Creating pupils who take responsibility for their own learning

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Responsible learning: Pupils at St Silas Primary School in Liverpool help one another to learn

Creating responsible children and encouraging your students to begin to take responsibility for their own learning is an admirable ambition for every school. Fiona Aubrey-Smith draws on some examples of good practice to offer advice, ideas and guidance

We know that active, engaging and relevant learning leads to the greatest outcomes – far beyond progress measures or age-related expectation milestones.

Children who have an intrinsic sense of responsibility for their own learning will stand the greatest chances of succeeding in any area of their life. So, what practical ideas can be adopted to start or support your children in becoming “responsibility-led learners”?

Increasing children’s sense of responsibility

Many schools have a School Council in place with children representing classes and year groups to share their ideas about whole-school matters; most often focusing on playtimes, toilets and charity fundraisers. This is a great first step for engaging children in having shared responsibility for their school community.

However, it can be very easy for School Council to become a half-termly didactic carpet time with the most articulate children from each class contributing ideas which reflect only a portion of the intake, and focusing on issues which don’t make any real impact on teaching, learning or wellbeing.

Bear in mind that children spend seven years at primary school, whereas over half of teachers change schools after just three to five years – who has the greatest personal investment in the future of your school?

There are lots of approaches across the country to ensuring that children are given opportunities to make more of an impact on their school and thus their future. Consider the following:

Class representatives

If you have children representing their class or a particular group, how do you (or how could you) teach them how to ensure that this representation is effective? You may have developed the quality of staff questioning beyond open/closed questions and explored how questions can challenge thinking through Bloom’s Taxonomy for example, so could you cascade this training for children?

Similarly, while your teachers might ensure that they listen to each child in the class, how will the children be taught to listen to all of the opinions of those that they represent – particularly those whose opinions may differ or oppose to their own?

The word ‘pupil’

Reflect on when and where you use the word “pupil” (e.g. Pupil Voice, Pupil Progress). While it is just a word, think about the inference. “Pupil” is usually used as an administrative word and implies a sense of passivity. For children to become more responsible they need to feel a sense of shared ownership. For this reason many schools now use the term “pupil” only in administrative contexts – or sometimes not at all – choosing instead to use words such as “children”, “learners” or “students”, more proactive words which infer equality, responsibility and assertiveness. This simple change can make a subliminal, yet notable difference to how the stakeholders in your school interact with each other.

Student leadership

Many schools now have “Student Leadership Teams” – children who undertake specific learning walks where they are identifying strengths and opportunities in teaching and learning across the school.

These are not mini-inspectors, nor are they evaluating the quality of teaching, but instead looking out for what they like in classes other than their own, and where there might be opportunities to share those great examples across other year groups.

As adults we can learn so much by looking at learning through the lens of a child – they notice the detail and what the children experience (whereas as teachers or leaders we focus often on what we want the children to experience). This is a very effective way to share good practice across the school, and to improve teachers’ awareness of their own actions. Heads who use this approach have said that the trick to making it work is:

  1. Ensure that children have a specific focus – for example use of resources.
  2. Take the children out of their own classroom so that they have a freshness to their observations.
  3. Prepare the children to focus only on identifying strengths and opportunities (this is about sharing good practice, not evaluating).
  4. Have specific roles for the children in the group – a facilitator who keeps the children on task and focusing on the right things, a scribe/videographer who captures the observations, and a timekeeper who ensures that they are efficient.
  5. Go with the children as a silent observer yourself; but don’t take notes and don’t get distracted by your own observations – just watch and listen to what the children see and talk about and see what you can learn from both their approach and their findings.

Child governors

Lots of schools are starting to introduce child governors. These children work alongside the governing body to give a child’s perspective on key issues. We have governors representing parents, staff, local authority et al, but why wouldn’t we represent children – our key stakeholders?

With your governing body, look at your terms of reference, roles and responsibilities, and perhaps “find and replace” child with parent in the document – just to start thinking and talking about what a child governor role might look like.

Increasing children’s responsibility for learning – and not just their own…

A superb example can be found at St Silas Primary in Liverpool. Gina Donaldson, the nationally recognised and innovative head of school, explained: “We have introduced AfL cups which are essentially red, yellow and green paper cups. These cups are used by the children throughout the lesson to demonstrate their understanding – so for example, a child who is struggling with a concept or a task would display their red cup, whereas a child who fully understood and could teach someone else would display a green cup.

“The children are then taught to support one another – a green cup would go to help a red cup or a green cup would come up to the front and teach the rest of the class. The children are also using the ABC method to support and challenge one another. If a child gets out to the front to showcase their work or demonstrate their understanding, the rest of the class are expected to either Agree, Build On, or Challenge the child at the front.”

Simple techniques such as these can have a huge impact on learning because, as Ms Donaldson explained: “This style of teaching has really helped to shift the emphasis away from the teacher onto the children and the learning.” And it is this ownership of learning which ensures that children make accelerated progress and higher attainment across the curriculum.

Another great example

Flipped learning is another great example of where children take responsibility for what and when they learn, and this has become ever more relevant with the focus on breadth and mastery.

As Martin Johnson, respected national leader and headteacher at Sacred Heart RC Primary in Bolton, explained: “When children have understood a concept – either easily or after a challenge (or both!) – we enable them to record the process of their learning.

This may involve filming how they solved a maths calculation or how they used a specific type of SPaG.

“By recording this and uploading it to an online learning space, other children can then watch from home – and be ‘coached’ in how to solve/grow their learning.”

The significance in peer-led learning should not be underestimated as it benefits both children – the informality and fresh perspective of the recipient, and the deep learning that comes through the explaining.

Quality of teaching

Schools where “responsibility-led learning” is a priority see some of the most significant gains in improving the quality of teaching and improving children’s outcomes, and there is a momentum building in recognising the power of this approach.

Sophie Powell, executive headteacher of The South Rise and Wingfield Partnership in south London, feels passionately about responsibility-led learning and across her schools there are a range of great ways for children to increase their sense of responsibility for their own learning through practising key lifelong learning skills.

Two of the many examples lend themselves to schools that are focusing on developing assessment for learning, questioning, higher order thinking and deeper learning.

  • Socratic dialogue: where children work in small groups, guided by a facilitator to respond to “big” questions. This is a superb technique for enabling children to drive their learning and differentiates well to children’s inquisition and starting points.
  • Reciprocal reading: where children take on the role normally performed by a teacher in small group reading sessions, and focus on developing the skills of summarising, question-generating, clarifying and predicting.

In addition, Ms Powell strongly believes in the power of language and vocabulary that is used, and the importance of developing this with every individual across the schools. The impact of children, teachers, non-teaching adults and the wider community using shared vocabulary can be transformational.

In particular the use of value-infused terms to articulate learning dispositions, behaviours and processes can shift mindsets from learning being passive and children being recipients, through to learning being active and children being the co-authors and owners of their journey ahead.

At Wingfield Primary in Greenwich, the learning dispositions Aspirational, Adventurous and Independent are used constantly through learning dialogue by both children and adults. This is further supported by the use of metacognitive approaches throughout teaching and learning so that children have a deep understanding both of the specific learning they are undertaking, but also “how” they are learning – crucial for lifelong skill development.

The final word goes to two pupils from South Rise Primary: Sarah, year 6, said: “Doing Socratic dialogues really helps my confidence in public speaking and improves my ability to discuss viewpoints. It’s really good to have challenge and develop our opinions.”

And Eduward added: “Socratics help me to develop my confidence in public speaking. It’s also good to consider opinions and viewpoints and challenge to learn.”


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