What is Independent Learning?

During the initial meeting for my current MA Module, we were asked to write down a definition of what we believed ‘Independent Learning’ to be. Here is what I came up with…

Independent Learning is learning that is self-directed. The learning is defined, organised and completed by the learner. Educators (experts) may act as facilitators or guides. However, the learner is encouraged to plot their own path and to value their own research as well as input from peers on the same level as information and guidance that they may gain from teachers (experts).

Having just hosted #ukedchat where the topic was Independent Learning, it was clear that the 194 educators who joined in with the discussion all had different views on what IL is. As such I am under no illusion that my definition above is one of many interpretations.

In order to get a fuller understanding, I wish to complete a brief investigation and ask you to share your own definition of Independent Learning.

Do you agree with my definition? Would you add to it or change it in any way? Perhaps, you disagree with the way I’ve defined it, or see IL in a completely different way? Please comment below and share your definition of Independent Learning.

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James Michie

Husband, Educator, Writer, Runner...

14 thoughts on “What is Independent Learning?”

  1. I think part of the problem with a definition of independent learning is that because independent learning at the very least implies individual independent paths and strategies the definition is going to itself therefore wander.  I think as I see independent learning as being a means to an end (the end being academic success and an enlightened pupil) you can therefore adopt multiple different interpretations of independent learning so long as ones professional judgement allows one to see that you will reach your end goal.

    i hope the above made sense 🙂

    1. An astute and interesting response Brian. You have echoed the sentiments of Oliver Quinlan; he argued that it is in fact contradictory to define and/or try to teach independent learning. By it’s very nature can IL be taught or does the teaching of skills to help students become independent learners diminish their ability to learn independently?

      This makes the study of such a concept difficult. Moreover, it also creates challenges in terms of how it should be approached/encouraged within a classroom context. A question that is plaguing me at the moment that I believe is directly tied to this is: “Can learners (11-18 year olds) be independent learners? Do they know how?

      Both questions generate contrary ideas, in that I find it hard to square away an internal belief that IL is something that can be taught with the notion that IL is something that is not taught but rather a self-directed path chosen by the learner.

  2. I understand the two counterpoints here but I’m still confuzled. As I mentioned during #ukedchat, one thing is for sure though – loads of talking does not equate to loads of teaching. Whichever way you view independent learning, we all need to shut-up a bit more often for it to happen (and believe me James, I am a world-champion at not shutting up…)

    1. Agreed. I actually appoint a student to tell me if I have talked for too long. I’d like to say that it’s my passion and drive, to support my students in their learning, that keeps me interrupting their learning with thoughts, ideas, advice, but that would be a lie. Ultimately, I think I like the sound of my own voice, a little too much. 😉

  3. Agreed. I actually appoint a student to tell me if I have talked for too long. I’d like to say that it’s my passion and drive, to support my students in their learning, that keeps me interrupting their learning with thoughts, ideas, advice, but that would be a lie. Ultimately, I think I like the sound of my own voice, a little too much. 😉

  4. An interesting discussion. Here are a few thoughts based on James’ original blog and some of the responses. I hope they are useful.

    One danger with definitions is that they can lead to what we might call ‘either/or thinking.’ This is not a criticism, just an observation regarding a trap we all fall into from time to time. Anyway, making the observation here allows me to set up an Aunt Sally to throw things at.

    Here is what appears to be happening here.

    During an academic module, one of us was asked to define independent learning and that started this discussion.
    Therefore, independent learning exists and is a good thing.
    The either/or thinking part is the (implied assumption in some of the responses) that this means there is an opposite of independent learning -dependent learning – and this is a bad thing.
    This leads to a feeling of uncertainty and confusion for some of the teachers responding- they wonder if their young people can be independent, if they talk too much, and so on. In short, they wonder about their roles and their relationships with their students.

    The last point is obviously good thing. Reflection on practice is always desirable among, and a sign of, dedicated professionals. I want to explore the other parts a little.

    Let us begin by dispensing with the either/ or distinction and imagine a continuum of blends of independent and dependent features. At one extreme is pure dependent learning and at the other is pure independent learning. Between are various forms of learning that combine features of both dependence and independence. I have no idea if this is the most appropriate model but it leads to some interesting thoughts.

    Firstly, extremes are usually bad. It is easy to think of negative consequences of total dependence in learning- for example, learning verbatim what one is taught, no personal transformation of what is learnt and so no real understanding, no confidence in debating with others, reliance on others to be told what to think and what the right answers are, and so on. What about extreme independence in learning? There could be negative consequences here also – lack of openness to the perspectives of others, limited understandings that are not tested against those of others, lack of a perception of the need to even engage with others in learning, and generally a spirit of isolationism.

    The point, of course, is that the extremes rarely, if ever, exist in practice. James’ definition of independent learning to include the teacher as facilitator implicitly acknowledges this. Also, his desire to have his and other definitions explored also reflects dependence in learning. In fact, the very Master’s activity that set this blog in motion assumes a need to structure learning and so some degree of dependence on the part of the student. James was not left to come independently to the conclusion that exploring the concept of independent learning was a good idea, even though he might have done so sooner or later- might even have previously but not had this structure imposed on him.

    Learning is a social activity in which we depend on each other – also in James’ definition. We do learn alone at times but we also learn as we explore and debate together. We need help to learn efficiently. That is one reason why we have education systems. Sceptics, may think we have others (control, for example), and they may be right, but for me an important need for an education system derives from the fact that it is possible to support learning that would not otherwise occur, or which would take much longer to do so. I might be able to learn, say, Biology by myself, but it is much easier to get started if someone introduces me to the main concepts, ways of thinking, and so on. If so, education and totally independent learning don’t sit well together any better as concepts than education and totally dependent learning. Your students need you to talk to them. They need your support in learning. They need you to reflect on how well you are doing it. They need your reflections on how well they are doing. Teachers need to be proactive or what are they for? Can I choose to learn about photosynthesis if I don’t know it exists? I depend on an expert to guide me to important concepts and mechanisms such as this, if only to save me time. I can be simultaneously independent in that I am actively learning while being dependent on a teacher for help. We all need support in learning and that is one reason why we exchange ideas and knowledge informally, even after we leave formal education. We are both independent (active agents) and dependent (social beings).

    So the question, perhaps is not, ‘What is independent learning?’ but rather, ‘What features of independence and dependence do we need to encourage in our students’ learning so that they function efficiently and, more importantly perhaps, happily in our society?’ That is a very difficult question but one I have every confidence in the current generations of teachers to work through.

    Or perhaps, another question. If there is any validity in the above, do we really want learners in educational contexts to choose what to learn, how to research it and what the outcomes will be? (see @catmill). Perhaps some of the time as it intuitively seems good preparation for independence (or perhaps I mean active agency). But, all of the time? Not sure. Depending on your help in my learning.

    1. Thank you for the detailed and thought provoking response. I will try to respond in kind to some of the points you raise. 

      In terms of definitions, I believe that there is value in them as a mode to cause debate, which is what I believe I have achieved here. Moreover, they allow us to seek out clarity in our thinking and to explore ideas. But most importantly, they allow us to differentiate between specified and connected terms/concepts. 

      In defining independent learning, I am seeking to set it apart from ‘self-directed learning’ or ‘personalised learning’ for example. I believe that these terms along with a host of other describe either

      – features of independent learning;

      – learning that is distinct from independent learning entirely

      Secondly, your point about “feeling of uncertainty and confusion for some of the teachers responding- they wonder if their young people can be independent, if they talk too much, and so on. In short, they wonder about their roles and their relationships with their students.” These are the very questions that I believe we, as educators should be asking of ourselves and our students. We need to engage in an active reflexive process ourselves as learners to understand how to facilitate IL in our own classrooms.

      As you have noted I am not suggesting that IL is separate from systematised education but can be a part of it, with the teacher included. However, I do believe that more can be done to empower learners, giving them ownership over their learning – including “choosing what to learn, how to research it and what the outcomes will be”. 

      To achieve this, we have to take a step back and imagine a curriculum that is not subject specific, that is not defined by preconceived ideas. Instead I would like to see and be part of a curriculum that is responsive to the needs of both the individual learner and their community. To some this may appear to be an impossibility, to others it might seem like a terrible idea, however I do not believe that true independence in learning can be achieved until we are prepared to completely redefine the curriculum. 

      Imagine arriving each day with the learning undefined, with a the opportunity for you to learn as much as your students. I would like to be part of a ‘learning journey’ with my students – to explore and discover with them, supporting them when they ask and allowing them to define their own path. Idealistic? Unrealistic? Maybe, but I am certain we can do better; I am certain that learning can be this open… we just need to take a few risks and try it.

  5. Thank you
    for these further thoughts. You are right to think at you have achieved debate
    -an interesting one.


    I hope I
    did not give the impression of being disparaging about definitions. When we can
    agree definitions, they play a valuable, perhaps essential, role in setting
    agendas for action. The debate to reach this point, as you state, is also
    valuable. There are dangers though, one of which is setting up false
    dichotomies where in reality there are complex variations. I was not saying,
    however, that you are guilty of this. I was just playing with ideas that your
    piece provoked to see where they go – hence the term, ‘Aunt Sally’. The Aunt
    Sally stall imagined was one with a false dichotomy between independent and
    dependent learning. However, my thinking is becoming firmer in suspecting that
    there are dangers with that implied dichotomy and that people might move too
    quickly to adopting stances on either side.


    indicated, I feel (not as strong as claim, yet anyway) the
    independence/dependence in learning dichotomy may not be a simple dichotomy but
    really a complex set of possible complex variations. Also, that educational
    learning involves an element of dependency. Your argument seems to me to
    support the idea that that could involve pupil on teacher dependency, pupil on
    pupil dependency, and teacher on pupil dependency. Also, that, perhaps, in the
    ‘best’ educational contexts all are occurring.


    For that
    reason, I am fascinated by you having thoughts on differentiating concepts such
    as ‘self-directed learning’, ‘independent learning’ and ‘personalised learning’. I would love to see more details of your thinking on this
    and how these concepts relate to the concept of ‘autonomy.’


    myself, in struggling with this complexity, I am still not certain where I
    stand on the balance between some guidance in education and a vision of
    education in which young people always choose ‘ what to learn, how to research
    it and what the outcomes will be’. As I indicated, I am comfortable with the
    idea that this happens some of the time, but I am not (yet?) certain that it
    should be a universal educational situation. However, I discovered a book
    yesterday which argues along the lines of learner choice, which, if you haven’t
    seen it, may interest you (Joanna Swann,’ Learning, Teaching and Education
    Research in the 21st Century). Only dipped into it so far, so I may be citing
    inaccurately, but Swann seems to be arguing that this vision would lead to
    young people learning what they need to learn anyway, hence we don’t need to
    worry too much about thinking about what we want them to learn. However, she
    also appears to think that exceptions might be reading, writing and arithmetic
    and that these are necessary to getting the process started. Certainly, I have
    come across reading experts arguing that no one learns to read without some
    form of instruction, whether from parents or teachers. On a personal note,
    students on an introductory course to education and psychology that I teach as
    part of a universities commitment to lifelong learning, and which is intended
    to equip students to explore further in their own directions, are saying that
    they value the initial guidance and route maps provided. To me, they seem to be
    behaving autonomously but not independently at this stage. I emphasise, ‘at
    this stage’ as some of them clearly use the course as a ‘launch pad’ for
    explorations in directions chosen by themselves. But I still wonder if, at any
    time we are in a social situation involving learning together if that counts as
    independent. Anyway, I also wonder if we do need some help to enter the genre
    of disciplines. I do not feel convinced by arguments that disciplines are not
    important. For me, interdisciplinary thinking implies some disciplinary
    mastery. However, I think I might accept that ‘some disciplinary mastery’ does
    not have to mean the same as disciplinary expertise.


    issue perhaps concerns the differences between disciplines. Perhaps, just
    perhaps, some require more initial guidance than others to begin to master. The
    sciences spring to mind. However, all have some rules as to what counts as
    evidence or form of argument and we need to learn them somehow. Again,
    interactions with others who already know these rules seem the obvious ways.
    Those interactions may have to be with teachers in the initial stages, although
    there are other possible models – older pupils, visiting university students,
    and so on. However, these other models require a will to reorganise our current
    image and pattern of education.


    Let’s try
    a different track. If we take this discussion as a learning activity, this also
    seems to me to be a case in which we are both behaving autonomously but not
    independently. There is a process of working together towards a shared
    understanding – or a point when we are clear about differences that need
    further consideration and gathering of evidence and logic. Debate and
    discussion are shared activities, not independent. But we engage in them as
    autonomous individuals. We are dependent on each other for as long as we choose
    to continue this exchange. Now, of course, this raises the issue of whether we
    have the same meaning for ‘independence’ in mind. Not sure? 


    thinking seems to be going in the direction at the moment that autonomy

    independence in learning are distinct. Independent learning may have the
    problems (and others) I mentioned in my previous reply. As is probably clear
    now, if pupils are working together on a problem and without teacher input, I
    am beginning to question if that is independent learning, even if they choose
    the topic, the method and the aimed for outcomes. They are still depending on
    each other.  In fact, I notice that from
    your ‘On learning objectives blog you use various forms of guided interaction
    in which your pupils have some say in objectives or criteria but in which there
    seems to be some dependency on yourself to set the particular form of choice.
    Of course, this is a different type of learning than one in which the teacher
    holds all control and, perhaps,
    limits the pupils’ exercise of autonomy. 
    In fact, you imply that you mix and match the strategies to support the
    pupils in developing autonomy. In the image you paint above of shared learning
    between teacher and pupils, there would be exercise of autonomy by all and I
    think that is a valuable insight. I agree we could do better in this regard.
    From my perspective though, making that work would also require recognition
    that educational learning involves shared dependency by all participants.


    Part of
    my own dilemma is that I am implying a mismatch between the term independent
    learning and what actually occurs in pupil-centred classrooms and education
    generally. Yet, in implying there is both autonomy and dependency in
    educational learning, I too might face this accusation. Is there a better
    terminology that is clearer? Meantime, using this terminology, I think I am
    saying that an autonomous learner has either generated or taken ownership of
    questions and is exploring answers to them in contexts involving forms of
    shared dependency.


    Just as a
    slight change of direction. Is it possible to determine the outcomes of
    learning before learning, or at least to what degree of specification is it
    possible? Depends on the type of learning, I suppose -both the Scottish and
    English systems are, or have been, very objective driven with the assumption
    that learning can be precisely defined. However, again taking this exchange as
    an example, we might say that it aims to help us in clarifying our thinking and
    to help us to sort out a few concepts. However, we cannot predict the
    understanding that we will eventually reach and would not want to – it would then cease to be exploration. Our current
    objectives method of education may be grossly limiting our education here. It
    limits the autonomy of both teachers and pupils in this exploration.


    as I say, just in the process of thinking this through, so this is not a
    settled position and thanks for helping it along.


    It might
    be worth trying to identify some points where we might have common ground, even
    if we differ or uncertain about what follows from it..


    1)    That teaching is a process of
    learning, of inquiry, of reflection. I intended to take that as read in
    writing: “This leads to a feeling of
    uncertainty and confusion for some of the teachers responding- they wonder if
    their young people can be independent, if they talk too much, and so on. In
    short, they wonder about their roles and their relationships with their students….The
    last point is obviously good thing. Reflection on practice is always desirable
    among, and a sign of, dedicated professionals.”


    lessons are those in which both pupils and teachers learn from each other,
    although that does not need to be the same learning. Teachers learning might be
    more to do with learning how to support
    the pupils (not ‘direct’, notice) in learning the topics – prescribed or


    2) That
    we can do better in empowering our learners and teachers. In fact, I have been
    privileged to see teachers achieve this first hand, even when trying to hit prescribed
    syllabus outcomes (http://dl.dropbox.com/u/57871390/PISCES%20Pamphlet%20.pdf    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/57871390/%20Teachers%E2%80%99%20Professional%20Learning%20of%20Pedagogical%20Process%20Knowledge%20.pdf   http://dl.dropbox.com/u/57871390/Book%202%20Chapter%20for%20pre-circulation%20.pdf). Their aims we’re to do with
    inquiry though and that is setting another train of thought in motion (another
    time perhaps). This reply is too long as it is.


    the aim is to provide independent learning or autonomy, the curriculum does
    need extensive reworking, as do the metaphors we apply to education (http://www.pedagoo.org/2012/03/metaphors-learning-a-response-to-stop-teaching-and-let-them-learn/).
    Dedicated teachers such as yourself, those following pedagoo (http://www.pedagoo.org/about/) ukedchat on Twitter, and
    writing their own blogs are well placed to contribute to this. Perhaps, the
    next stage in teacher web collaboration is to move towards constructing a
    shared theoretical literature of practice. This might mean engaging more often
    in debates on conceptual issues, such as this, as well as sharing good ideas on
    practice. It happens already, but perhaps needs to be more systematic with
    teachers recognising their role in developing educational theory, as well as


    4) Your vision in the last paragraph is not unrealistic or idealistic.
    The question is whether we really want this all the time. I agree that some of
    the time it would be appropriate. Will the Swann change my mind and strengthen
    your position?

    1. Hi Colin, thank you once again for responding in such detail. You certainly did not give the impression of being disparaging at all. I was simply stating my position re: the value and purpose of definitions. I in no way wish to set up false dichotomies, however I believe that one of the difficulties in both diagnosing models of learning, as well as putting them into practice is that we often use specific terms to discuss them. The meaning of these terms is often both ambiguous and context specific. This is problematic therefore, due to the fact that any discussion can be at cross-purposes due to differing interpretations/understanding. 

      It is my intention to not separate independent learning and dependent learning but independent learning from personalised learning. I believe that there is ‘dependence’ inherent in both IL and PL. What I am arguing is that in terms of IL, that dependence is more ‘co-dependent’; peer-based dependence. Whereas in PL there is still a significant dependence placed on teacher to provide the learning materials. It being that these materials may be tailored to suit learners’ needs. IL on the other hand would offer a scenario where the learners choose the materials for themselves. I think there is evidence of autonomy in both IL and PL although I would argue (based on my definition) that there is a higher degree of autonomy in IL than in PL.

      I think you are right to acknowledge the complexity of this – it is not at all simple by any means. Not only is the notion of IL littered with many practical questions, such as: How will this work? Can students know what they want to learn? But it is also punctuated with more emotive ones, such as: If they are doing on their own then where does that leave me (the teacher)? So not only is it conceptually difficult to conceive of IL as separate from DL or PL but it is fraught with ideological concerns.

      Does there need to be teacher guidance from the outset? Yes. However, should we decide how much and should we decide the disciplines? I am not sure. What I do believe is that Literacies are fundamental to learning. I use the term literacies here in its broadest sense and wish to avoid veering into a further debate about definitions by introducing terms like digital literacies, media literacy, etc. The ability to read and communicate is necessary for all learning. However, do I believe that literacy is a subject in its own right and/or that it is the sole responsibility of English teachers to develop learners’ literacy? No, absolutely not! Therefore, I can imagine a situation where very young children choose ‘what’ they want to learn and the teacher helps guide them, developing their literacy, alongside sharing and informing skills. 

      It does appear that you see autonomy and independence as distinct and I think this is where we differ. I do not feel that they are distinct, in fact that I would see them as both synonymous and as stages in a learning journey. And therefore I could argue that this discussion we are engaged in, sees us acting autonomously, independently and co-dependently. In actual fact I would say that it is more a case of the latter. My continued response is reliant on yours, and vice versa. This however, is part of learner independence as you rightly note, that we both choose to involve ourselves in such discussions.

      To conclude, what I think I am advocating is a situation that provides learners with more choice and autonomy within their learning. This, in turn, will help them to become better, more effective independent learners. This being opposed to the current situation that I see all too often, where learners become over dependent due to a lack of autonomy, resulting in an inability to work either independently or co-dependently when they reach FE or HE.

  6. Thanks James. I have been away and continue to be very busy, so not finding time to give this the consideration it deserves. I am in agreement with the issues you raise and the questions are important. Meantime, I wonder if this presentation is of interest to your self and others – at least certain slides –  which model some of the issues (role of the teacher,who makes decisions, for example) being discussed ( not always using the same terminology though). The subject is science but I think that other subject specialists could modify the wording and argument to fit.  I just thought they might help to think through the practical issues, although I am not sure how easy they will be to decipher. 

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3116624/Constantinou_Fibonacci_Conference_27Apr2012.pdfWill try to get back to this later – I need to think about your second last paragraph, particularly- but you may well have moved on by then.

  7. My perspective refers to the independence associated with learning, particularly in the adult or the experiential journey one takes in identifying, relating and creating meaning of situations, events and activities which can inform their role or function, and at the same be a source of individual competency to deliver the tasks they undertake to meet the needs of the client or customer. More and more as we expand the teaching and learning environment to include a larger cohort of adult and working professionals, and the degree to which ‘distance learning and education’ has taken off in the 21st century, tells me we need to recognize those who make the smooth transition or who can demonstrate their ability to deliver product and service to the client in the best possible way. This adds to their credibility and their astuteness in conducting the tasks independently and with a strong sense of commitment. Dedication therefore must be rewarded in some form other, which has a close correlation to independent or self-directed learning.

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