I often get asked to recommend ‘independent reading activities’ or ‘independent spelling activities’ for children learning to read and spell, and I’m always reminded of this article:
A revolutionary driving school in Finland has smashed the traditional concept of learning to drive and is taking the world by storm.
The state-funded School of Whole Driving, just outside Helsinki, has a play-based, holistic, inquiry approach to learning this skill. Novice drivers are encouraged to watch people driving, and are driven about as part of their schooling, with follow-up questions about their journey. They also do car-sorts, where they have printed cards with pictures of cars on them and they are engaged on a regular basis in sorting those cars into categories based on a range of features.
“Sometimes we have the learners sort the cars by colour, other times it’s make or model. It really helps them get at the deeper significance of cars,” exclaimed Anna Järvinen, principal instructor.
“Being immersed in cars is such an important aspect of their learning, as are independent driving activities where the instructor is absent and the only feedback provided is by peers. We feel that embedding driving errors through repetition is but a small price to pay when learner driver agency is prioritised so heavily.”
Walking through the doors of the School of Whole Driving, visitors are immediately struck by the level of activity (slower visitors are immediately struck by wayward vehicles, but that’s a story for another day). Everywhere you look, there are learners engaged in making cars out of Play Doh, matching big cars and little cars, colouring in car outlines or just going ahead and getting behind that wheel in regular ‘have a go’ driving activities.
“There’s been a real pendulum-swing away from teaching driving in a linear fashion, that is, starting with separate skills like being told the difference between a brake and an accelerator and building up to coordinating the more complex tasks of changing gears, indicating, reverse-parking and not killing people with your vehicle. All that stuff really takes the joy out of driving. We want to grow learners who drive for pleasure, rather than imposing some artificial sequence of simple to complex knowledge. Ugh, sage on the stage: so last-millennium.”
When asked about the success rate of this school’s method, Ms Järvinen indicated that no data was kept, due to the school’s fundamental disagreement with testing. “We saw a steady decline in driving ability across the board since the school’s establishment, so we scrapped testing altogether.”
An unusually large number of private driving schools have sprung up around the School of Whole Driving. Their approach favours a more explicit model of teaching and learning, when learning time is spent with students being directly instructed.
“Ah, yes, the learners who go to those schools are usually suffering from dysdrivia; probably as a result of not being driven around enough during infancy. I’m pretty sure poverty is the problem in a lot of cases too.” Said Järvinen. “The instructors at those schools have studied driving quite extensively, whereas we will take instructors whose training is more philosophy-based and who themselves have gained their degrees by studying the various ‘driving styles’ and ‘driving hats’ that are in the more holistic literature. We believe that driving is natural and our independent driving activities, which take up a lot of our instruction time, are a reflection of that.
Also, if we split the classes into smaller groups based on ability level, the instructors are then free to float around, asking Socratic questions, dodging out of the way of cars as they smash into objects, and generally being facilitators of joy.”
If you find any of this ridiculous, please also bear in mind that independent reading and writing is not well brought about through independent activity. Novice children depend on teachers to devote a substantial amount of time to explicit instruction. Independent reading and writing activities for those who depend on you for the knowledge needed to be independent is somewhat oxymoronic.
Reading development, and even more significantly, writing development, relies on being shown how the writing system works. Most children are not going to discover their way to print. You have to guide them, and show them ways to practise that are heavily constrained to allow very little room for error.
I beg you to reconsider independent reading and writing activities as part of your classroom practice. It’s a car crash waiting to happen.