The Holy Grail
For some, ‘independent learning’ is the holy grail of education. Teaching students how to learn by themselves, without the need for teachers, is what they believe schools should be aiming to do.
The principle that teachers should be aiming to do themselves out of a job isn’t a bad one. Nor is the idea that we want students to become less and less dependent on teachers as they learn. Where the concept of ‘independent learning’ goes wrong is when people start to talk about particular ‘independent learning skills’ that students can be taught. The theory goes that, once these skills have been acquired, students will be free of the need for teachers.
Sadly, students can’t be taught these skills, because they don’t exist. There are ‘study skills’ that students can be taught to help them learn on their own. However, ‘study skills’ are not ‘independent learning skills’. They complement students’ work with teachers, but don’t replace it. Students need both great study skills and great teachers.
The need for experts
The reason that students will always need teachers is because, by definition, students are novices and teachers are experts (certainly, we assume that they are). The best way for novices to learn is through ‘Specific Teaching’ approaches with experts. If we leave them to learn independently as novices, they won’t learn as well as they would have with an expert.
As with almost everything, we will always find the odd exception to this rule. There are a small minority of students who, in particular subjects, are able to learn well on their own, with little need for a teacher. However, this is very rare. The vast majority of students learn best according to the novice–expert principle.
From novice to expert
Through our teaching, we aim for students to become more and more expert in particular knowledge domains. Ultimately, we want them to become as expert as their teacher – if not more. It is at this point that they can be truly thought of as independent.
As they move from novice to expert, students should become less and less reliant on their teacher. The stabilisers can be removed, gradually. However, to achieve the independence we are aiming for, we mustn’t leave students to be independent on the journey. This is the great paradox of independent learning: the best way to achieve it is to not allow it to happen.1
Independent learning delusions
Not everyone understands this. There are some who believe that independent learning means minimising the role of the teacher at every stage in the learning process. For them, teacher-talk is bad; student-talk is good. Direct-interactive instruction is oppressive; discovery learning is liberating. Textbooks are old-fashioned; online research is the future. The irony is that all of this will actually make it less likely that students will ever become independent.
Confusing the ability to be independent with age
There are some who believe that as students get older, they should be left to be more independent in their learning. Mistakenly, they believe that independent learning skills develop with age. But, of course, they don’t. Whilst it is true that as children grow and develop they become increasingly independent in relation to particular practical things and in decision-making, the ability to learn independently is not so closely aligned to age.2
A sixteen-year-old student who knows very little about general relatively won’t necessarily be better at learning this independently than an eight- year-old student learning about air resistance. The difference between the sixteen-year-old and the eight-year-old is much more likely to relate to the complexity of what they are learning.
Even if the sixteen-year-old is more motivated to learn (which isn’t guaranteed) or has developed better study skills (that many haven’t), they will be as novice in the particular knowledge domain they are learning as the equivalent for the eight-year-old. Accordingly, both age groups will benefit significantly and equally from Specific Teaching approaches with a teacher. The teacher will help students to learn faster and better than they could have on their own.
Taken from The Teaching Delusion 2: Teaching Strikes Back by Bruce Robertson, published by John Catt Educational. Available at:
- Hendrick, C. and Macpherson, R. (2017) What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
- Kirschner, P.A. and Hendrick, C. (2020) How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice. Oxon: Routledge.Kirschner, P.A. and Hendrick, C. (2020) How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice. Oxon: Routledge.