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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.

I listened to the closing song that played at the end of season 2’s episode 8 of Ted Lasso. The song was familiar but I could not place its title or the band.

So I Googled “ted lasso episode 8 end song” (I only did a partial search because Google completed the rest of the search terms for me). The first return was this list.

After I played a snippet of the song from that list, I looked for Somewhere Only We Know on YouTube. 

Video source 

The video featured some creepy sprites in a forest that I did not care for. But thanks to YouTube’s algorithms, I dove deeper into the rabbit hole by watching this behind-the-scenes creation of a John Lewis advertisement. 

Video source 

This video used the same song as a backdrop to showcase some of the hard work that went into the beautiful storytelling in the ad.

I would normally highlight how the video was a good example of learning from the processes and not just focusing on the product. This time I point out how technology mediates learning. 

I had a question which was quickly answered with a search. Searching does not always guarantee valid and reliable results, but mine was a low level fact, so Google’s algorithms provided a spot-on return.

But another set of algorithms also offered me answers to questions I did not have. Going down a rabbit hole is an opportunity for exploratory and discovery-based learning. 

Most schools seem to have curricula or programmes that teach kids how to search. These are necessary given how search results depend on search strategies; current online information, disinformation, and misinformation; social media bubbles, etc.

But I wonder how schools are handling rabbit hole learning, if at all. I know of adults who consider kids doing deep dives on their favourite game or celebrity a waste of time. I do not know if teachers are taking advantage of natural curiosity and tempering it with a combination of discipline and smarts.

You can imagine the number of likes and retweets this tweet got/will get without clicking through to see its stats. But I see that sentiment arising from an uncritical and nostalgic view of teaching. 

The same empty feeling can happen when teaching in person. The teacher might not be reaching her students. The lesson might be at the end of the day in a hot and humid classroom. The class might have an unfortunate mix students who are uninterested.

My point is not that online teaching is perfect. It is that we often romanticise classroom-based teaching even though it has its own set of complex problems. Describing online teaching as faceless or lonely is an oversimplification of what teaching is. It also focuses on the teaching instead of what it more important — the learning.

Teaching should lead to learning. However, teaching does not guarantee learning just like speaking does not ensure that someone else is listening. And even if they have listened, this does not mean they act on it. 

Learning requires change as evidenced by action. A change in understanding, attitude, or belief is not obvious until externalised. Such change is not obvious whether online or off. That lack of sense of change is can contribute to an empty feeling of teaching.

If that is the case, I say we do not reduce teaching to lecturing to empty seats or blanked screens. We might instead embrace nuance and complexity by seeking evidence of learning by asking ourselves:

  • Did the session matter?
  • How do we know or by what measure?
  • How might we ensure that it was impactful?

Video source

In his reveal of the origin of Crash Course, Hank Green highlighted two ways to lower barriers to learning. His group chose to not: 

  • hide videos behind a paywall 
  • turn interesting stories into boring ones with textbook treatments

In schooling and higher education, there are at least two other ways to lower barriers to learning. These are to not:

  • lock resources in an LMS
  • set a expiration date to accessing these resources

Sadly, all these happen with such regularity that they are often viewed as features instead of flaws. It is almost a modern novelty if we actually lowered such barriers to learning.

This tweet and its embedded article gave me reason to revisit my pivot.

It offered some reasons why schools should reopen for kids to resume in person classes. Among them were:

  • School closures had “significant” impact on “skills attainment and earning prospects…  physical and mental health” (no evidence, just statement of presumed fact)
  • Access to online learning is uneven (true in many SE Asian contexts, less so here)
  • There were “increases in anxiety, depression and self-harm” and “increased loneliness, difficulty concentrating” and “poor eating habits and disrupted sleep patterns” and “increased the risk of domestic violence” and “more screen time has exacerbated the risks of online harm” (again all stated as evidence without giving any)

In short, this was a list that the Pessimists Archive would have a field day with. It included tired reasons for reopening in-person schools and vilifying online education.

There is just one thing I fully agree with about this tweeted headline. Online learning is no substitute, but not for the reasons spelt out in the op piece.

Online education is not yet a common substitute because it is: 

  • called upon mostly in emergencies like a fire extinguisher would
  • relegated to the exception instead of integrated as part of a norm
  • held to the standards of what is possible or desirable in-person instead of evaluated on its own merits

I am not saying that schools should not reopen when they can. They should because they serve critical societal and economic functions. And since I work mostly from home, I would like my wife (a teacher) and my son to give me my work space back. 😉

I am saying that we should not vilify online education when you have not given it a chance to bloom, cross fertilise, and create newer and better versions of itself. This is, after all, what we did with schooling. 

The first week of June in Singapore might mark the start of a month-long school vacation for students, but this is rarely the case for teachers.

There are workshops and conferences galore that they get to attend. For some, have to attend.

This CNA piece on one such event gleefully reported how well “blended” learning is happening here.

Video source

There is much to unpack even if you consider just the first example in the video. It is the blending of levels and talents of different students. That is a form of blended learning.

We need to focus on the content co-creation, not e-book or other technologies that remake the book. The news report dangled the shiny and distracting object, but we need to be smarter than that.

Is the use of technology blended? It could be. Does it enable blended learning? Most certainly. But it is what student do with it that matters most.

The voice in the podcast excerpt belongs to Dr Paul Penn, author of the book, The Psychology of Effective Studying

In the short clip, Penn explained what the most popular understanding of learning styles was. He also declared that:

You’re as well off knowing someone’s star sign as you are their learning style if you want to help them learn.

Reaction 1: Ooh, burn! 

Reaction 2: Here is why no educator worth their salt should waste time on learning styles.

Links to full podcast episode: [Apple] [Google] [Spotify]

Reaction 3: I agree with this tweet, #DieLearningStylesDie. 

Yes, 71!

That is not an exclamation of the number seventy-one. It is the factorial of 71, i.e., 71 x 70 x 69… etc.

71! is a huge number. The factorial calculator puts this at: 850,478,588,567,862,317,521,167,644,239,926,010,288,584,608,120,796,235,
886,430,763,388,588,680,378,079,017,697,280,000,000,000,000,000.

Can you imagine having to individually address this many different number of, say, learning variations among your students?



Well, you would have to if you blindly buy in to learning styles. According to this 2009 article by the Association for Psychological Science, there are 71 different models of learning styles.

If you take learning styles seriously, you would have to address every style in each model. 71! If you do not, you are ignoring a style that supposedly best suits that learner.

Thankfully for you, the same article categorically debunks learning styles based on the poor research designs of studies that claim to support learning styles.

This does not mean that people do not learn differently. They do, but not in the way that proponents of learning styles insist.

One takeaway from this old not not-cited-enough article is that it is both irresponsible and impractical to try to teach by learning styles. These have not been empirically established and there are far too many to address for every lesson.

Another takeaway is how some practices go unquestioned because they seem plausible. Why are questions not asked about the validity of learning styles? Perhaps teachers (and even teacher educators) do not know what they do not know. That is, they have not kept up with the research.

A teacher should not reach the age of 71 to realise that learning styles are a myth. That teacher would have retired by then. She would not be able to put her energies into better approaches or mentor younger teachers by modelling reflective and critical thinking.

Video source

This video on student “hacks” and tips on doing assignments, homework, and online learning will upset some teachers the wrong way and other teachers the right way.

The wrong way to get upset is to be defensive about current teaching practices and to push against what some students are already doing.

The right way to get upset is to reflect on our collective practices and to adapt to what is possible. This is not a war between teacher and learners. It is an opportunity for teachers to learn from their students. 

I enjoyed the video embedded in this tweet about how academics write.

But I had a different application of the video. Mine about how it applies to folks who arrange for professional development for their staff.

I have observed that such events are often standalone, i.e., they do not serve a longer term purpose or are not linked to an overall theme. Some organisers are just happy to check off an item from a to-do list.

Seminar on new policy, check. Workshop on new skill, check. But do these sessions result in learning and changed behaviours? If not, the interventions are like the person pulling the sheep out of the rut. But the sheep has not learnt anything and jumps back into the rut.

There is nothing inherently wrong with arranging on-going development for your workers. It is the responsible thing to do. But it is irresponsible to not also address mindsets that affect behaviours. 


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