Fostering Independence

‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.’ Albert Einstein

Independence comes from a mixture of motivation and confidence, the will to learn coupled with a belief that they can do it.  Curiosity is in effect intrinsic motivation*, the desire to acquire knowledge for no benefit other than knowing and the satisfaction that comes with learning.  Curiosity exists in many of our students but to varying degrees and it changes over time.  Intrinsic motivation has been proved to result in deeper longer lasting learning when compared to motivation that comes from outside the learner e.g. by needing to reach minimum course requirements as is often the case with formal education.  The question is how do we develop this curiosity and maintain that motivation for the duration of a course, especially given how much control the learner has over their study time when doing the online components of a blended course.

How to Foster Independence

Find out what your students’ interests are, long term and immediate and relate tasks to this.  Perhaps you could give them a standing homework assignment to think about each activity they do and relate it to their future practice or their entertainment.  ‘What will this particular task help you to do in the future?’  Maybe it will help them socialise at conferences or arrange meetings or perhaps it will help them understand the creations of their favourite musician or film producer that little bit better, or even shop online a little easier.

Students come to us with all sorts of insecurities.  Maybe they weren’t very good at English at school and their teacher was mean to them.  Maybe they’re good at Maths and they’re told that people who are good at Maths aren’t good at English.  Maybe they’re OK at English but just don’t know how to go about improving it.  Maybe they have improved but don’t know how to measure that improvement without resorting to an external test.  We as teachers have a vast array of tools at our disposal to bypass these obstacles.

Let’s start with the classroom.  Independent study is important here too so start giving the students choices.  This doesn’t need to be too radical at first.  Let them decide who goes first in pair work.  Get them to make decisions within tasks e.g. in small groups students tell each other about a place they’ve found out about and the group decide where to go on holiday together.  When students are working in pairs give them options.  For example, if there are 3 discussion questions in the book, ask them to choose which one to discuss and then compare with another pair to see if they chose the same question and what their opinions were.  Follow this up with a discussion on why they chose the question they chose.  You might discover more of their interests this way and it gives you the opportunity to boost their confidence by validating their decisions and reasoning,   Make sure they can justify any decision they make or any answer they give.  Ask them questions that will lead them to the answer, rather than telling them things.

This way you are helping them to develop critical thinking skills.  You are giving them bite sized opportunities for regular small successes.  All of this helps to change an unconfident mindset and because you are not telling them the answer but asking them questions until they find it themselves, they find belief in their linguistic abilities and value in the processes of heuristic learning* and empowering them to delve into the online components of the Touchstone Blended course and make decisions about what to review and how to approach the self study

Allowing this kind of independence in your classroom might seem daunting to you as well, as it might seem like you are giving up your prime position of authority in the room.  Rest assured that this is only a fleeting sensation as your presence as guide and facilitator is just as important as your role as ‘bearer of knowledge.’  As you experiment with letting go of some of the control, it might be an idea to write down your thoughts and impressions after class.  Just choose one group to write about and at the end of two weeks, read back over your notes and see how your feelings about this have changed.  I’m sure you’ll find that they have.  You might want to get your students to do this too!

Fostering independence is a huge topic and there are lots of different ways to approach it so I will be returning to this from the angles of different kinds of evaluation and assessment and looking at Web 2.0 tools.  In the meantime, what methods have you used in the past to get your students to behave more independently?  How do you think these will translate to your online experience with Touchstone Blended Learning?


*Intrinsic motivation – motivation that comes from within i.e. the desire to learn for the sake of learning.  In our context it means studying English in order to speak it well.

Extrinsic motivation – motivation that comes from external factors i.e. the necessity to study in order to pass an exam.  It could mean studying English because it’s part of the compulsory coursework (not very motivating) or studying English to be able to work for a prestigious multinational company (very motivating)

*Heuristic learning – a process by which we learn by finding out the ‘truth’ for ourselves.  The teacher’s job is to guide the way but the student must discover the knowledge