Encouraging Learner Autonomy

By Anthony Dunne 

PD (Mersey) Maths


There are many challenges to be faced when delivering GCSE maths in an FE setting. The time constraints, the apathy of some learners repeating a course they deem pointless or worse, a qualification they fear they will never gain. Ask yourself the question, if you garnered these perspectives, what type of learner would you be? I can answer this with confidence through experience; I was that learner. Me and French were never friends. I felt as though it was pointless (why learn French, they learn English don’t they?) and I was terrible at it. Worst of all my teacher thought the best way to combat this was through shouting and creating an atmosphere of fear. For me this was the worst thing to do. I would down tools or even worse, simply miss the lesson entirely. This is where an empathy for learners who say they ‘hate’ maths has grown from; I know what it is like to dread a subject through a mixture of fear of failure and futility.


This led me to the question; how would I have wanted to be taught? Have someone attempt to shout information into me? Or, another way? There is of course no precise other way that will work 100% of the time. If there was, I wouldn’t still be sat in my office typing this article, I would be sipping a beer on a beach enjoying my millions for finding the philosopher’s stone of teaching. However, what I did do this year was a little different to my approach in the past, which resulted in a more engaged cohort and lessons that were more relevant for the learners, namely increasing autonomy for the learners.


I am not a fan of buzz words or clichéd phrases, but increasing a learner’s independence should be the principle value of their time at FE; preparing them for employment or higher education. If I can contribute to this in any way, this will be a transferrable skill of merit. So, what did I actually do? The college I work for split our students into two main cohorts; new enrollers and returners. New enrollers are given two lessons per week lasting 90 minutes each. Returners have one lesson for two hours. To maximise this time, I made it clear as early as possible that learners were in charge of their own maths journey. Journey being the operative word; they knew their starting point, they knew their final destination and they all had the right directions given to them. It was up to them to choose the right path. To aid this, every lesson had a theme. Objectives depended on the area which they wished to focus upon. In conjunction with an assessment given to them every six weeks, a choice of three topics, with ramped difficulty within each subject, was given. It was up to the learner to choose what they believed they needed to work up on, with me facilitating and what their objectives should be by the end of the lesson. As they have set their own target, chosen their own work, this autonomy almost acts as self-motivation and competing against themselves. The learners go from passive to active and differentiate themselves.


Whether this has a significant impact upon their results will be seen in the coming weeks, but for now, attendance was not the problem it has been in the past, subjectively learners commented they preferred this style and believed they gained from each lesson and perhaps most important for the long term, they enjoyed maths. Whilst this can’t be given a grade, perhaps we sometimes lose focus on what should be important for learners.