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Autonomous Learning

Autonomous Learning An Article to get you thinking about autonomous learning plus a debate activity to help your students think about how it might work for them.

This is a Free Sample Resource
Categories: Article, Learning Styles, All Ages

Tags: Autonomy Independent Learning

What is Autonomous Learning?

'(Autonomous) students see the purpose of schooling as not being caught being wrong and instead seeing education as about doing stuff that you couldn’t do before'

Dylan Wiliam

'Listen to the desires of your children. Encourage them and then give them the autonomy to make their own decision.'

Denis Waitley

When I teach demonstration lessons (they're not brilliant, just different and thought-provoking) I usually carry out a student autonomy test. Here's how it goes: I introduce the session and quickly offer up a thinking challenge (something that prompts lots of different correct answers). Then I describe a longer, related task and explain a little (but not everything) about it. I take questions, set a timescale, suggest resources and finally say, "3,2,1 Go!". What happens next says a lot about the class and about the autonomy of the individuals in it:

  1. Some children stay in their seats and look hopefully/nervously at their teacher for permission to get what they need, sit where they'll work best and to start.
  2. Others rise on mass and start a bun fight of movement, resource grabbing and noisy setting to work.
  3. A third group turn to their neighbour/learning partner or table and after a quick chat begin the task. Representatives collect resources and equipment as needed. Their manner is calm and focused, individuals motivated, the group cohesive.

I'm not judging (but you can if you like) only describing the differences I see in a variety of schools. In 1. pupils expect the teacher to do a lot of their thinking for them. In 3. pupils are empowered. 2. means wet play's just finished. Ultimately 3. is the most rewarding: your investment is in creating autonomous learning and collaborative groups.

Dylan Wiliam proposes that teachers who get responses like 3. are viewed by their students as adults who want to help them achieve the things that they value. This replaces the traditional and still widespread view that teachers are adults whose role is to correct you if you get it wrong and praise you if you get it right.

There are many characteristics of an autonomous learner and many justifications for developing autonomous learning - not least that the world expects it, needs it, values it and is prepared to pay for it. Embedding it in your class is pretty straightforward but needs constant maintenance. It's not a one-off lesson but a shift of focus.

How to Start Autonomous Learning

It would be ironic to tell your students exactly what autonomous learning is, why and how they must do it. So here's a way you could work on it together. Look at the following (proposed) justifications for and features of autonomous learning. Then challenge, question and revise them. Evaluate, critique, amend, edit and co-negotiate you own class definition of autonomous learning. Then empower everyone in the class to use the criteria to self and peer assess.

Proposals for debate:

    Autonomous Learning is valuable because:

  • It's not effective to be always dependent on someone else.
  • Life expects us to be independent.
  • Any job or career requires autonomy to some degree.
  • We are born with a great capacity for autonomy. Why waste it?
  • You are more effective and happier when you are in control of your own learning.

Autonomous Learners:

  • Know what to do when they don't know what to do.
  • Know how they learn and seek their preferred kind of learning experiences.
  • Set their own goals and are persistent and resilient in achieving them.
  • Know when to seek help, how and from whom.
  • Can identify what motivates them.

Three prompts to get the review going are:

  • What else?
  • What if? and
  • What if not?
Simply by not accepting my list as it stands, you will be modelling autonomy and involving your students in principles and practices upon which their future employability will rest.

Related Resources:

DIY Learning

DIY Learning PowerPoint

Independent Learning

PSHE Think Sheet - Independence

Tips for Independent Learning


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