Where has all the independence gone?


I’ve had one of those weeks where things keep niggling at me. Much of this might be down to the obligatory end of year teacher exhaustion, but I think that there’s a bigger issue that creates this constant niggle – where has all the independence gone?


I have worked in education for nearly 14 years, long enough to see a whole host of changes, but more importantly a shift in the attitude of young people that has been subtle, but noticeable. Of course, I am generalising and this by no means relates to every child across the country or even within a classroom, but I seem to be noticing far more this year, that there is a lack of independence, a lack of wanting to do and find things out for themselves and far more of an attitude that success should come to them and not be earnt by hard work. However, this is by no means a rant against the youth of today, I adore teenagers, I have two (although scarily almost out of their teens) of my own; it’s more of a wondering about how or why things have changed.


So I’ve been thinking about this. Let’s be honest, technology hasn’t helped. When I was growing up, I came home from school and I either read a book or watched the 4 tv channels that were available. I watched Blue Peter and the news where I learnt about the world. Now there is too much choice. Teenagers only watch or immerse themselves in what they want to, and probably rightly so, there is too much choice to do everything. I know, I have 2 intelligent, lovely teenagers myself, but sometimes I realise that their general knowledge on the most basic of things, is somewhat shocking and makes me feel very guilty as a parent. They can only know what they need to know, if that’s what they want and if the answer isn’t there straight away, it has become less likely that they want to spend the time looking for it. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a good thing; a class I was teaching the other day suddenly wanted to know how many layers of skin we had as we were looking at an extract about Miss Havisham which described her as ‘skin and bone’ so we googled it. A new piece of general knowledge learnt. But I alone, can’t fill their brains up with all the worldly knowledge that will make them successful. No teacher can. It has to come from an independent desire to want to learn.


Over the last few years, the entire country has become a victim to the IGCSE in schools’ quest to make sure that there are exam results are good enough to stop them coming under Ofsted scrutiny. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a horrible exam. There is no creativity in the IGCSE, it’s formulaic. Do this and you will get this. Make sure you write the same amount of points for each bullet point and you will get this. Some schools, (although thankfully not my own or I would probably explode) are taking advantage of the fact that they only need a U in the Literature paper for the Language to count and just getting  their entire cohort to traipse into exam halls and sign their name on the top of the exam paper. Personally I find this technique utterly disturbing, as how on earth can we expect write coherently and with flair if they are not constantly surrounded by examples of good writing? It is also creating a whole new set of A level students, who have got the grade to do the courses, but lack the basic English and analytical skills needed for the courses. Higher education facilitators and colleges are bemoaning the fact that students are coming to them with a C in English, but whose writing and ideas is not of a C grade standard, and who expect things to be done for them.


But what’s my point? Why is this irritating me? Well. this week I had a lesson where a year 10 class were looking at a non-fiction text. It was an article about a headteacher who was critical of the effect of reality television. Firstly, I was irritated by the fact that the students thought she was talking rubbish as reality television was obviously the best and quickest way to earn money as they informed me, was being a ‘youtuber.’ Fair enough, that’s their opinion and I’m glad that they a) had one and b) were articulate enough to express it, but by this point was more than mildly irritated that they had argued that Mark Wright had ‘worked hard’ to get where he was. What blew my tiny mind though, was that I then asked them to pick out 4 reasons why the headteacher disliked reality television, they all just started at me blankly. After 10 minutes of cajoling, encouraging and eventually berating, one of the more, shall we say ‘vocal’ students piped up, “Miss, if we wait long enough, you’ll have to give us the answers because you won’t want us to fail.” Dumbstruck. But they have got that idea from somewhere.


So where has all the independence gone? This isn’t an issue isolated to my classroom, it’s something that I hear from other teachers in both my school and other schools across the country. By putting pressure on schools and teachers have we created a ‘hand-holding’ culture that has allowed students to become less independent as they know the slack will be picked up by us in the end? And with the advent of the new GCSEs is this now biting us in the bottom?


Under the new GCSEs students will sit nearly 8 hours of exams for English. I am not going to be there, they have to do it themselves. I can teach them, I can inspire them, I can mark everything they do, I can give them endless ideas of how to structure an essay, test them on quotes, help them to learn and use academic and exciting vocabulary and give them an understanding of context, but I can’t sit those papers and they need to be the ones who want to succeed and flourish. They have to want to work on and develop their writing; they have to understand that working at home is essential and not an optional task. And with a linear approach to the exam, they have to be able to constantly come back to previous learning and revise and embed it into their own minds.


But ultimately, can any of this change if the overall responsibility is laid at the teacher’s door? 4 weeks before a class sit their exam this January, I was asked by a parent what I was doing to make sure that their child passed. I have spent hours going over and over the texts, I have marked 100s of essays, I have taught them new vocabulary, I have sent work home when they were excluded or in the school seclusion unit and I have run revision sessions after school for the last year and a half. I will also be spending the next few weeks doing extra after school sessions and running Saturday Schools. Where does it stop being my responsibility and start being the students, or the parents to help support them to get these grades? But if they don’t get them who will be blamed? Me. I will be blamed by the students, the school, the parents, the government and society. This is where the problem lies. All these people should be working as a team to show young people that hard work will ultimately get them anywhere, that the responsibility lies at their door for them to want and need to do things for themselves. The new GCSE doesn’t work without independence, it just doesn’t. There is no coursework or controlled assessment to fall back on, to say that the teacher should have got them to red0 it a million times before it was submitted.


I don’t know what the answer is. To me there almost seems to need to be a cultural shift and not just in schools. I want my students to succeed, not for me, but for them because there is nothing better than seeing smiling faces, proud of what they have achieved. I’m looking at ways to encourage independence, particularly lower down the school so that I am not faced with a sea of blank faces again at GCSE, waiting for me to give them answers. There’s a lot of work to do with my GCSE classes. The current vogue seems to be getting them to teach each other all the time and I agree that this works sometimes, but can breed misconceptions and also what if no one is doing it to a good enough standard to be an ‘expert?’ But that’s almost veering off into another ranty topic.


It isn’t all students, I have students that email me random things they have written at home to critique, who constantly ask me how they can improve, who read and spend time at home perfecting and revising, who have curious, inquisitve minds and know that hard work gets you anywhere you want to be. For the rest, I just don’t know how we get them to ultimately understand that independence is a skill needed not just for school, but for life in general, when everyone is quick to blame teachers for their failure to be independent. A cruel irony and something I would welcome ideas to overcome – how do we break free of the hand-holding culture?









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