Independent Learning: A Prerequisite to Educational Change
by Leslie Bowman ("Sunnie")
Traditional education is on the brink of tremendous change and the imminent upheaval has already begun to change the current beliefs about how people learn. The very nature of learning is just now beginning to be not only understood, but also incorporated into new strategies of teaching that facilitate effective learning of all ages of people throughout entire lifetimes.
One of the major driving forces behind educational change is technology. Technology allows learning to leave the classrooms and schools. Technology allows learning to become independent of time and distance. Technology allows students to become lifelong learners by giving them choices and control over the direction of their learning. This, in turn, leads to motivation for further discovery and learning on the part of the learner. The end result is a society of learners that spans the ages from 2 to 102.
Learning need never end as technology opens up windows of opportunity never before seen in educational trends. Learners will become independent and will not need to be "led" by teachers. Contrary to what some believe, learning does not happen in isolation. Independent learning requires collaboration and socialization. This, too, is fueled by technology. Look at our own colleagues here at Teachers.net -- how far and wide we span the globe. We learn from each other and this would not be possible without technology.
How can we deny students the same benefits of learning that we experience in our own adult learning community? Technology will allow education to move from the classroom and the school buildings into the real world. Rather than cause isolation, removing learning from the confines of the classroom will actually facilitate greater collaboration in learning. This will satisfy the need for socialization among learners much more than is possible with the lesser number of students one finds in a "walled" classroom. The opportunity for socialization and learning through technology far outreaches the opportunities in a classroom, school building, or campus.
In order to implement effective learning on this magnitude, students must become independent learners. To understand how independent learning has such as impact on the success of the future of education, one must first know exactly what "independent" means. Does it mean that students learn completely on their own, without interaction among classmates or teachers? Certainly not; students cannot learn in a vacuum. Independent learning means that responsibility for learning is transferred from teacher to student in a progression that begins in elementary school until, by high school age, students are capable of directing their own learning within the scope of defined subject areas. "Independence is a relative state. Independent learning is a cyclical process, whereby students learn a skill at one level, then use the skill to learn other skills or content, repeating the cycle many times over. This process is related to the developmental level of the student, the requirements of the material and the effective transition from learning a skill to using the skill to learn." (Regina, Ch.VII).
The days of "teacher in control of learning " are long over. Teachers can no longer feed information to students sitting quietly and neatly in rows within the four walls of a classroom. With the vast amount of information available through technology, it is impossible to know it all, much less "teach" it all. To retain the belief that teachers can "grade" learning acquisition is ludicrous. The most that we can do to facilitate effective learning is to teach our students how to learn, guide them in appropriate directions, and turn over responsibility and control of that learning to the students. Learning is no longer just about simple facts and information. Learning is about acquisition and application of information and knowledge into real world experiences.
The learning cycle begins with a simple question or topic. Each student has some knowledge or experience on that topic. Students share what they already know with each other and thus each student then knows more than s/he did when the question was originally asked. From that point on, each student locates more information about that topic. Each student’s research leads in a different direction from the others and requires critical evaluation of the validity and relevance of that information before sharing with others. The next step in the progression is discussion, evaluation, debate, more questions, locating and sharing even more information, and so the cycle goes. At some point, the learning will leave the classroom and ascend into the real world. Perhaps students will visit a business or museum. Perhaps the students will communicate with other students across the world who are studying the same topic. The point is that the students are making choices, taking control over their learning, and are becoming motivated to learn more about the topic in the process.
This is, of course, a very simplified version of what goes on in the process of independent learning. And where is the teacher in this process? The teacher is not assigning reading, quizzes, tests, or research papers. The teacher is not lecturing in front of the class or moderating "cooperative learning groups." The teacher is not trying to work with individuals and groups and manage classroom behavior all at the same time. Instead, the teacher is guiding research efforts, assisting in evaluating resources and information, guiding discussions, and continuously assessing the learning that is taking place.
This is independent learning. This is effective learning. This is the direction in which educational change is going at this very moment. This means that we, as teachers, must redefine our roles in the learning process. Just as our students must take control over their learning, so must we struggle against the resistance to change and take control over those very changes that must and will occur. And we can do this by teaching students to learn for learning’s sake, not as a means to an end.
Eales, R.T. Jim, and Laura M. Byrd
Virtually Deschooling Society: Authentic Collaborative Learning via the Internet
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
"Research in Distance Education"
"Understanding the Common Essential Learnings: A Handbook for Teachers"
Chapter VII Independent Learning
Saskatchewan Education: http://www.sasked.gov.sk.ca/docs/policy/cels/index.html