Children Benefit From Having Choice Education Essay

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The term independent suggests being able to do things for oneself. Williams suggests that an increase in independent attitudes and skills is a sign of growing up and that further development of independence relies on the attitudes and influences prevailing from the home environment. Teachers should equip children with the desire and the capacity to take charge of their learning through developing the skills of self assessment' (Assessment Reform Group, 2002). Putting this knowledge into a school context, Furedi (2010) expressed concerns that some children, especially in Key stages 1 and 2, are being increasingly over protected and thus the development of their independence is being stunted. In Furedi's (2010) study it was noted that 'a lot of children no longer have opportunities for experimentation, risk taking or adventure in primary school'. Furedi (2010) set out to encourage Key stage 1 and 2 teachers to appreciate the range of views and past experiences that children bring with them to school and to 'provide a classroom environment in which children can reach their individual potential and where an increase in independence, as well as collective responsibility, is valued' (Williams, 2003).

The National Curriculum states that schools should 'influence and reflect the values of society' and '...develop pupils' integrity and autonomy...' (DfEE/QCA 1999: 11). Autonomy can be defined as 'the ability to make decisions about what to do rather than being influenced by others. In addition to this, the 'National Curriculum for primary teachers' (DfEE/QCA 1999:11) it is stated that the curriculum should 'build on pupil's strengths, interests and experiences and develop their confidence in their capacity to learn and work independently and collaboratively'. Following on from this the curriculum guidance for the foundation stage (DfEE/QCA 2000: 12) suggests that 'the learning environment should provide a structure for teaching within which children explore, experiment, plan and make decisions for themselves'. This also indicates a strong desire to promote choice and independence from the start of a child's education.

Attitudes on promoting choice and independence in learning are examined in a wide range of government reports and research. Well- managed Classes (Ofsted 1991) provided evidence from six case studies of six teachers. From this research, it was concluded that well organised classrooms were seen as those where pupils had responsibility for materials and making choices. If children have responsibilities, they have a degree of independence. In this study children were organised into groups to give opportunities for leadership and responsibility and to allow children to work unsupervised when teachers were with another group (Ofsted, 2002) thus promoting independence. In addition to this, when discussing unsuccessful lessons, Primary Matters (Ofsted, 1994) cited lessons with an over reliance of work sheets. This report went on to suggest that effective teachers were seen as those who question effectively and assess a child's knowledge of a subject through reviewing their independent study as opposed to monitoring work sheets. During my initial observational placement, I worked in a school where there was a 'no work sheet' policy and as stated in my observational placement review, I feel this helped boost children's self esteem as they had an active role and shared responsibility for their own learning and thus greater independence. This theory is supported by Sammons et al. (1995) who cited that "children who have shared responsibility for their own learning will increase learning effectiveness." The National Curriculum (DfEE/ QCA 1999: 11) states that primary schools are required to '...develop (pupil's) confidence in the capacity to learn and work independently and collaboratively'. Supporting this notion, the 'National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education' suggests one approach to teaching involves 'providing opportunities for young people to explore and recognise what their own assumptions and values are and how they have been formed' (NACCCE 1999: 97)

However, there are critics of the notion that a classroom in a primary school setting can effectively promote an independent approach or if this is simply rhetoric. A problem for teachers is said to be maintaining the promotion of children's independent responses, while at the same time ensuing the curriculum targets are met. Moyles (1992) suggested that there is an important relationship between teachers preferred teaching styles and their ability to 'learn from children's contribution to the teaching and learning process' implying that independence is void. Moyles (1992) stated that "a teaching style that encourages a variety of contributions from children will be one that recognises the importance of an independent approach to teaching and learning." When I asked the teacher with whom I was placed, what they considered an independent child to be, they expressed the child must be able to do the following. An independent child must have the ability to learn and think for themselves; the ability to work by themselves and to also to be confident in seeking assistance; the ability to work without seeking approval and the ability to use initiative and balance the expectations or them in school. I also enquired about the difficulties in being able to achieve these in a primary school and was told that using an independent approach has a big affect on teaching and the curriculum/classroom environment sometimes inhibits independence and the responsibilities that can be achieved.

Research suggests that 'children should be encouraged to write independently and allowed to experiment freely in order to understand to power of written messages' (Whitehead, 1996). Whitehead (1997) said that the literacy environment in primary schools should encourage children to experiment and understand the messages that can be conveyed through writing. Whitehead (2000) also implied the importance of children's thinking and how it is conveyed as they talk and goes on to say that a teacher who can understand the link between thought and language can scaffold children as they think out loud. Therefore, it is important to create an environment in the classroom where there are opportunities for children to think independently and to share their thoughts with others. I found this an extremely useful tool when on my placement. I found that allowing the children to discuss their ideas in small independent groups first, before sharing them collaboratively as a class, improved the way they put across their ideas and helped tremendously when writing their ideas down. My findings therefore support Whitehead's (1997) theory that independent thinking is beneficial to children's writing.

Whilst on my placement I also noticed the importance of silence and significant pauses throughout the curriculum, and how these gave children time for reflection and to formulate ideas. This was something I learnt from the experienced TA in my placement class who rightly said that all too often adults are very quick to jump in and help children, when in reality; the child is getting there independently. I decided to test this out with a small group of children in a literacy lesson that I was teaching. The lesson was on instruction writing and I had purposefully given them bad instructions. Despite my instinct to help them understand why they were bad instructions, I took the advice of my TA and remained silence. Although it took a lot longer than I had anticipated for the children to come to the end result, I was over the moon when they reached it and made very clear how pleased I was for them. The children seemed delighted that they had done this independent of the adults in the class and took a lot more pleasure from the learning objective than other children in the class who had received more input. The theory of allowing silence to promote an independent learning environment is supported by Calkins (1986) who says that 'the context for talking and writing should include time for children to think, reconsider and rework.'

Piaget (1959) believed that a child's cognitions 'consisted of internalised and co-ordinated action schemas'. From this we can depict that, it is important to allow opportunities for discussing and writing about topics that are relevant to the children and that reflect their lives outside of school. During my third placement week, whilst teaching 'instruction writing' in literacy, I decided that it was very important to use examples of instructions that were relevant to them. In my final lesson, I allowed the class to work independently on writing their own instructions. I gave them some restrictions such as following a typical instructional format, but on the whole they had a free choice to write instructions for anything they wanted. The results were outstanding. The children had incredible ideas varying from 'How to turn your teacher into a frog' to 'How to play 'Missing'' (their favourite class game). One child even wrote a set of instructions for the children in Key stage 1 on 'How to make it to Year 6'. Not only were the results of this lesson extremely rewarding, the children didn't want to stop writing. I believe that if I had gone in and been regimented and dictated to them that they were to write a set of instructions on a topic in which they had no interest, I would have lost their interest. The fact that they had the choice and independence to decide what to write about, allowed them to feel passionate about their work and produce credible results.

From reading literature with regard to this area of pedagogy, and in relation to the evidence I gathered during my own teaching and observational experiences, I have come to the conclusion that promoting independence in the literacy environment is extremely important. Calkins (1986) states that 'an independent environment that is aesthetically pleasing and where children will want to talk and to write for various audiences'. During one of my days acting as a TA in another class, I witnessed the children come in from break time where the date and instructions for 'independent literacy work' was on the board. The teacher read out a poem about the weather. She asked the children to write a poem about the weather, including samples of personification. The teacher and I moved around the classroom. I found that the level of concentration was varied and it was clear from the plenary that some misunderstood the task. However, despite the lack of understanding the weekly timetable showed such a tightly organised curriculum programme, that the teacher decided to ignore the misconceptions and move on to numeracy. Alexander (2000) discusses that 'the organisational strategies that teachers bring to the curriculum and the interpersonal relationship between adults and children will have a lasting effect on children's learning. Overarching policies from central and local government and the perceived constraints that result must be tackled with confidence and firmness, when establishing what is appropriate.' Therefore, a learning environment that promotes independence further children's self-esteem and responsibility and may have provided an opportunity for this teacher to address the misconceptions in imperative.

Promoting choice and independence can also be used when planning and teaching numeracy. The first whole lesson I planned and taught during my placement was on measures. Before I started to plan any of my lessons I thought I would research what makes an outstanding lesson. According to Ofsted, fundamentals of an outstanding lesson rely on a variety of things, including pupils enjoyment and motivation, student engagement and independent learning and thinking skills. With this knowledge, and wondering how I could create an environment for this to be possible in, I asked a number of teachers in the staffroom how they developed positive attitudes towards learning numeracy, and how they developed confident children who can work independently. One teacher told me that in numeracy it is vital to use a variety of tasks and use plenty of resources and to let the children decide which measuring device to use. She stressed the importance of ensuring that there were plenty of opportunities for the children to experience success. Another teacher told me that in order to promote pupil enjoyment in numeracy there must be plenty of 'hands-on' activities and to use real life examples to help the children become more independent. All of the staff members, with whom I questioned that day suggested that in order to develop confident learners who would have otherwise find numeracy daunting and who are able to work independently, as a teacher I must acknowledge every child's contributions in a positive manner, encourage the children to learn from their mistakes, and explain that 'wrong' answers' help us discover new understanding. With this advice, I planned and taught my first numeracy lesson, trying my best to put into practice my newly acquired knowledge of promoting independence in numeracy. Throughout my first week of teaching numeracy I also found that encouraging independent and small group research allowed the children to value different approaches to solving numeracy problems and ignited their desire to find out more.

Polya (1971) said that "A teacher of Mathematics has a great opportunity.  If he fills his allotted time with drilling his students with routine operations he kills their interest, hampers their intellectual development, and misses his opportunity.  But if he challenges the curiosity of his students by setting them problems proportionate to their knowledge, and helps them to solve their problems with stimulating questions, he may give them a taste for, and some means of, independent thinking." Unfortunately, as I witnessed in my year 5 placement class, as children get older the pressure of the curriculum increases and the demand for accountability becomes greater. Curriculum delivery focus' less on independent learning and may become didactic, which as Polya (1971) suggests, has the potential to kill mathematical interest. Tensions inevitably exist and Cullingford (1990) describes a 'major problem for teachers being... the conflict between what they would like to do in numeracy lessons and the realities of the classroom'. Sammons et al (1995) when talking about raising children's self esteem in numeracy from a young age saw the attitude of teachers towards their children as being of paramount importance. Sammons et at (1995) implied in this research that respecting and understanding children, responding to personal needs, communicating enthusiasm, and allowing independence in their learning, were seen as having a 'beneficial influence on outcomes in their numeracy work.'

From the numeracy lessons that I taught and observed on my placement I came to the conclusion that when teachers promote independent learning in numeracy, they are encouraging their students to become self-sufficient in their own learning and to have more autonomy over their learning. Through observations in numeracy I saw that most learning took place when the children were finding and collecting information, making decisions and carrying out investigations. Even in these independent essentials of these lessons, the children had a large degree of true independence.  In this instance, the teacher might set homework to signify independent learning but literature forces us to think of the differences in children's independence and completing a worksheet. This is assessed after each lesson, which compared to a longer term project is not wholly motivated by the classroom learning. This highlights that despite the evidence that promoting independence is beneficial, the curriculum can sometimes be restraining.

In addition to English and Maths, it is also important to discuss the promotion of choice and independence in science. As a large part of the primary curriculum, I feel that science offers the greatest opportunities for children to become independent learners. During my placement I was extremely useful to be placed with the schools science co-ordinator and thus, I not only got to observe exceptional science, but I also managed to benefit from her wide knowledge about promoting independence in science. My class teacher explained that her main priority when teaching science was to always get the children up on their feet doing things for themselves, even if the experiment went wrong. She explained to me that science is all about independent exploration and in order to explore the children need to be engaged with interactive lessons. She went on to explain that every lesson should contain practical work. I questioned this and she went onto to explain that a science teacher may describe 'practical work' as open-ended investigations, demonstrations of principles, and opportunities for learning practical techniques, amongst others. There could even be a case for saying that 'children sitting at a desk reading, writing and talking with their neighbours is practical in the sense that the children are fully-involved and on-task' (Alexander 1995). My placement highlighted to me that the most important criterion for practical science should be seen to be freedom of movement, around the classroom or science laboratory, and even the school grounds. Following that, I noted that we need to see that the children are gaining some understanding of how science works, and having the opportunity to share their experiences with their peers, and others in Science Club, for instance which promotes an independent approach. Practical work in all subject areas can incorporate freedom of movement and sharing of ideas through presentations, therefore it seems that practical work in science must emphasise how science works (Harlen et al., 2004) and therefore engaging the children in independent learning.

The science co-ordinator also explained that the children need to have free access to all resources in their classroom and the independence to experiment with it. Having held this position in her prior school, and after introducing her previous class to this freedom of movement (at least during their science activities), she advised and supported all the other teachers in this new school, of whom, not surprisingly, the infant teachers were the most able, to implement this. Apparently, some teachers chose to do science with their whole class at the same time, others used an integrated day arrangement so that a group of children would be doing science whilst the others were doing something else. The important factor of course is that all of these ideas promote choice and independence in science, and the results are plentiful. This notion of independent freedom of movement is implied in Coulby's (2000) study.

Additionally, with the concern of science fieldwork, it was explained to me that once children are exploring their own school grounds independently in the same way that they are encouraged to explore their classroom resources and science laboratories, then they are gaining experiences which they can carry further afield on organised field trips. Here we are talking about the exploration of natural surroundings, streets, parks, derelict buildings, disused railway lines,, etc. Organised visits to nature reserves, farms, factories, museums, historic buildings, etc., useful as they may well be, would not come under this schools definition of practical work in science. Because they are regimented lists and do not promote independence. Even if the activities themselves are not planned in detail, with the idea of encouraging open-ended enquiries is essential and children are only independent learning if they have the chance to seek out knowledge (Assessment Reform Group, 2002). In this example, the children will be thoroughly briefed beforehand, maps provided if the area is extensive (by then the children will be familiar with plans of classrooms, laboratories and school grounds), and systems for dealing with emergencies and unexpected events included in their training. This school feel they successfully promote independence in science.

These are to name but a few of the fantastic ideas this teacher had to promote choice and independence in learning in science and she stands firm that the more independence a child has to investigate, the more they are likely to learn as a direct result, supporting Williams' (2003) study.

My observational experiences on placement lead to me the conclusion that independence liberates the child from being constrained by the curriculum and will allow the child more choice in exactly what they will learn about. This led me to question the role of the teacher. A drive to promote independence within the curriculum certainly means the teacher's role will change.  With children taking more responsibility for their learning in English, maths and science, the teachers' role changes from one of director rather than director of learning. However, teacher's roles are far from superfluous.  In fact, their role becomes more important. In my opinion, the old 'dictator' style of teaching can reasonably be completed by anyone courageous enough to stand at the front of a class and convey the appropriate amount of information.  Essentially, if children are learning this way, the teacher has become entirely pre-pared and afraid to deviate if necessary and the teacher's job is really just one of imparting information.

On the contrary, in an environment that promotes independent learning, the teacher's role becomes more compound.  It seems that there is more of a need to have greater skills and knowledge to respond to a potentially wider curriculum covered by children who have had the independence to learn inquisitively. As a result, it was clear to me that the teachers who promote idependence also need to be prepared to be flexible.  On placement I witnessed that teachers are able to assist children's learning in numerous ways and the teacher has to be prepared that these will vary with every lesson and every student. I was fortunate to see teachers acting as facilitators; providing children with resource materials, giving the children opportunity to test out their learning, and helping children to make sense of what they have learnt through experimentation.

In conclusion, it is clear to see from the literature discussed in this essay and through my observational and teaching practise that there are numerous theories as to why choice and independence should be promoted throughout the curriculum in primary schools. Teaching in order to tick boxes on the curriculum helps pupils pass the exams and teaches them exactly what is required of them and how to fulfil those requirements.  However, as clear from the used literature for this essay, this style of teaching does not prepare children for life beyond the classroom, and in most cases it stunts their passion, the spark they might have had for a particular subject, and most importantly their enjoyment.

To this end, it has been established that promoting independence in primary schools allows children to have abilities that will stand them in good stead both during and beyond their education. Such abilities include the aptitude to obtain and deploy information, communicate efficiently, solve problems independently and relate to others. It is vital to reiterate that one of the most significant roles of a primary school teacher is to promote independence in their children's learning.  This essay has highlighted that there are a number of exercises you can aim to achieve in order to promote independent learning.  These include; giving children appropriate selections so they can chose to learn about things that interest them and keep the spark ignited, encouraging group work in the classroom so that children can learn from each other, work together with pupils to set shared learning objectives, engage children in lesson planning, encourage children to reflect and complete self and peer assessment before their work is handed in. It is also vital to reiterate that the teacher does not become superfluous once independent learning is taking place.  In fact, quite the contrary is true.  The teacher's role becomes more significant than ever.  It does, however, change beyond all recognition. Promoting choice and independence in learning isn't something that needs to happen throughout English, Maths and Science, but to the whole curriculum. I believe that more research needs to be done to support the existing research and to highlight this further in order for the necessary changes to be made.