It is not unusual to hear complaints that students are too dependent on us as their teachers. We may believe that students too often wait to be told what to do, how to do it, and if they are doing well enough. Unfortunately, we can unintentionally contribute to this problem. We undermine learning independence when we are quick to tell our students what to do, how to do it, and condition our approval on their pleasing us.
Of course, we live in a world that is quickly becoming one in which imagining possibilities, figuring out what to do, and learning even when there is no one to teach us is crucial to success. If we hope to prepare today’s students for their future, we need to nurture an increasing learning independence as they progress through their school experience. The question is, how can we nurture learning independence while remaining in a position to provide support and guidance when needed? Here are eight strategies that can help us get started.
Tap learner interest and curiosity. Students own their curiosity, so it can be a starting point on the path toward independence. Interest gives students a reason to inquire, explore, and pursue what they find compelling. We can nudge students towards independence by feeding what is already driving them.
Provide meaningful learning choices. The nature of choice making is that if the subject or issue is important to the student, the student is more likely to value and take ownership of what they have chosen. Value and ownership are elements capable of driving independence. Students are far less likely to seek learning independence if they see the topic as something we have chosen for them rather than something they have chosen for themselves.
Present and expose students to challenges that feature multiple solutions. Students often believe that the problems they are presented in school must have one singular solution and that success is achieved by finding that solution or providing the teacher with the answer they are seeking. Yet, life more often presents challenges that can be solved through a variety of processes and that lead to multiple answers. Our role is to ask what else might be important, how else a situation might be approached, and what other solution might also be effective.
Allow students to experience struggle and setbacks. When we step in too quickly as students begin to struggle or experience a setback, we risk fostering dependence rather than independence. Struggle can be an effective force for learning, and setbacks can provide excellent opportunities to seek new strategies and approaches. We can encourage greater independence by asking questions that help students to reflect on their thinking and examine what else they might try. We can encourage and coach, but we need to be careful not to take over and provide answers that students can discover and develop on their own.
Give opportunities for students to work in groups. At first, this strategy may not seem to be an obvious tool to foster independence as students may still be dependent on other members of their group. However, group work shifts the focus of learners away from our direct support, thus it can be an important intermediate step. Further, if we structure the group’s work to foster independence and autonomy, risk-averse students can gain confidence as they experience the support of other group members.
Expose students to authentic problems and real-world challenges. Authenticity is an attractive feature in learning, as the purpose for learning becomes more apparent and the results become more rewarding. When students see the outcomes of their efforts and learning as making the lives of others or the community better, the incentive to learn becomes stronger. Further, we can position ourselves as resources to support their learning rather than the assigner of content and skills to be learned.
Coach students to set learning goals. For many students, setting goals for their learning makes them more likely to take learning seriously than when we set and present goals to them. Of course, students often have limited experience and skills in goal setting, so we may need to provide early support and coaching. Modest, short-term goals are likely to be most effective at first. Over time, though, we can gradually shift the responsibility to our students and coach them to increase the length and significance of goals they set.
Help students build the skills and reflection capacity to assess their own learning. Of course, we have a responsibility to assess, provide feedback, and share accountability for the learning that occurs in our classroom. Unfortunately, for many students, we become the sole judge of what is satisfactory or excellent. Yet, students can develop the ability to apply standards, rubrics, and other measuring tools to their learning. Not only does this skillset better equip students for life, but as students assess their learning, they also become less dependent on us and can better engage in discussions about how they are doing, what they need to do next, and how good is good enough.
Nurturing and coaching students to be independent learners is not easy. They often prefer to have us tell them what to do and how to do it. Our students can become frustrated as we nudge them to become more independent in their learning. However, doing so is a key responsibility and gift from which students can benefit for the rest of their lives.