Last weekend #SLTchat was on fostering students’ independence. As you’d expect, there were lots of great suggestions shared, as well as some not so great ideas. One comment I tweeted in response to the idea that to promote independence we should get students learning independently got quite a lot of feedback:

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This seemed to really divide opinion; some people got upset with me, and some others agreed enthusiastically.

Having read Daisy Chistodoulou’s fabulously well-researched, cogently argued and clearly expressed eBook Seven Myths About Education, my thoughts on teacher talk and independent learning have started to coalesce.

On Tuesday this week I was training some particularly lovely teachers on embedding literacy across schools and we got into a great discussion about teacher talk and independent learning. Everyone ended up getting pretty angry about the fact that they feel forced to conceal their teaching of knowledge. We all know that sometimes students need us to explain new concepts if they are going to have any hope of understanding them. Equally, we all ‘know’ that Ofsted and SLT want to see independent learning and minimal teacher talk. If you’re unconvinced, have a read of this and this.

Daisy points out how ridiculous this is with particular reference to Ofsted’s critique of MFL lessons:

In nearly all these lessons, pupils are praised for knowing things and doing things spontaneously. The methods used to teach them are never mentioned; indeed, the impression we get is that they were never taught. Pupils are praised for having ‘took to spelling in French’. If it were really the case that they took spontaneously to spelling in French, why would such pupils need a school or a teacher? If, as I suspect, their ability to spell in French is actually down to teacher instruction and explanation that happened prior to the Ofsted inspection, then such descriptions are highly misleading and even dangerous.

The implication is that in good or outstanding lessons students will just know stuff. There should be no need for teachers to explain anything; if a teacher does explain something they are often criticised for talking too much. This insanity has led to teachers showcasing lessons which don’t require students to know anything outside of their own experiences. And this leads, inexorably, to stuff like writing persuasive letters to headteachers about school uniform. Teachers, especially in observed lessons, are unwilling to risk teaching students anything new because this would require them to speak for too long and wouldn’t demonstrate students’ ability to learn independently. If this is true, and instinctively, I think we know it is, Ofsted as an organisation is largely, if not entirely, responsible for the ‘dumbing down’ Michael Gove criticises schools for perpetrating.

Anyway, back to the literacy training. We were discussing the teaching & learning sequence for developing students’ academic language, used by Lee Donaghy at Parkview School in Birmingham.


I pointed out that stage 1 and 2 are very difficult, if not impossible, to properly accomplish without talking. Stage 1 requires teachers to explain a new concept clearly and precisely, providing subject specific vocabulary and structures. You could possibly use a text book or worksheets to do this but I doubt that Ofsted would approve of this approach any more than they would of the teacher having to talk. You can, in some circumstances use a jigsawing approach, but to do this too often is inefficient, open to students’ misunderstandings, and would soon become dull. How much easier would it be to simply skip this step and go straight to some independent learning about something your students already knew?

And then we have the modelling and deconstruction stage of the teaching cycle. Here the teacher will explicitly show the students how a text works within the domain they are studying. There are lots of ways to reverse engineer texts to show how they are structured and some of these can be done independently with students discovering the structures for themselves. But when I trained to be teacher the Teaching Sequence for Writing, which involves lots of deconstruction and modelling, was considered best practice. In this National Strategy document from 2008, teacher talk is held up as an essential component of teaching writing and is described as “the verbalisation of the reader and writer thought processes involved as the teacher is demonstrating, modelling and discussing”. It goes without saying that verbalisation is quite hard to do without talking.

The joint construction phase is all about scaffolding language and providing students with enough guidance for them to attempt a task successfully. We could at this stage just let them get on with it independently. They might, through a process of trial and error, be able get the hang of constructing an academic text. It’s more likely though that they will revert to using everyday, non-academic language and produce a response which is lacking in the qualities we look for in the most able. So, the problem in doing this is one of low aspirations for our students. Making them practice independently before they are clear on what to do runs the risk of encoding failure. Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. Without sufficient instruction from an expert, students will get good at doing tasks badly. And who, in their right mind wants that? That said, there’s a fair bit of scope for independent learning here and Ofsted might approve of a lesson at this stage of the cycle as long as the teacher was able to conceal the fact that at some stage they had to talk in order to explain the concept being studied, deconstruct examples and model expert processes.

Then, at stage four, students will be ready to work independently. If Ofsted came to observe a lesson at this stage of the cycle they might expect to see the students working in silence and the teacher with his feet up drinking coffee. Or even better, in my classroom they would find me working silently as well. As I’ve explained in the past, modelling every part of the process is important and I take care to write with my students at every available opportunity. This is true independence. This is what we teaching students to be able to do. We want them to have the confidence and ability to complete tasks by themselves without us there to nag and prompt them. It is, however, at complete odds with the nonsense that’s pedalled as ‘independent learning’ and is predicated on teacher being able to talk to their students.

Tom Sherrington wrote recently about observing teachers at his school and how single lesson observations are a poor way to judge a teacher’s quality. If you only ever saw teachers presiding over group work and independent learning this might a serious cause for concern. Likewise if you only ever saw a teacher engaging in direct instruction we would worry about students’ lack of opportunity to practise what they’d learned. Teaching through direct instruction and independence are part of the cycle. Trying to shoe-horn this cycle into a single lesson robs students of the time they need to develop their thinking and engage in extended practice.

This is all bound up with the myth that learning is neat and takes place conveniently in 50 minute or 1 hour chunks. It doesn’t. Teachers know this. We know, at certain stages in a topic, that we will want our students to do different things if they ever going to be independent. Sometimes this will require us talk, sometimes it won’t. But to expect every lesson to show evidence of independent learning is madness.

As Tom says:

If you drop in on a lesson that is part of a sequence, you need to ask some questions:

 – Where does the lesson fit into a sequence? Where are they along the arc?

– Is this learning activity compatible with an overall process that could lead to strong outcomes?

– Is it reasonable for progress to be evident within this lesson or might I need to see what happens over the next week or so?

– What general attitudes and dispositions are being modeled by teacher and students? Do they indicate positive learning-focused relationships compatible with an overall process that leads to strong outcomes?

– Does the record of work in books and folders, with the feedback dialogue alongside the work itself, tell a better story than the content of the one-off performance in front of you?

Independence is the end, not the means.

If we really want our students to be able to use language with facility, solve complex equations, and spell in French we need to avoid the pointless horror and inherent low expectations of ‘independent learning’ as a thing. Compelling teachers to talk less and facilitate students’ independent learning has the unfortunate consequence of making students less independent. If we really want to promote students’ independence we need to train teachers to model and explain more effectively and encourage them to practice these vital, and sadly neglected skills.

Related posts

Teacher talk: the missing link
Mind your language – a language based approach to pedagogy
The problem with progress Part 1: learning vs performance