Developing autonomy: taking a step back

“I aspire for my pupils to develop their independence.” I’ve said this to myself constantly since I began teaching, but when I ruminate on the details, I realise that my understanding of independence has changed, and so have the behaviours and words I expect to observe in ‘independent pupils’.

To begin with, my vision of my pupils being independent was to be fully engaged with challenging work, using resources discriminately, using each other to further their understanding and all with very little input from me during the lesson. My thinking behind the notion of me having little input during the lesson is that I could let my pupils do the hard work and thinking during the lesson. Of course, this makes sense – why should I have to think harder than my pupils? They are, after all, the ones doing the learning; not me… Right?

In practice, this manifested two problems. Firstly, planning each lesson where pupils are doing work on their own in a subject which is largely conceptual and fact-based was a big challenge. Getting pupils to learn about how natural selection results in adaptation, with all the subtle vocabulary and rather challenging concepts is a difficult feat, especially when a lot of my pupils have reading ages below their chronological age and have short concentration spans. So whilst I wanted to see my pupils getting on with ‘learning’ with carefully planned resources, I knew that this wasn’t a realistic expectation of them (yet) and neither was it realistic of me to plan so extensively either. I couldn’t quite work out what to do.

The second issue came about when I did manage to plan well structured independent tasks. A colleague observing me noted that whilst I desired to my pupils to develop their independence, as soon as I set them a task to get on with independently, I was buzzing around the classroom answering every students’questions each  time they were stuck. Interestingly, I didn’t realise the extent to which I was ‘helping’ my students and consequently, taking away valuable opportunities for them to be in that sweet struggle zone where learning really happens. In my eagerness to help, I was preventing my pupils from becoming independent rather than teaching them so.

Both of these issues point to a bigger question: ‘Are my pupils ready to be independent?’ This is a broad question that I have now come to think of in a ‘macro’ and a ‘micro’ sense. In other words, this question applies in two categories: the short term, ‘Are they ready to grapple with this specific content?’ and the longer term, ‘Have they developed the transferable organisational skills, team work and resilience to successfully function independently?’


As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime”. As teachers, we not only teach our pupils our subjects, but we teach them how to become learners of our subject. To develop this kind of autonomy, it is necessary to consider how we are developing our pupils’ skills through the teaching and learning that we plan for them. This can be achieved using three guiding principles when planning:

  1. Map the key skill you intend your pupils to develop over the course of the year. This includes subject-specific skills (such as writing conclusions) and transferable skills (such as team work). That way you can ensure that you re-visit skills regularly enough to allow mastery. This is your roadmap to the destination of independence.
  2. The pedagogy that we employ to teach content will demand different skills of our pupils. Be mindful of this to ensure you are choosing an activity that both teaches the desired content and develops the desired skills. For example, if a market-place activity is to be successful, it requires effective and developed team work and communication skills. If this is a weakness of your class, plan to use it with more simple content at first, and gradually use it with content that is increasingly difficult as your class develops their teamwork and communication skills. The pedagogy is the vehicle that will move your pupils along their journey to independence.
  3. Make the implicit explicit. Lots of the skills we wish our pupils to learn, we expect them to somehow internalise through unsaid, repeated exposure. If you are using lots of oracy based activities to develop pupils’ communication skills, tell them that that is what you are doing! Make it really explicit what good communication looks like.  Hell, get them to come up with success criteria for what makes effective communication! The greater the level of clarity your students experience about what is expected of them, the more likely they are at succeeding to meet your expectations. You need to give them the roadmap so they know where they stand and where they are heading.

By carefully planning your pupils’ learning experiences, you are creating a clear roadmap for them to follow to success and independence.


While developing pupils’ macro independence in the long-term takes months, we should also plan for their independence every few lessons through the teaching and learning cycle. This is the kind of independence that I had initially envisioned for my pupils every lesson, but have now come to realise can only really occur in cycles: it takes a few lessons (or activities) for pupils to become familiar with content and to understand what is expected of them, following which they can independently apply their learning, in a later lesson (or activity).

T&L Cycle

The teaching and learning cycle, from the Language in Learning Across the Curriculum (LiLAC).

The teaching and learning cycle is as follows:

  1. Setting the context
  2. Deconstruction and modelling
  3. Joint construction
  4. Independent construction

1. Setting the context

This is about teaching the new vocabulary and concepts that pupils need to understand in order for them to produce the desired piece of work or ‘outcome’. E.g. This might be an information report on the muscular and skeletal system.

2. Deconstruction and modelling

This stage involves you examining an exemplar ‘outcome’. Look at an excellent information report and unpick the key features and success criteria that make it excellent.

3. Joint construction

Together with your pupils, write an information report. At this stage, you are promoting pupils to consider and reconsider their thoughts as you create the piece together. If they use everyday language, prompt them to use technical vocabulary. If they fail to use connectives appropriately, go back to the excellent piece to explain how it should be incorporated.

4. Independent construction

This is the stage where your pupils are ready to work with that ‘independence’ that I described at the start. With some scaffolding to support them during their own writing, the reason they are now independent in the ‘micro’ sense is that you have ensured that your teaching prepared them well enough to have: the knowledge of the concepts required of them (1); high clarity about what they need to produce (2) with clear success criteria to apply to their own work; and practice at writing with your feedback (3).

I have learned about this cycle in the context of teaching literacy in science, so it applies well to writing-based tasks. However I have used this with success teaching equations in science, where the modelling is showing pupils how to lay out their working out and ensuring they check each stage carefully. With a little modification,I believe it can apply to most teaching. Importantly, the sequence can take place over several lessons as well as within a lesson through a series of activities.

One struggle I still have is how to apply this cycle when we have a lot of content to get through with little time to focus on the independent writing aspect of the cycle. In science, this is a huge issue because covering a broad content base takes up the time we have to teach it as it is, let along giving pupils the time to practice their writing. This is a real shame because developing scientific literacy is just as important as the content itself. More about this in a future blog post.

To summarise, independence can be an element of any classroom. It just needs careful macro and micro planning! We need to be clear exactly what we mean by ‘independent’ or ‘autonomous’ and construct a roadmap for our pupils to follow with clarity.
One more note as food for thought: As teachers, we are learners too – how are we planning to make sure we as teachers are continually developing and taking that development into our own hands?


One thought on “Developing autonomy: taking a step back

  1. Pingback: The Limits of My World (Part II) | Bunsen Blue

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