the Dragonfly journal

Is this the End for Independent Learning?

By Ian Anderson - @IanAnd64

Those of us who long ago gave up butter for margarine, swapped delicious full-fat milk for watery alternatives and consigned the deep fat fryer to the loft might be forgiven for having a wry smile reading recent pronouncements from some ‘experts’ that saturated fat wasn’t the problem after all it was salt … or sugar … or processed food … or alcohol (except red wine) … etc … etc.

A similar feeling might have come over some when reading the latest comments made by the Head of Ofsted. Certain sections of the media leapt on his comments as evidence of a condemnation of ‘left learning progressive techniques’ and an impending return to an unremitting diet of the good old days of chalk and talk.  According to the same newspapers he vowed to ‘root out’ any inspectors that still backed ‘trendy, child centred’ teaching techniques.  Having worked in a number of challenging schools in various roles from classroom teacher to Headship (at my last count I have experienced eleven Ofsted inspections) I have met dozens of individual inspectors and cannot remember a single one making any effort to promote a particular teaching methodology.

On the contrary, we are consistently told that all that matters is that students make as much progress as possible. Recent years have seen this clarified to include all groups of students then individuals but the underlying message has always been the same that it is outcomes that count above everything else. I was playing golf last weekend and on one particularly difficult hole my opponent played beautifully, hitting the green with his first shot, rolling his putt up to six inches and knocking in the putt for par. I, on the other hand, left my tee shot in the heather, just managed to hack it out onto the green then holed a ridiculous putt that went as far sideways as it did forwards to match my opponent. As I smiled apologetically he simply said “Don’t worry Ian, there are no pictures on the scorecard” – I guess there are no pictures on the GCSE results either.

I am sure that the vast majority of us that either taught mathematics in the 80’s and early 90’s, or were at school during that time, will remember the SMP11-16 booklets or the SMILE resources.  These were typical of an approach to independent learning where students would work through the booklets at their own speed, mark their work then bring it out to the teacher who would tick it off on the recording sheet and give them the next booklet.

Teachers were largely relegated to the role of administrators and time keepers. When the Key Stage 3 strategy was first rolled out in the late 90’s, along with the phrase ‘Direct Interactive Teaching’ many of the booklets were consigned to the back of the store cupboard along with the slide rules and log tables (teachers never throw anything away do we?). The reason for mentioning these is that I was working in a maths department recently that was trying very hard to adopt a collaborative approach to planning. Staff would often sit together before school, during breaks and after school discussed ideas for how to approach a particularly topic. I noticed after a few of these sessions that one member of the team seemed to have more great ideas that anyone else and that many of them looked remarkably familiar. As we were walking along the corridor I asked him if he, by any chance, had a stock of SMP11-16 booklets in his room; he simply looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and grinned.

Where does this leave independent learning? For me independent learning is about providing students with learning experiences that reflect the real world. Problem solving activities that require advanced thought and planning, have a variety of methods of solution or might well have a number of different solutions that need to be evaluated.  Yes, skills acquisition is vital but we all know that students are much more likely to be well-motivated if they can see that they will be used for something that is relevant or interesting.

That is before we even begin to consider the other benefits such as perseverance, the ability to work in a group or the development of transferable skills that employers are crying out for. That is not to say this should be our only approach, there are still times when the “Copy the examples and do exercise 11b” is the most efficient and effective way for students to learn – but we wouldn’t do it all the time. I recently asked a friend and colleague of mine who happens to be an Ofsted inspector what view he would take of a lesson where students chanted in unison for 20 minutes then did an individual exercise based on what they had just done.  He looked at me a little sadly and said that “would be fine” – before adding, with a knowing wink, “provided that they all made expected progress!”.

So what can we conclude? To quote George Orwell is it a case of “Four legs good, two legs bad” and will it be the other way around next year? I prefer to return to my original analogy and refer you to my grandmother whose answer to everything was that “A bit of what you fancy does you good”.


The new secondary maths curriculum places much greater emphasis on developing students’ thinking skills, particularly in algebra. If you’re interested in going on one of my courses then why not take a look at the Dragonfly Training website, and in particular Creating Independent Learners Using Thinking Skills in Maths:

If you have any thoughts on this article, or would like to share your opinion then please feel free to comment below, or get in touch with us through Twitter @Dragonfly_Edu.