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Ofsted 2012: Independent learning

by FGTO on May 21, 2013

“A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to.”


“Not all aspects of learning, for example pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence, will be seen in a single observation.” – April 2013

This is the only reference to independent learning in the latest Ofsted schedule. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be encouraging students’ independence in their learning.
With the spiralling access to information, skills and experiences, and the level of instant global communication, I believe it would be irresponsible not to support learners to develop their abilities to learn rather than to be taught.

In the 2008 DCSF Independent learning literature review, the first key finding was, unsurprisingly that there are many definitions in operation regarding independent learning.

“There are a number of different terms used to describe independent learning, the most common being ‘self-regulated learning’. All these different terms describe very similar themes and processes, including pupils having an understanding of their learning; being motivated to take responsibility for their learning; and working with teachers to structure their learning environment.
There is a consensus in the literature that independent learning does not merely involve pupils working alone. The important role teachers can play in enabling and supporting independent learning is stressed.
There are a number of different ways of defining and describing independent learning, but not a shared understanding of how these different definitions and descriptions relate to one another. The literature works with different definitions and this may make it difficult for practitioners to find clear guidance.


Any reference to, or promotion of independent learning will need to be supported by a clear and consistent definition of independent learning. It may also be helpful within the definition to explain the relationship between independent learning and allied terms and concepts.”

Do we detect here a similar problem here to the one about judging creativity?
The problem for teachers here is that they are trying to accommodate not only a wide variety of definitions of independent learning, but the range of interpretations of senior managers, colleagues and oh yes….Ofsted inspectors.

(It wouldn’t be productive for me to re-purpose the review. If you’re looking to promote independence, then it’s worth a read.)

It is appropriate to acknowledge here that there is a flurry of discussion on the web at the moment about Ofsted inspectors favouring a particular style of teaching, and criticising teacher-led lessons. It’s true that lessons have been criticised for involving too much teacher-talk and not enough independent working for students, this could well indicate individual inspectors’ preferred method, but it could equally indicate that inspectors are finding it difficult to gauge whether students are learning if there is only a one-way flow of information. I would suggest that teachers look to what research into learning shows to be effective and that they vary their teaching approaches according to need.
After all – we teachers hate being talked at in training, and almost always say that the greatest benefits of courses are that they can share ideas and discuss practice with their peers.
Effective learners are able to adapt to a range of teaching styles and the appropriate style can vary according to the teacher, student and content. I would argue that to be able to learn independently is fundamental to a lifelong ability to adapt and to grow. I see the intention as being not for learners to merely teach themselves, but that they are able to research, reflect and evaluate their own learning in order to identify and seek the support they need to progress.

However, in an effort to maintain a practical rather than political tone to these posts, I would suggest that at the very least, the school should establish a common agreement on what is considered to be independent learning to be promoted in the school.
In this way, some semblance of consistency will be developed and teachers will have a basis for developing, evaluating and explaining practice.

All teachers know that independence doesn’t just happen. Learners need to be enabled to make the best use of independence, something which applies equally to teachers!
Common strategies throughout the school will enable learners to apply independent learning strategies consistently and ever more effectively.
The ability to work independently clearly takes time to develop.

Some key aspects of any definition of independence are:

  • Understanding what you are learning/expected to do
  • Choice
  • Reflection
  • Asking for appropriate support when needed
  • Research skills
  • Accountability

So, in order to develop the independence of your students, consider the following:

  • Are you sure they understand exactly what they are supposed to be learning?
  • Where is there a choice in how they are learning?
  • What choices and decisions are they being expected to make?
  • How are they being supported or prompted to make decisions? What decision-making strategies are they developing?
  • How are they prompted and supported to reflect on their learning and choices?
  • What research skills do they have/need to learn?
  • What mechanisms of accountability are in place? – Deadlines, responsibility to others etc.


Twenty things you might do to promote independence (in no particular order) :

  1. Make sure that success criteria are clear.
  2. Have examples of high level work available.
  3. Set clear deadlines
  4. Give students plenty of practice in “chunking” big tasks or projects
  5. Ensure that resources are easily accessible and clearly organised.
  6. Establish routines such as “Ask three other people before asking the teacher.”
  7. Set up “How-to” resources for frequently-asked questions.
  8. Ask questions such as “How do you think we can approach this task/problem?
  9. Encourage real dialogue by using high level questioning.
  10. Try to set tasks which have a real audience.
  11. Encourage students to evaluate resources
  12. Encourage students to share references and links to other resources they have found e.g. On a discussion board, class wiki or even…..a notice board!
  13. Encourage students to teach each other and to share their ways of working.
  14. Set homeworks that encourage students to collaborate.
  15. Model how you are learning – talk through your own experiences.
  16. Ask for student feedback on how you could improve the learning experiences.
  17. Don’t plan so tightly that there’s no room for flexibility.
  18. Encourage students to lead the learning.
  19. Have clear signage to resources such as pens, rulers and other equipment. (Especially important in secondary schools where students are moving from room to room.
  20. Encourage students to identify the successes of others and to celebrate them.



Lack of independence in the workplace often has a counterproductive effect.
I’m reminded of a sad day when I tried to order a bacon and cheese sandwich in a local cafe, only to be told that they didn’t do them, only bacon and cheese toasties which cost 50p more than their sandwich range.
Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime of debate, I asked for a toastie, but requested that it wasn’t actually toasted.
This was apparently allowed if I paid the extra 50p!

The reason for this scenario?
The till was labelled with the toastie price but not the sandwich, so “It couldn’t be done”
The assistant had no independence in her role to override what was clearly a crazy system.

Frequently I find similar situations where a waiter or assistant, upon receiving a complaint is only empowered to say “Sorry about that.”, but not to attempt to remedy or compensate for the situation.

Result? – disgruntled and probably lost customer, bad press from said customer, and employee feeling powerless, ineffective and demotivated.
Sadly, I frequently see a similar effect of past and current educational policy on teachers.

Are we allowed to do that?” are words that should send a chill through anyone’s spine.


The other posts in this series -




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