steps to independence. Independence in one’s own children can cause headaches, such as when they want to go out on their own and independent minded children can cause a few problems for parents!
As parents, we are continually looking for the milestones of childhood learning, celebrating the points where a child can do things for themselves, moving inexorably towards adulthood and real independence. Mind you, it can seem as if achieving full adulthood can be delayed for many. The bank of mum and dad is an active phenomenon in many households.
When applied to school, we can sometimes see different standards applied. The “delivery” of the curriculum is often cited as a reason why children cannot act independently, with some teachers arguing that children are never really independent. That may be true for a few, but majority must leave their time in education as independent beings.
The development of independence was a major factor in being able to run a Primary classroom in the early 1970s with 36-40 children in the class, no classroom assistant and no ICT support. Utilising an integrated day, groups would be engaged on different activities, embedded within the challenge would be an expectation of teacher demand, to be able to focus teacher time to specific groups. At this point, someone will want to argue that some children were not being “taught” directly. No they weren’t, but they will have been operating within their capabilities, using and applying what they could do, but also identifying the points where they needed support, guidance or direct teaching. Direct teaching did take place, as whole class, group based or as individuals, the latter, especially as individuals. Independence therefore, was a factor in differentiating activity. Independence, if used appropriately in a classroom, can significantly reduce the demand on the teacher. It can also, used wisely, add a dynamic to learning which has a wider impact.
An example would be setting up a science activity, with the skilled children working independently to set up a fair test, while less skilled learners would have some step by step guidance. The outcomes of the activities, in being discussed, especially with a focus on learning approaches, allows less skilled learners an insight into the thinking and capabilities of more able learners. I was often asked afterwards whether the guided group could do the independent activity. It was then possible to phrase the challenge in such a way that they could attempt it, asking for support when they needed it. In that way there was an incremental rise in independence levels. It was based on a simple model, applicable to every curriculum area- have a go, identify needs, address needs, practice and complete, evaluate.
Independence does not have to mean solitary. I’m not convinced that a class of children writing in silence is necessarily independent, as the level of control exerted by the teacher is great. It can be a test of independent skill or capability, but this might be a moot point. A collaborative group can be more independent than the constituent members, because of the collective capabilities, so the group supports peer learning.
My interview for headship was conducted by a panel of ten interviewers. It was the tenth interviewer, a parent Governor, who asked the following question, “If you were teaching science and particularly Newton’s Laws, to a group of primary school children, how would you approach the idea of knowledge?” We had an interesting exchange of views, within the interview, which lasted several minutes, much to the surprise and chagrin of the other interviewers. He had been playing devil’s advocate, as I discovered afterwards, when I was successful. The interviewer was a research scientist with the Admiralty Weapons Research Establishment.
The essence of my answer? Knowledge is what we know now. It is capable of alteration as new information emerges. We hold to certainties until they are challenged, but learners have to be able to ask questions and challenge all the time.
The reason I got the job was because I had showed an independence of spirit and thinking, which was the bedrock of my approach to teaching and learning. I wanted independent learners.