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The concept of “independent learning” is not easy to define. It is also misunderstood because some favour simplistic or palatable explanations.

One result of this is poor implementations of “independent learning” by schools and institutes of higher learning. These interventions range from highly-structured lessons students attempt at home to total abandonment of the student.

The reason why “independent learning” is poorly understood and implemented is that it is multifaceted. Instead of identifying as many facets and embracing them, some focus only on what it convenient.

For example, teachers under pandemic pressure might superficially convert a series of lessons into worksheets and YouTube videos, and then call that an “independent learning package”. It is none of those things.

There is no need to reinvent independent learning. We might first borrow from Gibbon’s spectrum of self-directed learning or SDL (2002), that is: 

  • incidental self-directed learning
  • teaching students to think independently
  • self-managed learning
  • self-planned learning
  • self-directed learning

Related note: Knowles (1975) also has a guide for SDL, but this might be pitched more towards adult learners and learning.

If I was at a roundtable discussion, I would argue that independent learning is what happens at the self-directed end of the spectrum. Such learning could be driven by curiosity, a meaningful problem, or a passion or interest.

Such learning is typified by powers of observation, the ability to tinker iteratively, and endurance in the face of FAILure (FAIL: First Attempts In Learning). Truly independent learning is sustained by record-keeping, critical reflection, and strategic thinking.

Independent learning is complex and multifaceted concept. Ignoring what others have already written about it and trying to reinvent it for branding is an ego trip. This does a disservice to education and does not help learners be truly independent.

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Earlier this week, I stayed back after a Zoom-based lesson so that my students — pre- and in-service teachers — could ask questions or discuss ideas. 

The Q&A session lasted almost as long as our synchronous meeting (1.5h). Near the end of that session, I floated one idea for redesigning the next run of lessons.

My current design divided each 3h class into two parts: A 1.5h asynchronous and scaffolded-independent learning session followed by a 1.5h synchronous meeting. I was toying with the idea of switching to a 1h asynchronous and 2h synchronous design. My rationale: To provide more synchronous time for peer teaching and discussion.

The learners who stayed behind surprised me. They said that they would not mind doing the asynchronous work and follow that up with a full 3h synchronous meeting. 

I was against going beyond the 3h-per-lesson design. Why?

The syllabus is a contract and each class is supposed to last 3h. I am not ignoring the fact that there is much preparation and follow-up for each class for both my learners and me. But if I take liberties to extend class time, be it asynchronous preparation, synchronous interaction, or both, where does it end?

Keeping to agreed upon class durations is a discipline. It might have developed in conventional teaching, but it should also extend online particularly for synchronous sessions.

Extending lesson times beyond what is agreed upon upsets the work-life balance for pre- and in-service teachers. It establishes a wrong habit and expectation, i.e., teachers should just put their heads down and bear with it. This is like how teachers already sacrifice weekends to grade work and plan lessons.

I am also a firm believer that work expands to fit the time given. Within reasonable conditions, I can facilitate the learning of, say, three key practices, within either 1h or 3h. If I can do this in 1h, why do it in 3h?

Finally, I wish to model better expectations and lesson designs. One expectation is that learners need to be more independent and not rely on spoon-feeding or face time. This is why I set tasks to be attempted asynchronously. These tasks are designed to help learners identify knowledge gaps so they can fill them in when we meet synchronously. They must learn to invest in more independent study while managing their time-on-task.

My overall lesson design is particularly relevant to adult learners. This is even more important if the learners are teachers because teachers tend to teach the way they are taught. If they are not exposed to alternative ways of teaching, they will rely on uncritical or outdated approaches. I need to model other viable, relevant, and effective strategies.

I close my unsolicited five-part series about being an independent worker with this question:

Why do you want to do this?

This is the most important question. You need a strong answer before you take the plunge.

Are you running away from something or heading towards a goal? The first might be about fear, but the second is about hope.

Are you leaving mainstream work because you cannot cut it? If you cannot handle that sort of work, what makes you think you can survive in a less supported environment?

That said, there is value is walking away from some situations. Your current work might be a threat to your principles, health, or personal development. My point that your decision should be driven by investigation and reflection, and not by fear or imagination.

You need to know what you want out of leaving full-time work. This might be more time with your family, regaining your sanity, or pursuing a new challenge. This makes the move goal-driven and planned instead of reactionary and rushed.

Pursuing one or more life goals is like preparing for a journey. The pathways of independent workers and freelancers are often not well-trodden and so you must prepare your mind, portfolio, finances, and loved ones.

The paths are not easy, but they can be scenic. You are likely to learn more about the world around you and about yourself. Your path might lead back to full-time work and there is no shame in that. But if you choose to walk that path, it is better to be walking towards something than to be chased by fear.

This is the second-last part of my answers to five questions on being an independent worker.

Your portfolio: What is in it, where is it, and how do people find it/you?

If you do not already have a portfolio, here is an alternate question: How large is your network or how extensive are your connections?

Even if you have a list of potential clients and partners, do not expect them to be loyal to you. Departments whose responsibility it is train or provide professional development seem to have budgets that shrink every year.

You need to advertise yourself to agencies that do not already know you. You need a portfolio. People need to find out what you do, what value you offer them, how to contact you, and what your fees are.

Mine is this blog and its various sections (see the navigation bar for the desktop browser or the drop down in the mobile browser). I do not claim to have exemplary practice. I only claim to share openly when I can.

The people who are looking have a problem that needs solving. You need to be the piece(s) in the puzzle that helps them see the whole picture. You will likely have encouraging conversations with such people because you will probably think alike.

Unfortunately, these people will hand the next phase of information gathering and negotiation to an administrative group of people. The latter group tends to only see in numbers, e.g., total cost, number of participants, cost per head, how many sessions, etc. Oh, and can you do a followup or two for free?

If you reveal your fees too quickly in your portfolio or initial communications, expect to not hear from the administrative person again.

Sorry, I got distracted. Back to the portfolio.

Your portfolio should showcase not just your experience and accomplishments but also your worth to others. I do this by reflecting on how my workshops or session went in daily musings. This might help others get inside my head and to figure out if they want to work with me.

While I behave professionally, I pull no punches. I am blunt with what I can do, can not do, and will not do. I am also open with the way I do things — I do not wish to compromise why pedagogy or my principles.

As a consultant or independent worker, you need to figure out what you are comfortable with sharing, but share you must. If you are smart about it, you might appear at or near the top of Google searches. That is how new people find you. But to do that, you must have a platform to share from and something worth sharing.

Today I continue my unsolicited advice on being a freelancer or independent worker.

How comfortable are you with discomfort? (Or: What do you think being an independent worker is like?)

Being an independent worker might seem freeing. I am guilty of reinforcing that stereotype when making small talk. I often say that I do not have to attend pointless meetings and I work only with people I want to work with. Who does not want that?

Making the choice to be a freelancer or independent worker has consequences. I highlighted the health insurance and personal finances issues previously. There are other sources of discomfort.

You might face lean earning weeks or even months. To tide these over, you might take the advice I mentioned in Part 2. You can also tighten your belt and live more simply.

I have cut down of extravagances. I used to upgrade my iPhone regularly; now I still have my iPhone 7 even though the 11 is currently available. This does not mean that I will not get the 11 or 12. It means I put some purchases off until I think I can reward myself.

I used to pay for extra utilities that I did not use, e.g., TV channels. These were the easiest to cut off. I found more economical phone plans for my family. We travel less, but we still eat out occasionally.

Belt-tightening aside, you need to embrace being and doing different. Most people will not understand how and why you work that way. They will likely be quick to make demands and slow to pay. You do not get bonuses or promotions. You can demand fees at current market rates, but this will not be heard by those living in the cocoons of the past.

The people you meet are not cruel (at least, I hope they are not). They are ignorant because they cannot empathise with you and they are not living your work life. So you have to keep communicating uncomfortable issues and educating them on change whether you want to or not. (Side bar: You might not help yourself, but you might pave the way for the next person.)

Being in full-time employment, particularly in the civil service in Singapore, can make you lazy. So much is done for you and you can be rewarded whether you deserve it or not. If you choose to freelance, expect people to ask you to work for free. If you wish to be an independent worker, prepare to be practically self-sufficient.

You might be financially prepared to cast off full-time work. But you are not likely to be prepared for the discomfort of dissonance and different approaches to doing the same things.

You have to jump into the pool to learn to swim. Likewise only plunging into the world of independent work will teach you how to do it. I hope that the three questions so far help you do so with your eyes open.

Coming up next: Advertising yourself with your portfolio.

This is Part 2 of a five-part Q&A on whether or not to be an independent worker.

What is your backup plan?

There might be push and/or pull factors that make you think about leaving full-time employment. Look before you leap.

A backup plan might take the form of a stash of cash you can reach for occasionally, the option to work part-time, or the capacity to return to full-time work.

Your savings are critical because you might face lean months or choose not to work for whatever reason. If you have people to take care of, your responsibility is compounded.

I recommend maintaining two bank accounts: One for regular work and bill payments, and the other for a nest-egg. I keep an eye on the first account to make sure that it does not fall below a certain level. I do not touch the second except to ensure that it is making money off a reliable investment.

Your current employer might be able to replace your full-time position with a part-time one. Alternatively, you might find some reliable partners to work with to ensure a minimum inward cash flow. Both give you some independence while not threatening to bankrupt you.

Finally, you might maintain a good network of friends, partners, and ex-colleagues so that you can find your way back to full-time employment if you find the wilderness too harsh. This was my initial plan — to work independently for six months to a year — but I enjoyed it so much that I stayed.

A backup plan can cushion a bad fall. Being an independent consultant is not all it is cracked up to be. I address that in the next question.

I have a fortnight of intense grading (I am handling 40% of a cohort) and another of performance assessment. So I need to keep my head down, grit my teeth, and write some blog entries in advance.

I mentioned on Saturday that I would share some unsolicited advice on being a freelancer or an independent worker. This is Q&A 1.

Do you need to take care of anyone other than yourself?

Do you have a family? Do you or a family member have a chronic health issue? Are you the sole earner in your household?

If so, you might think twice about leaving full-time employment. Your employer might already offer a good health insurance plan. They might even pay for it in part or in full.

If you go independent, you have to get your own plan. In Singapore, it is also compulsory to top up your Medisave account in one lump sum every year or in monthly instalments. This can be a strain if you do not have a regular flow of income.

Those considerations apply whether you only need to support yourself or if you have others to take care of. If you are the sole earner in the family, bump those factors up by each person you need to cover.

In short, if you have others to take care of and are thinking of flying solo for work, seriously consider grounding your plans for the sake of those you love. Take flight only if you have a considerable nest egg (see next question).

I have been an independent consultant for five years. I will be sharing unsolicited advice to anyone who wishes to leave conventional employment to be an independent worker.

The five question sets I will address next week are:

  1. Do you need to take care of anyone other than yourself?
  2. What is your backup plan?
  3. How comfortable are you with discomfort?
  4. What is in your portfolio, where is it, and how do people find it/you?
  5. Why do you want to do this?

I am sure that folks with aspirations to work independently will have a host of other questions.

I focus on this set in part to consolidate my experiences. I also know from page hits and feedback how a shared resource can have impact years down the road.

This article cited a shocking statistic:

In one study, a test based on NASA’s recruiting process for engineers and rocket scientists was used to measure creativity and innovative thinking in small children. At age five, 98 percent of the kids had genius-level imaginative abilities. But at age ten, only 30 percent of the children fell into that category. Want to guess how many adults maintain their creative thinking skills after making it through our educational system? Just 2 percent.

So what might a parent or teacher do to encourage independent and creative thinking? They might take the advice of Esther Wojcicki, a teacher and the mother of Susan Wojcicki (the CEO of YouTube), Janet Wojcicki (a Fulbright winner), and Anne Wojcicki, cofounder of 23andMe.

  • Unshackle from standard curriculum, connect to the daily world: Get students to start “paying attention, taking an interest in the world around them, and forming their own opinions”.
  • Address the why: Remind them to ask why they are learning something. Tell them why.
  • Encourage questions and model seeking answers: Co-learn with kids, but show them search and evaluation strategies.

I have experimented with the novelty of renting a travel router from Changi Recommends before, so I agree with the sentiment below:

If you only do what that business entity recommends (and charges you for), you:

  • Do not do your homework
  • Pay both for the convenience and your complacency
  • Learn not to operate critically or independently

Come to think of it, the same could be said if you rely only on the word of official textbooks and spokespeople.


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