Becoming an independent learner is a survival tactic. From the moment a baby can hold a spoon they want to feed themselves. The need to be independent is innate.
Most of the time, we learn from others. A baby watches what its parents do and copies them. As we get older we learn from interacting with the world around us. We often describe young children as sponges, soaking up knowledge. The child learns at its own pace, learning about what interests them.
Once children start pre-school, and then primary school, learning becomes more prescribed. There is a curriculum to follow and a balance to be found between independent learning and directed learning. At times this can be difficult, particularly in secondary school where there are state exams and the potential futures of the students at stake. Subject courses have to be completed and revised in time for the exams and many teachers will find that the curriculum leaves them with little scope for encouraging independent learning.
Yet, once the student moves into third level education, being an independent learner is not just encouraged it is expected! Many students tell me that in secondary school they were just learning for the exams; going over and over past exam papers and dependent on their teachers for notes. Then they arrived in college or university and were totally overwhelmed when, as one student described it, ‘the stabilisers are well & truly off the bike now and I’m wobbling all over the shop!’
Independent learning is a life skill, not a just study skill. It teaches us to become curious, to question, to review, to research, to fact-check. We learn to attempt something new, how to take risks and make mistakes and most importantly how to deal with those mistakes.
So how can you help your child become a more independent learner?
I always recommend starting with homework. Remember, it is their homework, not yours. Supervise from afar. Homework does NOT need to be always right going back into the teacher. It is a feedback tool to highlight where the teacher may need to go back over something again with the class.
Set a reasonable length of time for homework and check in periodically. Have dictionaries (a thesaurus dictionary is essential) at the ready and encourage the child to use you only as very the last resort. Read for meaning and never learn just for the Friday test.
Our children live in a world that was unimaginable 100 years ago. Vast amount of knowledge is literally at their fingertips. If they want to get makeup or fashion tips, they google it. Missed the goals in the All-Ireland final? You-Tube it! They can be very independent and capable when they need to be.
However, the internet is also full of misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies. Fostering independent learners means that our children will not blindly accept what they find on the internet as truth. They will check and recheck sources and we need to instil this in them.
By becoming an independent learner, our children begin to take ownership of their own destiny. It fosters responsibility, problem solving and resourcefulness. I know as parents we all want to protect our children. We want them to do well in school and not be ridiculed if they make mistakes. I get that. But there comes a time when the stabilisers need to come off the bicycle and we need to allow our kids to wobble and sometimes fall off. That’s when we as parents come into our own – we just need to be there to help them pick themselves up and go for it again. We need independent learners to question and seek out answers. To find the truth in a world full of misinformation.