Tough Love

Shortly after I arrived at Wellington, I remember speaking to a group of Sixth Form students about independent learning. In explaining why this would remain a strategic focus for the College, I cited critical thinking, adaptability, creativity, and self-reliance as skills needed for future success. I stated our commitment to developing future leaders – individuals who would be resilient in the face of change and ready to shape the future – and clarified why independent learning was central to this aim. One student approached me at the end and said,

“Mr Thomas, that independent learning idea sounds amazing, but could you please hold fire for a couple of years until I’ve finished my exams?”

There are a lot of misconceptions about independent learning. On Monday, during our staff training day, I felt proud and heartened as I listened to colleagues talk in practical terms about the culture we have created at Wellington. Mr Allcock spoke about the year he spent at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire three years ago: how he returned with a greater understanding of Harkness teaching and how the philosophy of Harkness, which places the focus on the learner and encourages collaboration, has become increasingly embedded into life at Wellington. Mr Sproat spoke about the methods being used in Maths to help students to identify their own areas for improvement and to encourage them to take ownership for their learning. Dr Williams challenged colleagues to reflect on what their students are currently not doing for themselves that they could do for themselves and, to illustrate his point, provided the following anecdote.

While preparing his presentation on independent learning one evening, Dr Williams was interrupted by his young son, Bertie, calling from the bedroom. Rushing up the stairs to see what was wrong, Dr Williams found Bertie complaining that the covers had fallen off the bed. The irony of the situation did not escape him. He was caught in a dilemma, a dilemma faced often by parents and, just as often, by teachers: should he take the easy option, replace the covers, tuck Bertie up, and return quickly to writing his presentation, or spend time showing Bertie how to replace the covers, thus revealing his capability to do it for himself?

The first option – the most expedient and the most efficient – is undoubtedly the easier option for both the parent and the child. The second option, which takes thought, patience and an investment of time, is harder. And here’s the thing: it is harder for both the child and the parent.

Developing independence is not about increasing the workload of the student while the teacher enjoys a lighter load. Neither is it about tough love, nor about being cruel to be kind. Independent learning, as it is defined at Wellington, is more about balance. It is about ensuring that both parties commit to an equal share of the work.

It comes down to effective collaboration, distributed leadership and, above all, to relationships that are built on trust – all of which are now essential ingredients of the Wellington experience, and all of which provide excellent preparation for life beyond the College gates.

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