Autonomous learning responsibility – letting learners take the stage



Letting the students take the stage

Where was the teacher? How did she help the children get to that place? Who took the applause? How did the children feel? What touched you when you watched the performance? Why?

What did this teacher do right?

“The guide at the side, not the sage on the stage….”  (Quote source)

Teachers are no longer the founts of all knowledge. There has been a paradigm shift in the world of education. How has the teacher’s role changed and what has become a major priority? I’d like to address the latter with this short blog.

“It’s not about your teaching – it’s about their learning” (a mentor in a post-lesson feedback session)

Responsibility, not tyranny!

With more and more emphasis being placed on autonomous learning, teachers need to encourage learners to become independent of time, location and……. teachers. However, that doesn’t mean teachers are superfluous or obsolete. It boils down to being clear about roles and levels of responsibility. Who is responsible for what when it comes down to organizing and managing learning?

As soon as teachers take on a little responsibility, they send out a signal. In a heart beat, clever learners recognize how a teacher distributes responsibility. It’s easy for a teacher to become saddled with responsibility which, by default, should belong to learners – e.g. researching, gathering information, organizing and looking after material, organizing themselves into groups, managing tasks, creating products, presenting information, discussion, assessing, reflecting …..and even teaching…

Who is passive? Who is active? Simple questions. Get them right and students will be engaged. Get them wrong, and you will be engaged. Is it our aim to be active, or is it our aim to get students active? Students need to do the heavy lifting, not us. We are there to assist and support if the weights are too heavy, or to check if they are heavy enough.

So what do good teachers do?

Here’s a good teacher – a role model, motivator and a believer in success!


Apart from …..inspiring students to be better, sharing joy, being likeable and exuding hope, the teacher’s prime responsibility is, surely,to do everything to encourage circumstances and environments in which learners can get a sense of purpose and direction, acquire and use knowledge and develop individual skills in ways which :

  • motivate,
  • offer the right degree of challenge,
  • tap into innate passion/s and talents,
  • are affective (amygdala-friendly)
  • are personally meaningful and goal-oriented,
  • offer opportunities for them to build relationships through collaborative tasks
  • encourage deliberate practice
  • give choice,
  • result in tangible evidence of learning and success
  • help them become independent of timetables, classrooms and mentors
  • …..
  • ….

However, you don’t throw a non-swimmer into a stream and yell : “Swim! I give your freedom!”

All of this needs to be done carefully. It takes time. Learners need scaffolding. Some more than others. Some learners are keen to be independent immediately. Others need more guidance and opportunities to get it wrong, learn from mistakes and then improve. It’s the teacher’s task to recognize what makes sense to which learner at which time in their development. Then adjust and adapt accordingly.

Occasionally, too, teachers might actually take to the stage, give input, provide impulses, create and give captivating lessons, entertain and deliver erudite speeches. Occasionally…

Thrift, not theft

By hogging the responsibility for students’ learning, we are robbing them of the chance to develop competences which will prove invaluable in future careers. Does the boss do the leg work? Seldom.

Teachers, be thrifty in your advice giving, lectures and entertaining. Do not fill the vacuum. Let them. Let students take the stage. You can be in the wings if they forget their lines….Remember, they are the stars, so let them shine.

Ways to promote independence:

“Hey, teacher – Leave them kids alone!” (Pink Floyd)


I am a mentor at the SBW Talent Campus Bodensee.






Great quotes and food for thought

HighlightingReading is not just an act of passive consumption. For me, it’s an active process and the starting point for the development of individual thoughts and ideas. I cannot read these days without a highlighting pen poised above the page.

The act of highlighting enables me to focus more on the content whilst reading and, when I revisit the book a few weeks or months later, I can home in on specific quotes and remind myself of the thoughts I had at that time. This act of re-reading and reflecting helps to internalize the content.


Here is a collection of quotes I came across in the literature I’ve been reading recently. The purpose of this blog is to simply liberate them from the closed pages of my books and invite those who might be reading to ponder along with me….

On learning, self-control and behaviour, taken from “The Marshmallow Test” (Walter Mischel)

What infants are equipped to understand seems limited mostly by our ability as adults to figure it out (Walter Mischel)

If you want kids to learn how to get over frustrations quickly, bounce back from failures, and work independently with focus, they have to be given the chance to do these things in their academic classes, and the teachers need to structure their lessons to allow time for this…The key is that the teacher is no longer standing in front of the class teaching but rather forcing the kids to do heavy lifting (Dave Levin – KIPP “Knowledge is Power Programme, New York City).

I finished whatever I began (student self-evaluation in KIPP, New York)

We can help children develop “incremental growth” mind-sets in which they think of their talents, abilities, intelligence, and social behaviour not as reflecting fixed inborn traits but as skills and competencies that they can cultivate if they invest effort…..

…help them understand and accept failures along the route are part of life and learning and then encourage them to find constructive ways to deal with such setbacks..

On learning, aptitude (talent) and the influence of automation, taken from “The Glass Cage” (Nicholas Cage)

Most of us know that the only way to get good at something is by actually doing it. True knowledge, particularly the kind that lodges deep in memory and manifests itself as skill, requires a vigorous, prolonged struggle with a demanding task.

Without lots of practice, lots of repetition and rehearsal of a skill in different circumstances, you and your brain will never get really good at anything, at least not anything complicated. And without continuing practice, any talent you do achieve will get rusty.

…whenever we gain a new talent, we not only change our bodily capacities, we change the world. The ocean extends an invitation to the swimmer that it withholds from the person who has never learned to swim. With every skill we master, the world reshapes itself to reveal greater possibilities. It becomes more interesting, and being in it becomes more rewarding.

On happiness, taken from Sapiens (Yuval Noah Harari)

Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.

On learning, attention and motivation, taken from Focus (Daniel Goleman)

As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections….. Lacking focus we store no crisp memory of what we’re learning.

…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

When we are motivated by positive emotions, what we do feels more meaningful and the urge to acts lasts longer.

…environmental mindfulness: constant questioning and listening; inquiry, probing, and reflecting – gathering insights and perspectives from other people. This active engagement leads to smarter questions, better learning, and a more sensitive early warning radar for coming changes.

On behaviour, taken from “How we are” (Vincent Deary)

What other people respond to is not how you look but how you act.

Together, the room and I can do stuff that alone would be impossible. Rooms think.

…we keep saming when we ought to be changing…

Every day for everyone, there is a dialogue between comfort and unease..Staying the same is a constant and dynamic process.

These were just some of the quotes I gleaned from my recent reading; thought-provoking, (for me) fascinating catalysts for further ideas and inspiration.







Growth through effort

Effort really does lead to improvement.

It’s all a matter of mindset. Carol Dweck’s research into the effect of effort on students’ growth is a real eye-opener and provides us with ways to encourage our learners to become the best that they can be. In this extraordinary TED Talk, she sets out a convincing argument.

How do we get students to go for the stretch and go beyond just wanting to achieve the next grade? How can we encourage learners to develop into adults who do not crave constant validation? How can we nurture resilience and a mindset which embraces challenge?

Watch and be amazed.

Learning aims – Bloom’s Taxonomy

What do we want our learners to really do?

Call me a nerd, but I like to use Bloom’s Taxonomy to really pin down learning objectives. In a nutshell, there is the vertical “knowledge dimension” (factual, conceptual, procedural, meta-cognitive) and the horizontal “cognitive process dimension” (remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, create).

I use A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing

With it, you can better achieve alignment of assessment with objectives.


Example 1

Say, for example, I issue the following fairly lame learning aim : Learn the list of vocabulary for “things in the home”, all I am asking them to do is “remember factual knowledge (the upper left-hand square on the above grid). That’s not challenging. They will simply regurgitate a list of words. They know neither why nor how these words might be applied to specific situations. There is so much missing.

If, on the other hand, I issue a Can Do statement in alignment with the CEFR, and adjust the aim to : You can draw a diagram of the rooms in your house and use the vocabulary for “things in the home” to label the things you can see in each room. You can show this to a partner and describe your house, I am asking them to a) remember factual knowledge (A.1), b) apply it to a real situation with which they are familiar (A.2), c) create products which are tangible (diagram) and audible (spoken interaction). If we then ask the learner to rate (evaluate) how he/she performed the task of drawing and labelling, we are automatically encouraging them to develop meta-cognitive skills (D.4). And so it goes.

This makes for a set of more challenging tasks which, because they involve a degree of personalisation and interaction, will hopefully make the learning experience more memorable and pleasant.

Example 2

Let’s look at Cambridge English and focus on the PET Speaking Exam (below) to think about an appropriate learning aim in terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Learning aim for PET Speaking Test, Part 3, 60 second picture description.

You can speak English for 60 seconds and show you understand and know the difference between  present continuous and present simple to describe what you can see on a photograph, to practise for the Cambridge PET Speaking Test, Part 3.

PET picture boy in bedroom

“He is sitting in his bedroom and he looks like he’s playing a guitar. We can see he likes music and he also sings because there’s a microphone stand. Maybe he plays in a band. His dog is lying on the floor next to him.”

An example of what a CEFR B1 student would be expected to produce in the Cambridge PET exam during a 60 second monologue – Part 3)

By using Bloom’s Taxonomy, I can align the classroom learning activity with the exam assessment criteria. Here we are asking the learner to recall conceptual knowledge, the tenses (B.1), analyse and apply these concepts (B.3 and B.4) to create a dialogue (B.6). From another perspective, we could argue that our learners are being asked to recall, understand and apply procedural knowledge at the same time since they are aware of the exam procedure.

If we encourage learners to record, collect, present and reflect on their written and spoken work in an E-portfolio, we are firmly in D.6. This is as good as it gets in terms of honing their 21st century skills.

And here is Bloom’s Taxonomy grid again, just as a useful reminder (below) to ensure validity of learning aims – i.e. which reflect what students are actually expected to do during their learning. When thinking about assessment (which should be the starting point), students need to see a very obvious connection between that which they are being asked to perform/learn and that which they are going to be tested on.



If you ask the learners to remember and understand facts (vocabulary translation test A.1,A.2), yet the assessment entails application, analysis and creation (use the different items of vocabulary appropriately in a written context A.3, A.4, A.6), then there is little or no alignment.

At best, we can use their written work as formative assessment to diagnose how well they can understand vocabulary and use it to write a story, for instance. We can then give them feedback and further practice. That is low risk and makes sense. We can realign the learning aims and classroom activities accordingly. Assessment is a tool.

At worst, we ignorantly award a grade (as summative assessment) and shake our heads, wondering why they cannot use the vocabulary we asked them to “learn” when, at the planning stage, we failed to give them the therewithal with which to achieve a successful outcome. Those who got a good grade were simply lucky. The others were ill-prepared because the learning aims were out of sync with the test criteria. Assessment is a stick.

That’s a bit like asking them to tame lions, when you’ve only got them to practise with rabbits….

Further resources
Here’s something great which helps language teachers to use Bloom effectively.















Learning aims – Top Ten Tips

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right – especially when creating learning aims…

Whether it be something as splendid as planning a wedding, something as traumatic as moving house, decorating the living room, fitting a new kitchen, something as life-changing as giving birth, something as nerve-racking as preparing for a job interview or a driving test, something as exciting as planning a long trip or cooking an elaborate meal for 20 guests, something as potentially life-threatening as climbing a mountain or something as mundane as fixing a puncture or unblocking the toilet, there are key things we need to consider in order for our endeavours, however grand or miniscule, to be successful.

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Teacher as role model

Love what you do! 

So which teacher inspired you when you were at school? Ever ask yourself why? Which teacher gave you the feeling they didn’t want to be anywhere else? Which teacher captivated you?


Mr Keating inspired his class. Some might argue a little too much….He loved teaching and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Which of your teachers were passionate and seemed like they were enjoying themselves most of the time? Even when you gave them a hard time?

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