IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Cognition and learning: independent working

Ideas to support and encourage children's independent learning.

Girl reading book. Image: Jerry Wang via Unsplash
Like many, I’m working from home which means that as I’m physically present my daughter turns to me immediately for help if she doesn’t understand something. We need to find a way of working independently from one another" (parent of 12 year old girl)

This is likely to be a sentiment shared by many. With children of all ages working from home, it can be difficult to know when to step in, and when to encourage greater independence.

Time can play an important factor

When we’re rushing to get something done, we might be tempted to ‘do it for them’, but in doing so, we teach them nothing. By giving them the time, space and support to work it out for themselves, we move their learning on. 

Whilst core, curriculum skills are important, arguably this is the time to improve our children’s metacognitive skills – how they plan and approach a task, problem solve and evaluate their work is central to successful lifelong learning.

An hypothetical scenario

Laurie is a 14 year old boy working on a history project about the Cold War. He is stuck. He doesn’t know where to access the right information from even though he’s been told previously.

As a parent, I can do one of three things

  1. I can tell him what he needs to know
  2. I can tell him where he can find out or
  3. I can encourage him to use what information he has to help him problem solve and move onto the next step.

It is quicker to do the first – but in doing so, Laurie becomes dependent on me. The latter encourages him to draw on his current knowledge to work independently. He may need to contact his class teacher, revisit a previous school email or watch a tutorial about how to access Google Classroom. This takes him more time, but it builds his independence in the process. 

In our children’s learning, what do we place importance on? The completed piece of work or the process that was taken to get there? 

Arguably, it’s the process that is key to successful learning. It’s as simple as whether I decide to correct a misspelling in my son’s English essay before he submits it, or whether I ask him to check any words that look wrong with a dictionary himself before handing it. 

Ideas to encourage greater independence

There are lots of ideas to help support you encourage greater independence, but it may be useful to think about successful independent learning as three distinct but overlapping skills:

1. Planning

Getting resources ready:

  • Do they have everything they need to hand? 
  • Are resources available, laptops charged up, instructions accessible? 

Knowing what the task is:

  • Do they fully understand what it is that they need to do and what the first steps are? 

For some children, prompt sheets can be useful to remind them e.g.:

  • Collect all the equipment you need.
  • Read the instructions.
  • Underline the key parts of the activity.
  • Identify what you need to do first.

For others, it might be helpful to use a picture board or to use an audio recorder to set out keys steps that can be referred back to. 

2. Problem solving

When your child gets stuck, it can be tempting to give them the answer. Instead think about asking:

  • What do you think you could do?
  • Where might you be able to find out?

It may be necessary for them to carefully re-read the instructions, to review previous work, to call a school friend or email the teacher.

As tempting as it is to get them moving along quickly, encouraging them to problem solve for themselves can build satisfaction, confidence and a sense of achievement in young people. 

Use prompts and clues to help remind them where they might be able to look for help or to remind them of something they might already know e.g.:

  • So you’re not sure about that word. How could you work it out?
  • Where did we look yesterday?

3. Evaluating

The key here is that we encourage children to check their work against the original activity throughout, not just when they’ve completed it. If they only check when they’ve finished, they may find they have lost the point completely or gone entirely off track. This can lead to a sense of frustration and knock confidence. 

At regular intervals, it can be useful to remind them to check back against the original instructions. Do they still understand what they need to do and have they included all the relevant parts? 

When looking at work yourself, it can be tempting to correct parts. Instead, think about asking:

  • What do you like best about it?
  • What would you like to improve? 
  • How could you make that castle sound even scarier?
  • How could you have set it out differently? What might have been good about doing that?

Home schooling is hard because (most of us at least) aren’t teachers. It can be easy to forget how little we once knew and how complex the learning process is. It can be easy for parents to become frustrated at what seems like slow progress.

But as clichéd as it sounds, the process of learning should be fun. Time spent on encouraging our children to engage with the process itself, is time very well spent.