Caves, watering holes & firesides - a framework for independent learning



Caves, watering holes and firesides - a framework for independent learning

We are so obsessed with outcomes that we scaffold all children's learning to the extent that we don't actually know what they can do. The forensic analysis of micro progress has been such an addiction for most school leadership, that the majority of teachers are in fact marking themselves when they review up to 90 books every night. What is the point? I know there is a fad of "feedback not marking", but most have missed the authentic conceptual shift it represents and ended up simply renaming what they have always done. We are good at that in education: things go round and round with nothing really changing except the buzzwords.

Several years ago, "learning loops" was thrown around. It has very solid roots in academic research and can be incredibly impactful, but very few teachers actually enact these loops; learners are not able to be independent just because you ask them. Many teachers also mistake children scuttling off to work on their own for 20 minutes as being independent: they are not the same. To truly withstand its pressures and make the most of its potential, working independently requires a complex set of embedded learning behaviours, the ones we tend to have as posters round the school - curiosity, resilience, creativity etc. You have to manage your time, set goals, self-assess progress, adjust expectations and compromise with your own internal perfectionist. The common contemporary classroom, which bears a remarkable similarity to the Victorian workhouse schools, is simply not designed to facilitate that kind of flexibility.  

There are pedagogical approaches that metaphorise HOW learners can be independent. I've worked with teachers to implement a system of Caves, Watering Holes and Firesides: physical spaces that suggest to learners how they are expected to learn within them. This requires training for teachers, and patience on behalf of leadership: two elements very much squeezed within the current climate, but I know that it works. I know it works not just because of the extensive research that suggests it does*, or because I have been asked to share this learning and thinking with schools and leaders from the Taipei European School to the Practical Pedagogies Conference in Cologne, but because I designed a school around it. 

Wallscourt Farm Academy, in Bristol, UK, is a prime example of how the concept of "Environment as the Third Teacher" was an intrinsic part of the brief to the architects. Building an open-plan school focussed on intense fireside homezones, mobile writing watering holes and flexible individual tables that can pretty much be made into any shape for any number of learners (caves) means the space is fully flexible. Learners and teachers can adapt different learning modes at certain times, or make all forms available for learners to choose from. 

Independence is having the freedom to choose how, where and when you want to learn. Adults do it all the time. We choose to work with music or without; to write notes or not; sit back and listen or mindmap as someone talks: it is all about choice. Choosing to take responsibility and self-regulate is the real definition of learning independently. There is much more to it than just a new buzzword, it is something we have to build in to the fabric of a classroom if we want learners to truly achieve and understand it.

*Fernández-Toro & Hurd, 2014; Ovenden-Hope & Blandford, 2017; Hockings, Thomas, Ottaway & Jones, 2018