UKEdMag: State of Independence by @BunsenLearner

State of Independence – Independent Learning, An Enquiry Approach

By Chris Bowstead – This article originally appeared in Issue 49 of the UKEd Magazine. Click here to view.

“Alright Year Eight, today we are looking to develop our independent learning skills. This is the plan. Each of you has a box. Inside the box, you have some objects. You have twenty minutes. Show me something interesting!”

One of my high needs science students puts his hand up. “Anything?”

“Yes, anything.”

“Does it have to be sciencey?”

“Nope. Off you go…”

My class of seven high needs behaviour students stare down at their box. Each contains a tea light, scales, and a match. They look at me, then back at the box, then at each other. No one wants to make the first move. One student turns on the scales. “What does overload mean?”

“It means you probably pressed the scales down so much they can’t weigh properly. That’s interesting – well done!”

The students all turn on their scales and do likewise as if to confirm my hypothesis. “The candle weighs twenty grams, sir!”

“That’s interesting.”

“Mine’s fifteen, sir!”

The students all weigh their candles and start comparing masses. One student lights his candle. The others take note and follow suit. “The wax goes hard when you pour it on the table, is that interesting?”

“Yes. Messy, but interesting.” The whole class decide to confirm this by pouring their molten wax over the desk. I’m not sure the cleaner will find it interesting…

There is an issue with developing independent learning skills with SEN learners. Part of the problem is the definition of independent learning – I have seen teachers give out worksheets for students to complete by themselves, in silence and call this a good demonstration of independent learning. I would argue that this is just the starting point. Independent learning should be about the student understanding of how they learn and how they should approach a given task, without being directly instructed. A nudge in the right direction with some well-thought questions can help. Open-ended enquiry tasks – ones with no specific outcome – are an excellent way of getting students to this. It can be as simple of giving students a set of equipment and asking them to investigate an idea, as opposed to giving them step-by-step instructions. It works best when students watch what their peers are doing and start to share good practice, changing their approach to the task to suit.

The vast majority of SEN students I have worked with – in mainstream schools and in special education – are not used to working independently. Not because they aren’t capable or too low ability, but because they simply haven’t been given the opportunity to develop the basic skills. The worst culprits seem to be some mainstream schools who use one-to-one support with a teaching assistant to support in particular SEMHD (social, emotional and mental health disability) students by where the TA sits and badgers the student to complete some simple comprehension work and acts as an emergency ejector seat if the student becomes unmanageable. The best practice I have seen is where schools work to integrate the students into the class and gradually reducing the time the TA spends supporting until both parties feel ready confident enough to work independently. Where success isn’t measured by how many worksheets the student completes by themselves, but by how many lessons they can access over time. The students can even start to reflect on their own learning and their own behaviour. How can they approach the task in a way that they can access the content but avoid a behaviour trigger?

With my Y8 class, I was trying to promote thinking and investigation without specific outcomes. In reality, I wanted them to put the lit candle on the scales and explain why the mass decreases, but with no help from me or a TA, they organically and independently came up with ideas that they shared and investigated as a group. It led to a discussion about properties of solids, liquids and gases – an outcome which I hadn’t planned for. I also discovered peeling seven candles worth of wax from a lab bench can be quite therapeutic.

Independent learning doesn’t mean a room full of students working by themselves. It should be about getting students to develop their line of investigation and building up their social skills to the point where they can confidently discuss their own ideas. And that’s interesting.


Chris @BunsenLearner is currently Head of Science at a SEMH secondary school that caters for young people with behavioural and mental health issues. He has worked in a number of secondary schools and academies in the North East of England over the past fifteen years. He believes that practical enquiry is for everyone.

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