The following article comes from KS2 class teacher Daniel Wilson, who shares his idea of the ‘autonomous student’ and why it is so important in education.

Let me rewind the clock briefly to 2018.

As an NQT, I was lucky enough to take part in a project entitled ‘Erasmus-3T’. This involved groups of education professionals from the UK, Denmark and Finland spending time in one another’s local schools whilst observing what could be transferable practise in relation to time, talent and technology.

Our first port of call was Copenhagen, where I vividly remember being blown away by the ethos of the school communities. As I wandered through the corridors, guided by enthusiastic and confident students, the trust and responsibility gifted to the children, of all ages, was obvious and grasped firmly by willing learners who took ownership of the tasks and challenges they were confronted with.

Teachers facilitated learning, whilst their engaged cohorts worked efficiently. The sharing of ideas and knowledge was encouraged and a team mentality was highly evident. These levels of trust ran even further during break times, and at one particular city-centre school the children were encouraged to spill out of the grounds, through open gates, into urban spaces frequented by passers-by and motorists. Footballs rolled into roads and were retrieved by patient players who thanked the cars that had stopped. Not a single reflective jacket in sight, no risk assessment, just a system and routine instilled from day one that had resulted in this harmonious normality.

During their return visit to Bedford, I remember taking my year fours to a local museum less than a mile away. The Danish and Finnish teachers were baffled by how complicated the process of organising and executing a school trip was!

A genuine love of learning

I have to say that at this point, it was becoming clear that something funny was happening in the UK with regards to independence.

I looked at early years classrooms which are regularly based around a discovery approach. Children often roam free within their learning spaces; experimenting, creating and challenging concepts. The learning is facilitated here rather than forced. So where did this love of learning, and the drive to explore, go missing?

It’s only as children grow older, and progress through key stages, that ever-increasing structure is imposed. That ‘get-up-and-go’ has often become completely diluted by the end of key stage 2. In a nut shell, kids love being in charge. Mix that overarching concept with something fun and educational and you are onto a winner. Remove it and you risk the learning process becoming stale and monotonous.

I began to experiment with ways in which I could mould my group back into more self-autonomous and willing learners. The confidence of the Danish children had struck me as being incredibly impressive, and so I began to build increased opportunities to lead tasks and present in front of the group into my own teaching.

I had begun actively researching student-led learning online and the most innovative example stemmed from a blog post that discussed the book ‘Learn like a Pirate’ by Paul Solarz.

Students can earn the opportunity of a Silent Day if they demonstrate leadership qualities and independence throughout the year. On this day, Paul does not speak and instead allows the students to take charge of their classroom, decisions and conflicts.

Putting it into practice

This idea went hand in hand with my vision, and so I began allowing students to lead single lessons. Teachers would be elected democratically and use pre-designed materials to present to their peers.

After allowing multiple opportunities for the children to develop their confidence, behaviour management strategies and to experience low level disruption from the other side of their desks, they were given the opportunity to run the classroom for the entire day, and although this experience inevitably presented difficulties, the majority of my students found the process both enjoyable and rewarding.

Somewhat strangely for the UK, I took the majority of my class forward into year five, where we continued playing with new student-led concepts. (Funnily enough, the Danish remain with their classes for extended periods of time and I firmly believe that this helps to build strong rapport and routine).

I’m a huge advocate for the sharing of knowledge and almost always encourage discussion and work-related chat in my classroom.

Girl leading a lesson

This developed into my coining of ‘Dynamic Seating’ – an approach which tasks the students to seat themselves in positions of support or where they may be supported. It is a system which allows those of higher ability to master their learning through the teaching of skills, whilst supporting those of lower ability. Subsequently, I became free to float between students more efficiently.

I have since blogged about a number of other systems that I have put in place during the last three years, which have helped my classrooms evolve into student-led learning spaces. As a consequence of these systems, I believe that I’ve helped turn out some well-rounded, confident children with bigger aspirations and better attitudes towards their peers and environments.

My work on ’The Student-Led Classroom’ and the systems I have put in place is available online for anyone who wishes to take their first steps towards this dynamic.

I’m more than happy to lend an ear or offer advice on the subject, and would firmly encourage teachers to increase the levels of trust and responsibility afforded to their groups as we seek to develop enthusiastic, independent and driven young adults with a life-long love of learning.

Daniel Wilson


Daniel Wilson

Daniel is a KS2 class teacher in Bedford, UK who will be moving to Abu Dhabi, UAE to teach in August.

He is the author of The Morning Challenge and promotes student-led learning on The Student-Led Classroom blog.

Follow Daniel on Twitter – @thestudentleads.

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