Motivating students to become independent learners

Susan J. Natih ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 11/09/2008 11:05 AM  |  Supplement

For teachers, life’s unsung heroes and heroines, every day is a busy day and children’s assessment an ongoing and multi-faceted process which must seek, among other things, to provide valuable clues about how a child is learning and to enable each child to learn in the way that suits them best.

Formal examinations are often a key part of this process and for many national plus and international schools in Indonesia, besides an increasing number of state schools that offer international programs together with the national curriculum, November heralds the onset of various international examinations both at primary and secondary levels.

While an international test such as CIPAT (Cambridge International Primary Achievement Test), taken at the end of the primary years, provides recognized benchmarking and feedback that can support a child’s ongoing learning, high grades in international examinations such as Cambridge IGCSE (International General Certificate of Education), AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A Levels (Advanced) taken at the end of Grades 10, 11 and 12 respectively, facilitate entry to top universities around the world and to a growing number of universities in Indonesia that offer international programs.

However, the challenge for schools, particularly those that offer a combination of Indonesian national curriculum and international programs, is not only to guide and motivate students to be successful in these various examinations but to inspire them to become independent learners who love learning for its own sake and who possess the motivation and skills to enable life long learning.

While the process toward independent learning begins during the earliest years of childhood, independence becomes especially significant as students rise to meet the challenges of the secondary phase of their school education.

For teachers, in the words of Alastair Smith, 2006, “Our job in schools is not so much to get students through the secondary school course, as to ensure their satisfactory completion of a course in higher education.”

When we consider the school world as a microcosm of the real world with all its opportunities and challenges, it becomes clear that children must be equipped with a range of skills that not only enable them to do their best in formal examinations at school but also to do their best academically, socially and emotionally, in college, university or whatever their chosen career or life path beyond school may be.

Exploring the most significant influences on a child’s learning, we find that their own attitude to learning is of paramount importance followed by the active involvement of parents/guardians, guidance and mentoring by teachers, and fourth, the curriculum implemented by the school.

Each of these factors is interconnected, with teachers and parents making their own special contribution to a child’s self reliance, ability to think, to plan and to make choices. Teaching is very much about winning the hearts and minds of children and about developing genuine partnerships with parents.

The universal goals of parents and teachers are for children to be happy and healthy, to be academically successful and to reach their full potential while at the same time getting along with others, making friends and developing socially; in other words, “We want to develop self-sufficient, dependable members of our community and of the world.”

As teachers, if we think about the essential skills that a child needs to develop to become an independent learner, we find the following to be of great importance: questioning, communicating, self-reflection, decision-making, collaboration, the selection and assimilation of facts, comparison, evaluation and synthesis of facts and to confidently and respectfully challenge, criticize and disagree.

For each skill, teachers need to guide and model, for example, to demonstrate good questioning and encourage open-ended questioning rather than closed questions that can intimidate rather than stimulate a response.

Skilled at using a variety of media and styles to present their ideas to a range of audiences, encouraged to become involved in setting their own criteria and evaluating their own success, to make decisions, to plan, listen actively and contribute in peer groups, students grow in confidence and take charge of their own learning.

When teachers provide a caring, stimulating and challenging learning environment, encourage curiosity, risk taking and creativity while enabling students to recognize both their strengths and weaknesses, giving them confidence to undertake new challenges, motivation will be achieved.

It is also very important that success is celebrated in a variety of ways and that students appreciate their future role and responsibilities in a changing global society. When we empower students to act in accordance with the principles of social justice, the long-term sustainability of life on our planet will be facilitated.

Students benefit in many ways when parents are involved in their education, tending to get better grades, to have a greater likelihood of going on to university and a more fulfilling education experience.

Schools that make parents feel welcome and valued, provide opportunities for involvement, besides regular and meaningful communications, help to build strong teacher-family relationships.

In conclusion we may observe that a student’s motivation to learn is connected to three life goals. The first of these is “personal maturity”, which is supported by a school’s commitment to character building.

The second is, “Loving relationships and family”, which is cultivated by the recognition and facilitation of parental involvement in a school’s character and academic objectives. The third life goal is “contribution to society”; this is modeled by community service activities and creative school projects in conjunction with business, government, the media and community agencies.

This three life goal framework pulls together the three crucial elements of comprehensive character education — home, school and community. It are these very same elements that foster an independent, lifelong love of learning. Best wishes to all students who have exams this November!

The writer is a founder and adviser of Central and Sevilla schools.

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