How can we enable meaningful independent learning?

Image by milos milosevic on Flickr

For the next two weeks I am ‘in the hotseat’ for a discussion on the National College online network around negotiated and child-led learning. The post below is to get things started, but discussion is the name of the game so come and join the debate.

To do so, register on the National College network here, then click here to go to the discussion.


“Mr Quinlan… can I show you something..?”

You don’t have to have been teaching long to have had one of those moments; when a pupil brings you something amazing they have done of their own accord. When left to their own devices children and young people can often come up with the most exciting examples of their learning.

It’s a great feeling, one which David Mitchell must have felt when his pupil Fern took the tool of blogging he had given her, and turned it on it’s head. Fern asked for her own blog. Her idea? A focused project where she would write a story a chapter at a time, inviting her readers to choose the path that the story would take next. After a firm introduction to the medium of blogging this child took control of the tool and did something incredible with it, viewed 1300 times by people from across the world.

A few weeks ago a group in my own class finished a unit of work on sentence writing, and asked if they could make a video. From what could have been an activity to ‘tread water’, these boys returned with an impressive series of videos demonstrating not only their mastery of the sentences, but a flair for dramatic story telling and a firm understanding of structuring a compelling serialised video.

From opportunities in school, to self initiated projects at home, these moments are magic. When children take control of their learning they often produce amazing results, crossing subject boundaries and demonstrating the sort of links between learning many teachers dream of seeing in lessons. Such moments are few and far between, happening only when the stars of a moment of inspiration and an afternoon at a loose end align. Too often, the imposing presence of ‘the curriculum’ and ‘the timetable’ only allow such things to happen by chance.

What if we concentrated teachers’ energies on making certain that these magic moments happened? Could we enable this amazing learning to happen on a regular basis?

It certainly requires a shift in thinking, but some teachers across the world are deciding that their job is no longer to tell young people what to learn, and more to guide them in their own learning. In Australia, Esme Capp has now lead two schools towards a ‘negotiated curriculum’, where it is the children who are driving the direction of their own learning. As the name suggests, this approach allows children to negotiate on a one to one level with their teacher on the content and direction of their learning. Starting in year 5 and 6, control was gradually filtered down until even the youngest children were given the reigns and invited to make their own interests central to their learning in school.

Inspired by this approach, I spent much of last year working on a similar concept of letting children take control during the first hour of every day. From experimenting with various models, I found it to be less about letting every child indulge their passions, and more about encouraging them to follow their own lines of inquiry influenced by these passions. After some development, I came to a model of using ‘provocations’ where the class would be presented with interesting media and asked where they would like to take it. From a video on the Great Fire of London we ended up with research projects on the modern fire brigade, construction of wooden houses, and one group attempting to make the cheese that Samuel Pepys famously buried in his garden.

Often in schools we offer children very limited choices in the name of personalisation, but the point of this was they had a real choice to direct their own learning. I didn’t pre-plan activities, or divide them up into neat groups. What happened was dictated by their interests, not a curriculum or a timetable. What followed were many of the magic moments that previously only happened by chance.

Much of this had nothing to do with the requirements of the National Curriculum for a History topic, but when pupils can Google the names of Henry VIII’s wives with a device in their pocket there seems little of value in making them complete a worksheet to put them in the right order in order to learn them. People can learn at an amazing pace when they are motivated by an authentic reason to do so and have the resources available to them. The reason they don’t in school is that there is no authenticity to tasks such as the ‘6 Wives’ worksheet. This is, of course, a facetious example- but can we really say that most of the tasks children are set in school are any more authentic or relevant to them?

On the other side of the coin, Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the wall’ experiments have shown that with the right resources, children don’t even need teachers to achieve the ‘standards’ the English system is so obsessed with. With nothing but a computer and an encouraging observer, Mitra demonstrated that Tamil speaking children could excel in a complex biotechnology test in English.

An accomplished learner, provided with the right environment to challenge them and given the responsibility to complete authentic tasks can achieve great things. What children need be successful in the world they will be going into is the skills to be make their own path, not to reach the same standard as everyone else. Uncertainty will be the name of the game in the working lives of our current generation of schoolchildren. It is already.

Why wait until they reach 18, or 21, why not let them follow their own paths as learners today? Why not make it our business to enable those magic moments of self directed learning to happen every day?

Please come and share your opinions and thoughts on the discussion at the National College.


11 responses to “How can we enable meaningful independent learning?”

  1. Claire Lotriet Avatar

    This is a really inspiring post, Oliver. Truly. I’m sat here left with the feeling of, ‘I want, no NEED, to make this possible in my classroom.’ In some way at least.

    The first thing I’m wondering is whether or not the ‘negotiated hour’ was a whole school thing or something you were developing independently in your class? And if your school is two or more form entry, was your year group partner(s) doing this as well? Anyway, I’m looking forward to following the debate and guess these are questions that might be answered there!

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for the support Claire. It means a lot that this has inspired you.

      The negotiated hour was across key stage one and two, but followed different models for different ages. We experimented with doing different projects across the year group, and at times we have both classes circulating between rooms. I have talked through the different models we tried in year four here:

      There are also a series of posts as I was developing my thinking on this last year here:

      Please do come and join the discussion. You have to register with your teacher number, but it is a site well worth looking at. There are already some interesting perspectives from secondary colleagues in the discussion.

  2. Brian Huxley Avatar

    Inspiring. I echo Claire’s sentiment in needing to make this happen. Big question is how? The question I am going to think about is: What stops us from doing this…what ‘gets in the way’?

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks Brian,

      Please do come and join the discussion on the College website. When I talk about this kind of learning people often reply with ‘Yes, but..’ and list the barriers. I think if we accept that this is far more powerful and desirable than other models we are using what we need to be saying is ‘Yes, and…‘- What do we need to do to enable this?

  3. Rachel Lloyd Avatar
    Rachel Lloyd

    Fantastic post Oliver and to reiterate the previous comments from Brian and Claire – how can I set this up in my classroom NOW?!

    Would you mind explaining a bit more about the provocations please? For example, how you use them to start these sessions off, possible sources and how long a typical theme runs for. Do you give the children ideas of potential research projects, or is as child-led as your post suggests?

    Sorry for all of the questions Oliver – this is a truly inspiring post that has left me feeling like ‘I want to give my children those opportunities too…’

    Thank you.

  4. Hannah Jones Avatar
    Hannah Jones

    I love the fact that you have been given a ‘hot seat’ Oliver, you are certainly making the most of it to inspire and provoke learning amongst grown-ups.
    I’ll be following the discussion with interest.
    Thank you

  5. Keith McNeill Avatar
    Keith McNeill

    Great to read these inspiring words Oliver. Sounds to me like you are on the right track indeed. There has been a lot of growth over here at Princes Hill since we were all doing the Warwick course. Once the term ends I’ll get to work on a blog post on this very topic and I’ll send you the link. Keith

  6. Mary Fraser Avatar
    Mary Fraser

    Just been introduced to your blog by a friend and I am enjoying the inspirational posts. Looking forward to reading more. Thanks Oliver.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for your comment Mary. Glad you have found the blog useful.

  7. Dustin Martin Avatar

    nice read. Bookmarking now

  8. […] in Birmingham schools, wondering whether it was the tools or the thinking that are most important. I continued to develop my thinking around independent learning, and was offered a new job at Plymouth […]

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