Why building the independent learning skills of pupils is crucial for Initial Teacher Trainees

5th July 2018 - Drew Rowlands

Initial Teacher Training is crucial, with many teachers carrying forward the teaching strategies they first learn through their whole career. In this blog, Drew Rowlands, a former Deputy Head and our Business Development Manager, looks at why initial teacher training needs to develop the independent learning skills of pupils.

There is no such thing as a ‘blank canvas’ when it comes to preparing trainee teachers for a life in the classroom. Invariably, they will begin their training with a view of teaching that has been imprinted on them by their experience of being a pupil. Either consciously or subconsciously they will emulate the practice of their own teachers, for better or for worse. At its best, this should involve developing pupils’ ability to work independently, think for themselves and inspire a love of learning.

However, given the narrowness of how success in education is currently judged, and the predominance of an ‘academic’ core and assessment system that is weighted towards written examination, pupils’ experience is too often associated with being taught to pass exams. There is therefore a real danger that our next generation of teachers will enter the profession unaware of what is really needed in order to prepare their pupils for the fluidity and increasing change that is taking place in our society. They will also potentially lack the tools needed to equip their charges with the skills they will need to address the challenges the world throws at them.

I consider myself to have been incredibly fortunate to have entered the profession with a blueprint of practice that enabled me to become an outstanding classroom practitioner. A blueprint very much built upon my experiences as a pupil and drawn particularly from the practice of my Drama teacher, Eileen Eaves. This diminutive woman had been a member of the Special Operations Executive during World War Two; dropped behind enemy lines, she fought with the resistance in France and played an integral role in the preparations for D-Day. She smuggled refugees across the Hungarian border when Russia occupied that country in 1956 and rubbed shoulders with theatre greats such as Bertolt Brecht and Lawrence Olivier. However, it was not her life story that had such an impact on my life, compelling as it was, but rather her ability to inspire in me, a love of learning and in particular, a passion for Drama and the arts.

2 children making art on the floor

Over the years I have often reflected on what mechanisms Mrs Eaves used to get through to me; after all I started out in her class as a 13 year old whose sole ambition was to join the army, or the police or any job that involved adventure and danger. Her methodology was overwhelmingly simple. She used games to illustrate learning; rooted learning in the language of theatre; framed learning through setting stimuli that was relevant, and then giving the class complete control over how they responded. If she ever did intervene, which was rare, she would ask a question that made you think, and invariably helped us to move on. She included the whole class in feedback when we shared our work, and always included identifying something that we might build on. This freedom to think for myself, play with ideas, experiment with form and fail often was what hooked me, and is what laid the foundations for my own practice over the next 30 years.

Obviously I have refined and developed my pedagogy based upon experience, research, study and reflection, but my belief in building pupils’ love of learning and their ability to learn independently is still the central tenet of what I believe to be effective practice. I believe it is the only approach that is truly sustainable in relation to improving standards, and crucial if we are to equip our young with the agile knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in the fluidity of both our society and economy. There is an emerging universal truth that the way we teach needs to change. The UK is near the top of league tables in relation to the use of rote memorisation as a means of teaching. As Andreas Schleicher, the head of education at The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argues

“Perhaps the most challenging dilemma for educators in the 21st century is that routine, rule-based knowledge, which is easiest to teach and to test, is also the easiest to digitise, automate and outsource.”

The OECD is strongly advocating curricula that integrates knowledge, across subject disciplines, with skills development. Andreas Schleicher, argues that the demands on learners and on education systems are evolving quickly. He says that, in the past, education was primarily about teaching people something. But now, he says, education should be “about making sure that students develop a reliable compass and the navigations skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world”. Robotics and automation are going to transform the way we work. We cannot simply carry on, carrying on.’

boy creating art on the floor

If those entering the profession in 2018 are to be properly prepared to take their place in this landscape they will need limitless resilience in order to withstand the pressure of curriculum models and in many cases, existing practice. They will need to think deeply about what it is that children and young people need to know, and be able to do, in a society that will change radically; for a future in which there will be few, if any, jobs for life.

This thinking has to involve the best ways to equip pupils with the skills that will enable them to make connections between wide ranging contexts, generate ideas that will drive novel solutions and build their capacity to think for themselves. If we continue to view the purpose of education as filling pupils up to the brim with knowledge, then we will let them down. A significant influencer of my own practice and thinking, and an organisation that has embraced the challenge of creating training packages that addresses these priorities is IVE (formerly CapeUK) who have been at the forefront of research and development around creativity and learning for the past 21 years. I am now fortunate enough to work for IVE and lead on delivering these solutions to Initial Teacher Trainees across the country.

Our growing Developing Independent Learners programme is a versatile professional development programme for cohorts of trainees that underpins outstanding classroom practice and builds the creative capacities and behaviours of the pupil, enabling them to think and learn for themselves across the curriculum. Participants gain an in-depth understanding of what creativity is, the constituent characteristics that make us creative, pedagogical approaches that underpin the development of independent skills in pupils and the role of teachers in promoting greater pupil agency.

Our approach uses fun, challenging activities to help teachers make new discoveries and open minds to ‘what if?’, ‘how can we…?’ and ‘let’s try this’.

Ultimately our participants learn to be comfortable with the creative process, astute in facilitating it to build the creative capacities of their pupils and confident in exploring new ideas which lead to innovation and success.

We can also offer a mechanism for participants to embed practice learned into their day to day routines. Our ‘Learning to Enquire’ approach to action research supports people to set themselves an enquiry question linked to what they have learned on the programme. They then embark on a piece of development within their classroom and reflect on the impact their learning has had. This is supported via face to face or online coaching/mentoring sessions from our team of IVE professionals.

If you would like to find out more then please visit our Developing Independent Learners page or email drew@weareive.org

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