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6 Ways to get Primary Pupils Learning Independently

We all want our students to be able to think for themselves. Here’s how to make that a reality, says Dr John L Taylor...

  • 6 Ways to get Primary Pupils Learning Independently

1 | Open minds with open questions

As a way of drawing students into deeper learning and thinking, I like to run starter activities that consist of discussing an open-ended question such as ‘Are numbers real?’ or ‘Am I the same person I was when I was born?’.

The point is to get students thinking and show them that this is worth doing even if they don’t reach an answer.

I normally ask children to discuss a question in pairs and then invite some of them to feed back. This way, everyone gets an opportunity to do some thinking, even if they are reluctant to speak in front of the whole class.

2 | Reorganise your classroom

In the majority of classrooms, the arrangement of chairs sends a clear message: watch, learn, listen to the teacher. Sit in your rows and keep your eyes forward.

This is fine if we need the students to listen whilst we instruct them. It isn’t good for getting meaningful classroom discussion going. Take a look at the room you teach in and ask: if I wanted to arrange it to enable discussion, what would I do?

When planning your lesson, think about what sort of layout would be most helpful.

3 | Argumentative question-bouncing

When you get an answer to a question you’ve asked the class, don’t reply yourself but bounce the query to someone else in the group. You can do this directly (‘Sarah – do you agree with what Phil said?’) or by asking ‘Who agrees? Who disagrees?’.

Having heard these answers, go back to the original student and invite them to respond. Often what happens is that there is a realisation that something was wrong with one of the answers, and so the class makes progress towards a better understanding of the answer.

4 | Questioning knowledge claims

We all know the experience of asking a question in class, getting the right answer, praising the student and moving on. After all, if we get the right answer, that shows they know what we want them to. Or does it?

If we want to be sure that our students really know what they are talking about, we need to get them to take a step beyond the right answer: we need to get them thinking about why the right answer is right.

Questions such as ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘What’s the evidence for that?’ are powerful tools for getting students to look beyond the right answer and explore the realm of reason, argument, explanation and inquiry.

5 | The reality question

‘What is it?’ questions are great for getting students thinking more deeply about ideas they think they understand.

If in the process they realise that often we can’t give a definition, as ideas have multiple meanings, they will begin to appreciate something important about concepts.

In the process they will hopefully become more ready to question next time they come across a new idea. Discussion starters include, ‘What is a work of art?’ or ‘What is an idea?’.

6 | Counter-arguing

Learning to counter-argue is a vital step in learning to think more deeply and independently.

Students who think for themselves do so by internalising the processes of discussion and debate. They learn to argue with themselves.

This type of internalised, self-critical dialogue is at the very heart of independent learning in all subject areas. It is not always easy for children to identify counter-arguments.

Questions that can help include, ‘Why would someone disagree with the point you have just made?’ or ‘If you were going to argue against your own point of view, what would you say?’


Dr John L Taylor is assistant head (director of learning, teaching and innovation) at Cranleigh School, Surrey. This is an extract from Bloomsbury CPD Library: Independent Learning (£22.99, Bloomsbury). Follow him on Twitter at @drjohnltaylor.

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