Independent learning is the most important issue in education today, and in many ways the most elusive or difficult issue to deal with.  More than class size, teacher accreditation, or the latest innovations in teaching methodology, developing independent learning habits, in other words, self-learning, in students, and teachers, should be the main preoccupation of educators, and of learners themselves.

How do we become a society of successful independent learners? I have developed approaches that work for me as an independent learner of languages.

Independent learning_Steve

I wonder what other people do?

The Importance Of Independent Learning
First let’s look at why independent learning is so important. Governments are spending larger and larger portions of their budgets on education. As pointed out in this article , in the United States education budgets have grown 350% after inflation since 1970, but education outcomes have not improved. The incarceration rate in the United States has ballooned during the same period. Similar problems exist in most countries. Educated and literate people are far less likely to end up in jail and have many other advantages. However, existing educational institutions  may not be the most cost effective way to educate our society.


Most schools cost too much and deliver too little.To the extent that learners have to pay the cost of their own education, there is increasing realization that the benefits of the present education system are not commensurate with the costs. University students in many countries are complaining that they graduate with large student loans and yet have poor job prospects, creating a high rate of default on student loans.

Finally, the pace of technological change forces people in the work force to constantly update their skills or acquire new skills. Learning has become more of a life long pursuit. This does not even account for the rewards of pursuing personal improvement learning throughout life.

Independent learning, or self-learning, is an obvious solution to these problems. Even within the institutional education system, getting learners to take responsibility for their own learning is recognized as vital to learning success.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Forced Learning Is Ineffective
As long as the teacher or educational institution is forcing a curriculum on passive or unwilling learners, the results will continue to be poor. Teachers know that the more motivated learners there are in a classroom, the easier it is to teach the class.  An independent or motivated learner is driven by curiosity, by the desire to explore, to discover and to learn. The reluctant learner, the majority in the present system, lacks this curiosity and desire to learn.

The Internet has made available a vast array of learning resources in many fields. These range from the popular Khan Academy which offers free downloadable high school lectures on difficult subjects, to universities like MIT, Stanford and others offering courses online. Smartphones and Tablets offer not only a mobile way to connect to these resources but a host of educational applications for independent learners. Last but not least are the many excellent educational videos on a variety of subjects that are available on youtube.


How should the independent learner interact with these resources to ensure better results whether in the classroom or as a self-learner?

What Is Grazing Learning?
It has been shown that variation is the key to deeper learning, rather than a “block” effort to deliberately learn an array of facts of information, which is typical of existing teaching methods. This is sometimes referred to as interleaved learning, and Robert Bjork has researched how we learn and has many informative videos on this subject on youtube. Furthermore, knowledge is not finite or static, but often requires us to engage in “grazing learning”, covering a vast amount of material, without expecting to remember it all, but rather to familiarize ourselves with a subject, and then to go into greater depth as required. As Bjork points out about how we learn, we end up with a deeper knowledge of the subject if we take this approach.


However, not all learners  have the curiosity to explore a subject by grazing. Many require specific goals or tasks that they can aim for, or tick of as completed, regardless whether these tasks are interesting to them or not.  What is more, as Manfred Spitzer, the German neuroscientist pointed out in his book The Human Brain and the School for Life, or in this shorter article, the brain always learns, but it needs both novelty and repetition.

So while independent learners need to be encouraged to explore subjects, they benefit from the discipline of more mundane tasks, repetitive tasks, such as reviewing facts or lists of information.

Curiosity Is Key
I consider myself an independent language learner. I have learned 14 languages other than English, 6 of them in the last 10 years, in my 60’s. Most of my time is spent listening and reading, using content of interest to me, which I study on LingQ either at the computer, on my iPad or on my iPhone. In other words, I spend most of my time grazing in the languages that I am learning, driven by my curiosity about the culture or history behind these languages.


There are moments when this is not satisfying, moments when I feel my grasp of the language is not moving forward. Then I assign myself more mundane tasks. I often listen to repetitive recordings of the basic phrases of the language. These phrases can be disconnected from any real meaning. I don’t really want artificial dialogues, which try to provide meaning. I just want rote repetition. This is a small part of my learning, but it is an important part. It helps me to notice patterns in the language. It is also in line with Spitzer’s observations about novelty and repetition. It also brings some discipline and task completion satisfaction into my independent learning.

How Much Freedom?
Successful independent learners need to be curious and motivated. But too much freedom can be a burden.  A balance needs to be struck between the freedom to roam and graze on the one hand, and regular repetitive tasks which focus our powers of observation, and give us a sense of task completion or achievement. This is what I strive to do with my language learning. I wonder if others have a similar approach in their learning.

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Moritz Aaron

Great article Steve Kaufmann!
I like how you pointed out how you learned so many languages through independent learning while in your 60’s! You really put me to shame–haha!
It really goes to show how much we can truly learn if we put our minds to it!

Sue Edwards

Great article. I have being an ESL teacher for a good 30 years and I find the language learning industry one of the most stagnant. Concepts that you talk about above such as grazing learning have not really made it to the classrooms. Other than some of the major players in the ESL industry (like Rosetta Stone, http://www.spokenenglishpractice.com, British Council) a very few others have even invested in proper websites to connect with new language learners. I completely agree with Olly that the next generation of entrepreneurs should look at this space, because a lot of disruption needs to take place.

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