Sometimes thinking can be a pain and independent thinking can be scary. Many of us claim we don’t want to be told what to do, but this often turns out to be untrue. After all, the alternative involves shouldering responsibility and it can be easier if someone other than ourselves has that job.

While it is clearly up to students how much they are prepared to apply themselves to their studies, they may not feel inclined or able to pursue a more independent approach either because their progress is closely monitored by parents or because they have grown used to having ideas and solutions provided by peers or elders, which, in turn, diminishes their confidence to take the initiative and make mistakes along the way.

How often have we, as parents or mentors, swooped in to rescue our children when we see them grappling with an issue we could swiftly fix, if only to save ourselves the agony of watching them work it out for themselves with all the tears and tantrums that might entail?

In a world of convenience and instant satisfaction, it has become second-nature to relieve our dependants of the need to wrestle with concepts and tasks, thereby robbing them too of any responsibility regarding the outcome – and the pride that can come with that.

While the High Performance Learning program, designed to nurture the students’ sense of autonomy, has been introduced to address the question of independent learning in a number of schools, including King’s, one of the positive spin-offs from the virtual classes during the Covid-19 crisis has been an unexpected shove in this direction.

“Our biggest challenge in fostering independence has been changing the mind-sets of our parents,” says Rachel Davies, Head of King’s College Chamartín. “In school, we have high expectations of pupils in all age groups. For example in Y2 the children had already been using the Google classroom. However many parents thought they needed to support their child in accessing the lessons during the lockdown. Over the last few weeks, pupils have started to show their parents how much they can do for themselves. Teachers have waved goodbye to parents sitting side by side with their child, allowing them to get on with learning on their own with the support of their class teacher.”

This leap in autonomy has also been remarkable in the pre-teen bracket. Referring to a survey carried out on the response of nine to 11-year-old King’s students to their current circumstances, Sally-Anne Banks, Deputy Head of Primary at King’s College Madrid, says, “In a question concerning the skills and qualities the children have acquired while learning at home, they overwhelmingly said they’d become more independent, more responsible and more organized; and lot of them said they’d grown in self-confidence.”

Online learning undoubtedly demands the use of a different skill set, which many students have never previously had to draw on. “Facing an online school day requires putting into operation superior cognitive functions in a less controlled environment, having less guidelines regarding time and procedure, as well as feeling more distant from the group behaviour, which motivates and sets the pace immediately,” points out Irene Magallón González, Sinews Psychologist and School Counsellor at King’s College Alicante. “Our students now have to apply complex time management skills and cognitive flexibility functions to adapt to the new situation while inhibiting ineffective behaviour to achieve goals which are not so easily reached in the context of the greater freedom of home.”

Human beings have of course always evolved in adverse circumstances and, along with more independence and responsibility, comes a greater ability to think outside the box.

According to the International Baccalaureate Organization which has been posting advice on how to cope with the current crisis, “Online and blended learning provide opportunities for learners to work more independently, expand their agency, and learn to use tools and strategies that they otherwise might not have. While it is not recommended to experiment in emergency situations, innovation, creativity and resilience are required to make things work.”

Just the basic fact that students have had to adapt to unexpected and unfamiliar ways of working in record time inevitably heightens their sense of their capabilities, thereby encouraging them to experiment more boldly in other ways.

Secondary Teacher Joanna Browne at King’s College Murcia, describes some of the work she is doing in Geography to nurture this resourcefulness. “My Year 9 students are undertaking an independent research project to model the effect of earthquakes on buildings,” she explains. “They have had to design their own buildings, test their movement (acceleration) using a Google app, calculate the average, draw bar graphs to present their data and write a conclusion of the data. All the projects are different and all show creativity, as often the suggested materials were not available in their houses!”

Meanwhile, Marie Lally, Head of Primary at King’s College Alicante is setting her Nursery and Primary students weekly challenges, such as setting up puppet shows and acting out scenes from their favourite stories, to keep the children motivated independently of their peers.

“The challenge is very open-ended and allows lots of opportunities for children to be creative and think critically – key skills which we always try to develop in our children,” she says. “I set the challenge and share some examples of how children could complete their challenges at home, however every week they surprise me with just how creative they are and with their fantastic ‘thinking outside the box!’”

With regard to IT, even the youngest students are honing their skills and getting a kick out of being self-sufficient. “The children’s IT skills have grown enormously,” says Rachel Davies, Head of King’s College Chamartín. “Many pupils as young as nursery are now able to log into the class dojo on their iPad, find their teacher’s daily overview sheet and click on their group’s live video link, clicking through to select app mode and use iPad audio and voice. It gives them such a sense of pride when we allow them to do things for themselves. Parents can now see first hand how independent their children are in the skills they have for learning.”

One of the hidden bonuses of children learning online stems from their need to mute and unmute when they wish to talk. “This has helped teach them about taking turns in language,” says Rachel. “Parents started out doing this for the children but with teacher support and reminders, even the nursery children are able to do this independently.”

Teacher support has not of course become indispensable; far from it. As Joanna says, whether it is adapting work to suit a student’s needs or suggesting how they might approach a problem, the role of the teacher as guide and mentor remains vital. “It’s important to check the work and leave a positive or constructive comment,” she says. “If they think you are not looking at what they have done, they can get disheartened and give up.”

Human beings are, after all, social animals and just as independence and responsibility are essential to mature and creative learning, so is seeking guidance. Having our efforts reviewed and endorsed by someone who cares about us will always be part of the equation.

But as Psychologist Irene Magallón González says, “Taking a few seconds to think about a problem without any external influence activates problem-solving strategies, helps with the understanding of information in a personal way and highlights an individual approach to a common pieces work. The satisfaction for students of having done something on their own is invaluable.”

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