It's a buzzword. Something a school strives to produce. Something the students should aim to be. But why? And is it really that important in an age of memorizing mnemonics and regurgitating facts?
I'm travelling on my own again for a few weeks and it's got me thinking about the differences in my thinking between now and a week ago. I loved Africa because everything was my own, my decision, my responsibility. But meeting a friend meant doing things I didn't always want to do. Having plans made for me, in the short term, it was a nice break, but long term? I felt like i didn't really get to know the places. Being alone (currently on a very long bus) has made me reflect on Cambodia and what I've learnt so far. I know far more about the Cambodian wars and politics and even national holidays than I ever did about Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. So how does this relate to the big bad world?
We want the students to think for themselves. I told my students time and time again that they should be going over topics at home, research what interests you. If you don't understand how to solve a problem, look into it first, go online, ask a friend or check your book. Basically we are trying to tell them to be proactive, don't wait for me to tell you the answer.
And the best feeling? That's when a student actually goes and does it! When they can add some information to the lesson that they didn't get from you. It's almost as good as the ah ha moment. It's not, however, commonplace.
And there's a reason for that. One word: exams
It would be great if all students were independent thinkers, but what if they were thinking about the wrong things. What if when researching specialist cells they didn't look at a cilia? Well they'd fail the exam, or at least there would be a question that was “inaccessible” to them (another lovely word). So as teachers judged on the outcomes of our students, we have to get all the information to them. In a shockingly short amount of time.
So we tell them something, then we tell them again and do it one more time before we go over it in revision. And in most cases those with the best memory come out on top.
And then these students who have been told to be independent, but really have never had to be, head off to university. Where they tell you to do independent research on the topics covered in lectures and the students think, sure they say that but I have a great memory for facts. And then the results come and it clearly wasn't enough. Yeah, you guessed it, that student was me.
I think we can all agree a classroom of students who can think for themselves and want to know more than we teach them, would be a dream come true, but not something we actually find plausible.
I think I know why.
Perhaps because the things we want them to learn about we specifically tell them. It's not independent thinking if I say research how to use the quadratic formula, or research what a cilia cell is. What if we told them to look into cells. A broad topic, yes, but think of the things they could discover. One student who loved plants could become an expert on root cells. One who loved human biology could become fascinated by blood cells. A physics mind could end up looking at batteries. The possibilities are endless. But do you want to know what the problem is? Why this will not, in this day and age work? Because some of those projects will be mysteriously “lost” the day of deadline. Some will be no more than a page long and some will be copied straight from Wikipedia.
Perhaps I've become a pessimist since leaving and seeing other cultures, other schools. To be independent thinkers students need to be curious and to be curious there needs to be something more than exams at the end of the tunnel.
I've never had more free time than I do right now, I've also never learnt so much. I can tell you the history of 5 different countries, say hello and thank you in more, I can tell you how caves and mountains were formed and I can tell you how many muscles are in an elephant's trunk (150,000). I've read more than 20 books, most of which are classics, including: the thorn birds, the raven, Anne of green gables, the long walk to freedom, sidhartha and a few classic children's books.
Maybe we just need to give these students more time? How can they be independent when we're telling them exactly what to do from 8:30am to 3:30pm. I mean I'd be exhausted! Especially with extra curricular and homework.
Is there a better way? What a loaded question. There has to be. Maybe an independent study period. Students could use the hour to further their learning on anything or read a book. But alas that would take away from us feeding them the facts they need for the exams.
Did you know in the Netherlands students can get university credit for going to a school where they study what they want with no exams. Seriously, they could study skiing and rock climbing or photography, there's even a knitting option. Just do the things they enjoy, get better at it and it counts toward university. They also finish school at 18 not 16 ( i know we technically do too, but there's something to not having exams at 16 - I mean that's a hell of a lot of hormones). There's a reason it's the happiest country in the world.
Something to ponder on I suppose. Maybe give your own students an actual independent project, see what you get. If we lose our optimism we will lose the battle completely.