Spring walk, North of Thakeham

This walk has beautiful views over rolling countryside, and the chance to visit two interesting Sussex churches.
We start at the car park by Thakeham village hall, and use the track and footpath to skirt the building site that will become Abingworth Meadows. Left over the first stile and follow the footpath along the hedge. The bank below the hedge is riddled with rabbit holes, luckily the spaniel does no more than push her head into each one, leaving a view of inverted backside and enthusiastically wagging tail.
At the end of the hedge turn left to climb steps and stile, and walk along the headland of a field that is usually planted with maize. Another stile and turn right down the hill, where the cows walk from meadows to milking parlour. At the end there are gates, turn left along the path. Through the gate and cross to the next field and footpath opposite, passing the cattlegrid on your left.
If you have never visited Thakeham church, some parts of which (nave and transept) are almost 900 years old, this is a good moment for a detour. Inside the church much of the woodwork is over 500 years old, look at the door to the tower. The font is even older. It is awe-inspiring to stand and sit where people have come to pray for so long. If you sit at the front and see a Tudor rose on your pew, you know that you are sitting on an Elizabethan pew that has been in continuous use since the time of Drake and Raleigh, Shakespeare and Spenser.
Back on track we cross a small meadow to another gate and stile. Then down into a dingle and swing to the right to cross on a footbridge. Up the other side and into a bluebell wood, and pheasant haunt. The path up through the copse leads to another stile, where the route lies along the top of a pasture that slopes down steeply to your left. The grass is cropped short at all times of year – if you walk this way at either end of the day you will disturb the rabbits as they graze.
It is a steep drop to the gate and stile that leads into the lane from Warminghurst church, and it can be very muddy. The track is a continuation of Park Lane, for many years there has been an occupied caravan beside this pretty path, I love the idea that the address would sound like an expensive property on the Monopoly board. The track crosses and re-crosses a stream, and there are small pools to either side. In one pool, catching the sunlight I see the first kingcups (marsh marigolds) of the year. Their bright yellow, appearing like the celandines before the buttercups and dandelions of later spring remind me a mistake I made nearly 50 years ago.
One early spring on our farm, our herdsman left, and I agreed to help out by feeding the young calves. They were fed with buckets of reconstituted milk, and most needed help to learn to drink from a bucket, you had to hold your hand in the milk and they would suck the liquid through your fingers. Their soft warm muzzles would push into your hand, the smell of milk, calf and clean straw was all around, it was a good start to the day. In those days Farmers’ Weekly had a magazine section at the back for farmers’ wives, with a letters page. I thought I’d earn some money by sending in a letter (Cleopatra kept her skin soft by bathing in asses’ milk, so why after feeding the calves for a week or two are my hands rough, red and raw?). I made two mistakes. One – they did not pay for published letters. Two – they published the author’s name. So at the next few Young Farmers’ meetings I had a lot of interest in my rough, red hands. But what shamed me were the letters forwarded from the magazine from several kind ladies, who told me various recipes with which to make hand cream. The one I remember involved heating up Vaseline and pressing buttercup petals into it. And now when I see a buttercup or kingcup’s bright gold I still feel guilt that my frivolous story was believed and brought such a generous kind response from these ladies.
Back in the present, after passing through another pheasant copse we reach Clay’s lane and turn left. This is a very quiet road, leading back to Thakeham Church, but after a few hundred yards, after passing buildings converted for commercial use we see a large white house on the right. The footpath gate leads us into the grounds where we turn left between the garden and the stables. For several years this part of the walk was even more charming, and sometimes exciting. Donkeys who liked to be greeted lived in the stable, the path then passed through a field of curious goats and ferocious geese. And while you were distracted by the donkeys three huge (were they St Bernard’s or Pyrenean mountain dogs?), immensely friendly dogs would rush up and put their paws on your shoulders. Sadly the family have moved away, so crossing what was the goose enclosure we pass through another gate and into the field beyond.
Up the slope to a curious small enclosure, stiles to enter and leave it. There is quite a deep pond (excellent for cleaning a very muddy spaniel, who jumps in and swims round) on your left – maybe that is why it is fenced. Up the next pasture, to the gate on the right of the recently restored building. Follow the track between the hedge and the copse but do not turn left, keep straight and turn right to cross the school playing field. Keep the hedge to your left and at the end walk down the steps into Thakeham Street. As we are not stopping at the White Lion pub we turn right and walk along the road until the footpath sign on our left, and follow the path that leads high above the B2139 initially, down to the road, and then back to the turn for the Village Hall.

Walk north

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A slippery walk through muddy lanes and footpaths as a wet winter turns into a soggy spring.

A slippery walkStarting from Thakeham Village Hall we can appreciate the size and scale of the building site that is turning the old mushroom farm into housing. The area is protected by tall security fencing. Inside the barrier huge, powerful machinery terraforms the landscape. Enormous earthbanks have appeared, and one giant uprooted tree stump sits incongruously on the grass. We turn our back to the work to pass through the cut, leading through the hedge and beside the stream to the road, and turn left. We walk less than a quarter of a mile to a flight of steps opposite the entrance to the Abingworth Hall Hotel.

The steps take us up onto a narrow footpath high above the Jacket’s Hill cutting, reputedly made by prisoners taken in the Napoleonic wars. Wild garlic leaves have appeared, and some bluebells, but no flowers yet, and the trees are still bare. We stumble single file over the tree roots, and turn right to walk between a garden fence and a hedge. At the end of the high fence there is a fine view of the South Downs to the left, over the horse paddocks. But there are still plenty of unexpected tree roots, and the narrow path is slippery and flooded in places, so we spend more time looking at our feet.

Pheasants are calling down to our left as we reach the end of the paddocks and go right through a gap in the hedge to continue West. There is an electric fence to regulate the cow pastures, and keep walkers to the path. It is clear today, but hard to see in dim light. At the end of the hedge to our left we continue along the ridgeway. With no shelter the wind is fierce, but there are good clear views to North and South. They show how wooded Sussex still is, I’m happy that now I can’t see houses for the trees.

Over the fields to cross a holloway, another North-South lane tramped deep below the level of surrounding fields by long-dead drovers. Over the stile opposite, more views of the Downs to the left, and a pheasant rearing copse to the right. Across a stubble field, and at the end of the copse a slide down a slip of a path to the next stile. Directly across the busy road is a short private road, after passing between a couple of houses there is another public road to cross, then climb a short house drive and over a stile to the right. Again a stubble field (last year this crop was maize) with hedges to our left at first, then the path is once more an open ridgeway, with more pheasants shrieking below us in copses to right and left.

A stile at the far side of the field leads into a path between dogproof fences, next to horse pastures, that leads down almost to Hurston Lane. We swing right at the bottom to go North along a bridle path, at first downhill between high banks, where the path becomes a stream, then through rough grassland before we reach Heather Lane. Right again here, with the woods on our left. We take a detour this time and loop through paths in the woods, around the fenced grazing area.

Snowdrops drooped prettily – to be admired not picked, my mother insists – bringing snowdrops into the house will bring news of a death. She feels the same about mixing red and white flowers. I begin to list the other superstitions my mother taught me. I pretend to laugh at them, but if I crash the car it will be because I am distracted, looking for a second magpie (one for sorrow, two for joy). I reflect that most of her sayings are warnings, all portents were ominous: If thirteen sit at the table one of them will die soon; don’t put (even new) shoes on the table, it’ll bring bad luck; if two knives cross their blades when you are laying the table, slide the bottom one out carefully or there will be a quarrel; stir with a knife, stir up strife. I start to hope a black cat will cross our path, it’s the only promise of good luck I can remember.

Back onto Heather Lane and along this private road to Monkmead Lane, which we cross to a narrow path beside a stream. There is no footpath sign, but a ‘clean up dogmess’ warning implies that dogs are exercised along the track, for the mess to be created, so presumably walking is permitted. The path curves sharply between the high fences of West Chiltington gardens and we reach the road called Common Hill. Today we turn left and follow the pavement uphill a couple of hundred yards to Crossways, which we follow until it reaches Lordings Lane where we turn right. But in this tangled warp and weft of private roads and footpaths we could have crossed directly into Fir Tree Lane, perhaps that route means further to walk along a public road (Roundabout Lane) without a footpath beside it.

At the end of Lordings Lane we turn right and cross over. Immediately, to the left of the opening into Threales Lane, there is a well-marked path through the woods. After a very muddy stretch the path takes us across more rough pasture, and then into High Bar Lane, which leads us back to our starting point – about 1 ½ hours after leaving it.

When I get home I admire the show of snowdrops in our own garden. Time to cast superstition behind me I decide. I need flowers for the house and pick a bunch, they look charming on the study desk. An hour or so later my 90 year-old mother phones. A friend has died, will I take her to the funeral?


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Roast Beetroot Soup

Ingredients: 4 medium beetroot, 1 onion, 1 garlic clove, 1 inch ginger root, olive oil, 1/2 teasp grated nutmeg, 1 small orange, generous teasp horseradish sauce, salt, pepper, sour cream/creme fraiche or yoghurt to finish

Makes 4 bowls soup.

  1. Roast beetroot for approx 1 hour at 180 C – until knife slides in easily.
  2. Peel and chop onion and fry gently in olive oil to soften, not colour.
  3. Add peeled chopped garlic.
  4. Peel and chop beetroot (large chunks are fine), with peeled and chopped ginger, add to pan.
  5. Grate and add nutmeg, add sprinkling of ground pepper.
  6. Add sufficient water to cover, simmer gently for 10 minutes.
  7. While simmering add orange zest and flesh (I used Seville).
  8. Stir in horseradish (creamed or sauce).
  9. Blend to smooth puree (I use handheld blender).
  10. Add more water to give cream consistency, season to taste.
  11. The flavour develops if left for a while before reheating.
  12. Serve with a garnish of sour cream to be traditional. I’ve used creme fraiche and Greek yoghourt at different times. Both worked well.

beetroot soup

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A teacher’s perspective on an IT manager’s role when supporting autonomous learning.

Autonomous Learning – the IT manager’s role in an educational establishment, from a teacher’s perspective.

Autonomous learning encourages students to acquire knowledge by their own efforts, and in the process develop skills in inquiry and critical evaluation. True independent learning requires that students have freedom of choice in determining both objectives and methods (supported by educational professionals) and places additional responsibility on the student for both achievement and value of goals.

In the twenty first century many of the study methods that students should be able to employ involve information technology. This puts a heavy burden on an IT department, with responsibilities to both teachers and students. The IT manager is also likely to be liaising with the institution’s librarian.

Students will need to be able to access resources, create work in different formats, and submit it to their teachers for checking. Teachers will need all of this, plus methods of giving feedback to students as they progress.

As many devices are probably going to require wireless access, adequate wifi coverage is a sine qua non. Different institutions will have different systems – some may rely on a simpler intranet while others have a full-scale virtual learning environment; in some places teachers use cloud systems such as Googledocs, Evernote or Showbie, in others student work is kept within the institution. I’ll try and describe what is needed, how it is provided will vary.

What sort of things will students need to be able to do? Searching the net for information is probably the first impulse of our students when they are faced with a research task. IT managers have a difficult balancing act, maintaining a firewall to protect young people, while allowing them the widest possible access. From a teacher’s perspective I would ask that the firewall should not be too rigid, so that if a student/teacher requests access to a barred site, then it is possible to create a path. My experience has been that if a student asks me, a teacher, to help them in such a situation, the need is usually valid. If students know any request will be checked before authorisation most will be deterred from improper requests.

Students will be encouraged to collaborate, and to review each other’s work. One solution might be a shared area for a class, maybe their own blog within an institution.  I have also used electronic post-it boards such as lino and padlet. Whatever the system it needs to be policed so that students do not abuse – the system, each other or anyone else. Some of the policing may be done by the class teacher, within an institution the need and responsibility for such policing must be understood and allocated, for everyone’s protection. (This ‘policing’ will fall within the whole institution policy for IT and social networking. Parents may need to be reassured that checks are in place).

How free students are, both to choose the device they use, and to choose the methods they employ, will be a matter for an institution to decide, and for teacher preference and judgement with particular tasks. However I should expect students to at least be able to create illustrated text documents, slide shows, annotated pictures, videos, mindmaps and create and analyse spreadsheets. They will also need to be able to collate their work, and to be able to combine formats in a single piece of work. I have found student ebook creation enables both tasks.

I think it is useful to insist on a protocol for submitted text and illustrations, so that they are saved and sent for feedback in PDF format and can thus be accessed on any device. IT managers may need to recommend slideshow and video formats, which will be handled successfully by your system. As an IT manager it may be useful to consider whether a school wide policy for submitted work may both allow students freedom to use their preferred app/programme initially and save later frustration. Storage of students’ work, and later access to it by teachers (including managers) and possibly students, plus storage of feedback as evidence of good practice must also be planned.

Training for teachers and students may be part of the IT manager’s remit – if not then whichever teacher is leading such training may need IT assistance on hand (I always did. And deeply appreciated help with the inevitable glitches with new, unfamiliar systems).

But the most important thing is cheerful reassurance and help for both students and teachers accessible by phone, email or a visit to the IT department. I was extremely lucky to have such support, and deeply appreciate it.

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Walking through Strawberry Lane

Strawberry Lane walk

Map – route takes 40 minutes approx.

I’m out with the spaniel as the sky begins to brighten. To the East across what was Thakeham playing field a wide, luminous deep pink band over the thinnest gold streak shines behind the treetops. The pink sky might warn shepherds to beware storms later, but for now it reveals a clear sky and we enjoy the moment.
The trees stand clear against the skyline. In early winter ash, beech and birch have lost nearly all their leaves, their silhouettes are sharp, jagged skeletons against the pale sky. Oaks still hold much of their foliage, their shapes are massive: solid looming shapes punctuating the branching outlines around them. The rustling quiet is interrupted as a ragged swirl of rooks rise cawing from their overnight perches. The spaniel pays close attention.
We turn right behind the old mushroom farm to climb onto the ridge. The path passes through dead seed heads of teasels and umbellifers. Earlier in the year (and later in the day) clouds of finches would rise from them as we walked, swirling and settling to feed behind us. Now the seed heads are plundered, sere and stark. Willowherb still stands, dry and pink in the early light. Onto the ridge and past the simple stone seat contributed in memory of Ben Richardson. To the South, the Downs are a grey-blue margin to the landscape, with deeper blue cloud resting on them, obscuring their heights. Maybe the shepherds’ storm will arrive sooner than we wish?
Down the other side of the ridge the maize field on the left has been cleared, no chance today of deer or rabbits bursting from its cover. If spaniels had better memories the dog might be disappointed, but as it is nothing seems to mar her joy as she hunts through the stubble rows, nose to the brown earth, looping to find and follow the scent of previous passers-by.
Through the cottages and left along the track, then North as we join Strawberry Lane. This is an ancient way. Thirty years ago, when we moved here, we were told it was an old coaching road, haunted (of course) by a headless coachman driving his horses along the muddy track. But this road was formed long before coach routes were thought of. It is a drovers’ track. Certainly dating back a thousand years, from when Anglo-Saxons drove their pigs from the Downlands Northwards into the oak forests of the Weald to feed on acorns. Very probably far older even than that, the practice was established before the Romans arrived. We tread a path written deep into the landscape by its users’ feet, re-written and reinforced over millennia.
The Lane is memorialised in song. The words and tune of the folksong can be found online in a collection made by Miriam Berg. It was recorded by the Copper family for the BBC and seems to be a variant of ‘Scarborough Fair’:
As I was walking up Strawberry Lane,
Oh, ev’ry rose grows merry and fine,
I chanced to meet with a pretty fair maid,
Who wanted to be a true lover of mine.
And on for many more verses.
The spaniel and I climb through fallen leaves, between high banks and tall trees. The patches on the spaniel’s coat echo the colours of the leaves through which she pushes. Whenever we walk in deciduous woodland I marvel that, even where oak trees are in the minority, underfoot fallen oak leaves predominate, outnumbering and swamping beech, birch, hazel and hawthorn. The leaves maintain their structure while those of other species rot and decay. Their tenacity reflects that of the oak tree itself. We salute an impressive upstanding specimen in our path, four feet in diameter. It’s a giant standing sturdy among the birches around it, who stretch seeming spindly in comparison, in competition to reach the light. Then we see a fallen companion, almost wrenched from the ground some years past, and still from the end of the oak tree’s horizontal body a few leaves have sprung and still cling to its branches’ tips. ‘Hearts of oak’ and stamina to match seem to be worthy aspirations, beyond jingoistic boasting. Gabriel Oak springs to mind, felled by circumstance but resurgent through patient tenacity.
Gabriel Oak’s disaster reminds me of impulsive dogs. The spaniel is delirious between rabbit holes, which perforate the banks, and blackbirds, who fly scolding from the brush and scrub as she plunges between them. She swings like a pendulum bob. First up through bracken and briars to the rim of the lane’s declivity on one side, then the dog dives headlong back down through the scrub to bounce at the path and surge up the opposite slope. A startled blackbird leads her along the track ahead of me and out of sight round the bend. After a moment I whistle, and after two or three more she returns; seeming more greyhound than spaniel as she races, apart from the butterfly ears that spread wide on each side of her head.
At the top of Strawberry Lane, just before the old route has been detoured so it no longer goes through the farmyard, there’s a quagmire. A small wash of water over deep mud. It is possible to walk round it, but not if you are a thirsty spaniel. Lapping and gulping the clean(ish) water in front of her the dog wades through the morass, leaving a wake of mirk and mud suspension. She emerges with sticky black legs and belly.
We choose to walk back along the shorter field paths to the playing fields, rather than through the village. Breakfast is calling. If spaniels lack some long term recall, they also miss long term foreboding. I know I’ll be cleaning dog, shower room and then myself before I’ll taste that breakfast coffee. Later, if the shepherds’ storm holds off, I’ll tackle some of the fallen oak leaves that threaten to bury our garden.

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Hasselback Potatoes

I used Charlotte potatoes and olive oil. The useful trick (thank you Waitrose magazine I think) was to put raw potatoes between two wooden chopsticks then make the ‘toastrack’ slices. Avoided accidentally chopping right through. Did this several hours ahead and left them soaking in cold water. Put in pieces of bay leaf, another time might add garlic slivers and or rosemary.

This was part of a Christmas Eve dinner, went with baked ham, baked red cabbage, cranberry sauce, green beans. The potatoes roasted, basting two or three times, (no pre-cooking) in a hot fan oven (200 C) for 30 minutes while the meat rested – would have been better if I’d rotated the pan halfway through.

Hasselback potatoes

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Autonomous, Independent Learning

This is an analysis of autonomous, student-led, project-based education. The first section looks at definitions, and then the evidence behind the claims for its efficacy. The next section considers what prevents the use of independent learning methods, finally I list skills that need to be taught for students to become successful independent learners, and suggest resources that may be useful.

What is independent learning?

Many prefer the phrase ‘self-directed’ learning, the term ‘heutagogy’ is also used as a contrast to (e.g.) pedagogy.  One attempt at a definition might be it is a process, method and philosophy of education where students acquire knowledge by their own efforts, and in the process develop skills in inquiry and critical evaluation. True independent learning requires freedom of choice in determining both objectives and methods (supported by educational professionals) and places additional responsibility on the student for both achievement and value of goals (after Candy (1991) quoting Forster (1972)). Terry Heick (2015) has a useful comparison chart between teacher centred, student-centred and self-directed teaching/learning.

Why should everyone become an independent learner?

Because what we need during our lives will change beyond what is formally taught when we are young, and being able to learn from resources that we can find will enable us to stay independent and take a full part in society. I learned about electronics with thermionic valves at school (late 60s), was taught a bit about transistors at university (70s), and had to teach myself about integrated circuits so I could teach op-amp circuits (80s and 90s). This century when I was given an iPad at college, I went on line and learned how to use different apps from young American teenagers, who seemed to spend their time making ‘how-to’ videos and posting them on YouTube. Being an autodidact is both easier and more necessary in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

We live in a society with easy access to more knowledge and culture than at any time in human history, and if we choose to learn and think critically about whatever intrigues us, not only will we become more fulfilled and creative, but also with our individual unique mixture of experience and knowledge we may produce previously unobserved insights as one area illuminates another.

David Hansen (2002) has written that Dewey believed that individuals both lost and found themselves in what they chose to study. And Liem and Martin (2011) wrote that, “Being an engaged learner is addictive”. What greater present can we make to students than to give them the opportunity to become motivated learners with academic mindsets?

Enough of the polemic, practical learning aims:

Meyer et al (2008) claim the benefits of self –directed learning include:  improved academic performance; increased motivation and confidence; greater student awareness of their limitations and their ability to manage them; enabling teachers to provide differentiated tasks for students; and fostering social inclusion by countering alienation as benefits of students becoming independent learners. Hase (2013) claims that cognitive science supports student centred, self-determined learning as more effective, and further invokes constructivist ideas such as students only learn new ideas thoroughly when challenged to re-evaluate previous beliefs and re-construct their understanding. The contents pages of the book he and Kenyon (2013) have edited lists articles describing and analysing the use of self-determined learning in both academic and vocational contexts.

In its insistence on the removal of responsibility from teacher to learner, and the subsequent requirement for the student to consider her or his strategies and tactics, independent learning certainly requires students to ‘think hard’. And as Professor Robert Coe, has said more than once (e.g. 2015) “Learning happens when people have to think hard”. Professor Coe is rigorous in requiring evidence to support claims for any educational technique, (Coe, 2013) so we may be confident that self-directed learning can improve academic performance.

As students take responsibility for their own learning, they will gain awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. So active learning should increase metacognition. The subsequent  ‘ability to manage’ links to Carol Dweck’s idea of ‘growth mindset’ (e.g. Dweck, 1999 and 2008), and then to students’ capabilities to coach themselves through difficulties and develop ‘grit’, (Martinez, 2006).

In contrast, to complete this survey of the advantages of active learning, I include an impressive list of the disadvantages of ‘passive learning’, produced by Peters (2011). He identifies the following:

  1. Limited knowledge of examples of applications of what is learned
  2. Few links to pre-existing knowledge
  3. Smaller likelihood of long term recall
  4. Exams results do not differentiate between deep understanding and rote application of learned examples
  5. Faculty takes responsibility for learning process rather than students – instructor-dependant rather than self-dependant leading to
  6. Learned dependency – students reluctant to take on other methods of learning

So if self-directed, independent learning is the most effective way for people to learn, why isn’t that what we do most of the time in schools and colleges?

I think my most frequent excuses would have involved phrases like ‘time pressure’, ‘department Schemes of Work’, ‘the need to complete the specification’. The ofte irresistible temptation is to give summary notes, supported by (of course) perfectly clear explanations and then to practise likely examination questions. Particularly for students facing external examinations, and in a school/college culture where such preparation is the norm. Indeed, I found that even small variations to the traditional didactic pattern, for example different note taking techniques or students working in unfamiliar groups, met resistance from students until they were convinced of the methods’ validity; both by my sharing educational research findings and their own experience.

Peters (2011) found the same obstacles to student centred, self-directed learning:  ‘Although active learning strategies are the most effective means for promoting deep learning and understanding, implementation is impeded by student and faculty preferences for stimulus-response learning.’ He was writing about study for masters’ degrees, but I think the argument has validity at all stages in education. As teachers we are accountable, whatever the age of our students we feel must cover material to give students their best chance to get the best grades, and to progress to the ‘next level’. Both students and teachers like certainty (Frambach et al, 2012, discussing culture challenging self-directed learning in medical education).

Peters warns that if active learning tasks are simply an ‘add on’ to a course (a “thin veneer” to otherwise passive techniques such as learning notes and examples from the lecturer) then they will lack credibility for students. He quotes Burchfield and Sappington (2000) – the majority of undergraduates and 1/3 post grads do not read assigned materials, especially if they are set as extension work rather than pre-reading for a course. Active learning techniques can all too easily be subverted by a teacher, for example if despite class discussion, an instructor indicates that when it comes to the examination there is only one correct answer (Peters, op cit).

Additionally in some cultures there is a problem if the hierarchical structure is challenged (Frambach, et al, 2012). A teacher may fear loss of status and control if students have more autonomy. And if students are insufficiently prepared for taking responsibility they may resent the lack of teacher guidance. Parents may question teachers who depart from what they expect.

Teachers often fear that students will learn less effectively if their learning is self-directed. There are two effects to consider here. First is that independent learning skills need to be taught, FOFO has never been an acceptable teaching strategy. Stel (2011) commented on the limited understanding of teachers of metacognition. She and her co-authors found teachers often believed all that was required for students were tips for learning, and that higher order reflexive skills were appropriate only for the most able students.

Secondly, teachers’ views that students will not (rather than cannot) learn independently may be based on their own experience with adolescent students. Students’ academic progress is often not linear. Although metacognitive skills broadly increase from age 12 to 22, Stel (op cit.) found discontinuities occur, notably between age 14 and 15. Subsequently Veenman (2014) claimed that in students younger than 14 metacognitive skills tended to be subject specific, and there was little transference. Stel wrote that many students make a leap in using metacognitive skills (eg for problem solving, text studying) which sadly could be backwards or forwards. Fluctuations were the norm, so that for 14 year olds she found no correlation between use of metacognitive skills and effective learning. Stel also claimed that in this age range acceleration and ceiling hypotheses both break down. BUT she found that generalisation of metacognitive skills did broadly increase over the secondary schooling age range.

Finally, as Peters (op cit) has pointed out, another reason that passive learning techniques are popular is that they involve less work for both students and teachers. It is easier for teachers to recycle a course where all the information is included. Easier to mark assignments where answers are just right or wrong. And easier to stay in the familiar groove of didactic practice, than to risk change.

How can we overcome the obstacles to teaching students to become independent learners?

Within a teaching institution there may be a ‘climate’ that is resistant or even hostile to non-traditional learning approaches.  It is difficult for an individual teacher to overcome institution barriers. Sharing research findings, sharing examples of good practice with colleagues (and management and parents), paired observations are all useful tactics. Interested teachers can join and set up discussion groups – both physical and electronic. There are many on-line, Twitter is a useful source (for example @teachThought, look for Terry Heick).

Student engagement is vital for students to be willing to invest the energy and effort needed for independent learning. Two factors are identified as important by many authors: authenticity and relevance of what is studied, and taught metacognition so that students can appreciate their progress. ‘PBL’ (project based learning) is a process wherein both these factors can be addressed.

There seems to be agreement that ‘Project’ or ‘Problem’ based learning is an appropriate method to both engage students and help them develop independent learning skills. My understanding of the difference between them is that ‘projects’ are more open and last longer than ‘problems’. Thus a problem based task might be useful to teach a particular skill. Problem based tasks may be appropriate preparation for true Project Based Learning (PBL), (see Barron et al, 1998). A search on JSTOR (October 2015) reveals something like 7800 articles relating to problem based learning, written from educational, psychological and subject specific standpoints.  In addition to academic research that demonstrates PBL promotes effective learning (references as for independent learning) there are endorsements and useful materials from education professionals – particularly in the US and Australia (see for example ‘Learning Frontiers’ and articles by Terry Heick in ‘Professional References’ at end of paper).

Learning Frontiers, Insights and Ideas 1 (op cit) claims, “Engaging learning is connected and integrated,” and gives supporting examples. Issue 2 develops the idea of relevance to the real world and lists three attributes of successful projects:  real world relevant (students should be able to answer ‘Why are we doing this?’), confidence-building (project has value, meaning), rigour (output meets real world standards). In 2011 Deakin Crick and his colleagues surveyed student engagement in Bristol schools involved in an initiative called ‘Learning Futures’. They found a depressing decrease in engagement with age. They linked this to student resentment that school did not help a student to become the person s/he wanted to be and student belief that the teaching was not relevant to the students’ future. In significant agreement with the views expressed in Learning Frontiers, the authors concluded that for successful student engagement students needed real world learning experience with relevance and rigour and which was confidence building.

The benefits of taught metacognition have been touched upon earlier, and methods and resources will be described in the last section. Here it is maybe sufficient to say that Crick and his co-authors listed as a factor that prevented student engagement, “Students did not know what good learning looked like.” An awareness of metacognition can enable students to monitor and appreciate their progress, and to understand why they should expect to experience some difficulties. Effective feedback for both independent and traditional learners should not be forgotten, as a means for both helping students understand where they are, and how to move on (reference for importance of effective feedback: Hattie (2008)). The Higher Education Academy booklet ‘independent learning’ discusses how important it is to reach an understanding with students over what is expected from them as ‘independent learners’ and what support there will be for the students.


What should students be taught to help them become independent learners?

Here I’ve listed skills, and techniques that may be helpful for each one. There are also comments to justify the inclusion of different skills, and links to where more information can be found. Many techniques overlap – for example ‘working collaboratively’ requires ‘communication skills’.

Skill Comments/Justification Useful Techniques
Work collaboratively Students make more progress if they can access the ‘zone of proximal development’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

More theory and practical examples from Saul McLeod in Simply Psychology


One of the ‘4C’s – (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking),  identified as essential skills (National Educational Association, 2011)

Group work techniques (from Global Digital Citizen Foundation, 5 Sept 2015, Open Colleges 8 November 2012, TeachThought 23 Sept 2014,edSurge 30 April 2015)

1.          Group goals

2.          Groups 4 to 5, mixed aptitude. Rotate group composition, equal nos. m and f. Establish respect for varied viewpoints.

3.          Establish flexible group norms (for interactions, negotiation, humour)

4.          Build open communication within groups (academic and emotional)

5.          Large tasks – have group roles, anyway shared leadership/responsibility. More guidance at start (scaffolding).

6.          Include learning process as part of assessment

7.          Allow time for individuality and avoid group think

8.          Moveable furniture – be flexible about your space

9.          Group work arrangements:

(1)    Expert groups (called ‘jigsaw’ by Clifford)

(2)    Clusters

(3)    Buzz groups

(4)    Round robin

(5)    Goldfish bowl

10.      Sharing ideas:

(1)    Padlet or lino (to replace actual ‘stickies’)

(2)    Mindmap apps

(3)    Blog  e.g. with Blogger – teacher reads all student posts

(4)    Google docs/drive, evernote

(5)    Social media (with monitoring)


Metacognition Education endowment foundation, working with Univ of Portsmouth, ‘Changing Mindsets’ found that developing a growth mindset in year 5 students increased learning – just below statistically significant %.


AQA Extended project specification requires students to “develop and improve their own learning and performance as critical, reflective and independent students”.


Martinez (2006) relates metacognition to critical thinking: Metacognition can be seen as evaluation turned inward, especially turned toward our own ideas. He further points out that evaluation is at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy of skills, and relates that Vygotsky taught that the skill of evaluative thinking was developed through group discourse.

Metacognition, particularly ‘growth mindset ‘ ideas can help students develop ‘grit’. “With enough effort I can learn this.” (Martinez, 2006)

Teach brain structure and link to growth mindset

1.       Intro for students: Khan academy on You Tube ‘You can learn anything’ , ‘How the Brain works’ and others by Sentis on You Tube – very basic intro, (thanks to Hannah Learns blog for these)

2.       TED talk Josh Kaufman The first 20 hours – how to learn anything. Persuade our students they want to be learning junkies!

3.       Carol Dweck Growth mindset  – longer TED talk – just the intro for students, or Khan academy for 3 minute version. Dweck (2008) claims  increased challenge seeking, conscientiousness, sociability, and resilience in those with growth mindset.

4.       Extracts from Benedict Carey’s “how we learn: the surprising truth about when where and why it happens”, extracts available via e.g. Edutopia website, kQED News, gives techniques and some brain science behind them.

Bonds and Peach (1992) quote Spring (1985) and state that metacognitive strategies should be taught explicitly by

5.       (i) planning the strategy to be learned, (ii) modelling of the strategy by the teacher, (iii) guided practice while the teacher monitors the students, and (iv) feedback to the student from the teacher and classmates

The following are based on a list of ideas from Marilyn Price Mitchell 7 April 2015 writing for Edutopia

6.       Practise identifying what is not understood

7.       Provide opportunities to reflect on cognitive growth e.g. Before this course I thought … now …

8.       Students keep learning journals (link to blogs in collaborative, or any format student chooses, e.g. an ebook to collate multimedia material).

9.       Wrappers – before activity describe key skill points – eg listening skills or notetaking skills. After ask students for 3 key points, then let them self check if theirs’ agree with yours. (me – or maybe rest of class!).

10.   Use essay v multichoice tests if possible – students use higher level thinking to prepare for essay tests.

11.   Facilitate reflexive thinking that addresses stereotypes, biases, prejudices.


Critical Thinking Another of the ‘four Cs’, (National Educational Association, 2011).


AQA EPQ specification requires students to  ‘extend their planning, research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and presentation skills’

1. Jennifer Kabaker (5 June 2015), via Edutopia, quotes ideas from the Deeper Learning Framework, developed by William and Flora Hewlett foundation.

2. Resources ranging from Bloom’s taxonomy verbs to using sticky notes at Teach Thought website.

3. Useful list of ideas at http://www.edutopia.org/search-results?search=critical%20thinking

4.  Many You Tube videos e.g. ‘how to teach critical thinking’ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-wpp64brLk , Thoughtful Learning, 2014.

Creativity Another of the ‘four Cs’, (National Educational Association, 2011).


AQA EPQ specification requires students to

‘develop and apply skills creatively, demonstrating initiative and enterprise’


Ken Robinson (2006) ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ (TED talk)


1.    Many ideas on TeachThought and Edutopia websites.

2.    Project based learning sites (Learning Frontiers, Powerful Learning Practice, Buck Institute), listed in professional references – all have specific suggestions.

3.    Many practical ideas and thought producing comments if you type ‘teach creativity’ on Twitter search.


Research Skills

(includes critical thinking!)

AQA EPQ specification requires students to

‘extend their planning, research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and presentation skills’


BBC keyskills  website Says students should develop ‘research skills including the ability to search for and identify suitable sources of information in the chosen subject area’, and understand ‘the format and structure of accepted academic forms of research report’  and ‘referencing, the evaluation of sources and the prevention of plagiarism’.


Susan Land, (2000), found that young students were poor at formulating search engine questions – often their focus was driven by initial results.


1.       Dorothy Mikuska, (2015), 8 reasons why students should still write research papers

2.       BBC website on keyskills at http://www.bbc.co.uk/keyskills/extra/module2/1.shtml has useful tips in student friendly language.

3.       Research skills required by PhD students according to UKRC (2010), webpage produced by Cloudscapes – useful list if aiming high!

4.       YouTube videos on how to do internet searches, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJQo_pw74ZY

5.     Resources for school librarians website at http://www.sldirectory.com/libsf/resf/libplans.html  – lessons on searching, how indexing systems work, plagiarism etc.

6.       Staffordshire University have a good guide to Harvard referencing on the internet.

7.       Many free referencing websites eg http://www.neilstoolbox.com/bibliography-creator/

8.       Martinez (op cit) points out that metacognition skills are involved for students to assess whether they understand material they have found. Bond, Bonds and Peach (op cit) say that metacognition skills help students to interrogate material with questions such as: “: 1. What is the main idea of this selection? 2. How many supporting details are there? 3. What are the supporting details? 4. Are there examples to help clarify the main idea? 5. What are the important dates, places, names, or terminology I should recall?”

9.       Concept maps, mind map apps such as ‘popplet’

10.   Provide (links to) relevant evidence from primary and scholarly sources


Communication Another of the ‘four Cs’, (National Educational Association, 2011).


AQA EPQ specification requires students to

‘extend their planning, research, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and presentation skills’


BBC keyskills  website says students should develop ICT skills that will enhance the production of the report and/or the development of the project and presentation skills



1.       Using technology: making ebooks using (eg) creative book builder or book creator, making videos using (eg) Explain Everything or Smoovie, Animoto, making slide shows.

2.       Sharing info and ideas with other students – presentations, blogging, noticeboards – real or virtual such as Padlet or Lino. Using social media (with monitoring)

3.       Producing their own, reading and criticising each other’s draft reports.

4.       Loads of ideas on web, YouTube, Ted Talks.

Decision-making and problem- solving skills AQA EPQ specification requires students to

develop and apply decision-making and problem- solving skills


BBC keyskills  website says students should develop project management skills including time, resource and task management


1.    Project based learning sites (Learning Frontiers, Powerful Learning Practice, Buck Institute), listed in professional references – all have suggestions for problem topics and ways to approach them.

2.    Vygotsky’s theory of ZPD (see collaborative work above) suggests students can improve their problem solving ability when they collaborate.

3.    Authors agree that students are better motivated when the problems posed are real world, that the students deem relevant to themselves.

4.    Critical thinking skills can help students with decision making.

5.    Many ‘time management skills’ summaries available on web. Students should be encouraged to use planners – paper and/or electronic.


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