Of all the things we aim for in education, building students into independent thinkers is arguably the one we take most for granted. So entrenched is the notion of independent thought in most societies that we can assume that we are inculcating it simply through the standard pedagogy of modern teaching. In reality, truly independent learning requires a bit more thought.
The failure to do this is a big problem. We live in a culture rooted more in individualism than ever before - where independence (of thought, mind and body) is central to our ethical and social world view. Schools have the job of preparing students to be part of that culture and, if we are not doing that job properly, we are hindering their chances of success in life.
It is not just about wider skills, however: independent learning also bestows significant benefits on students while they are still in school. It helps them to make greater progress and allows them to develop deeper understanding. It breeds confidence and thus has an impact beyond education.
These benefits are backed up by solid research. Academics including the late Paul Pintrich, Dale Schunk and Judith Meece of the University of North Carolina and Barry Zimmerman at the City University of New York offer some of the most prominent research into the nature and effects of independent learning in the classroom.
All the researchers stress the idea of self-regulation, which Zimmerman describes thus: "Self-regulation is not a mental ability or an academic performance skill; rather it is the self-directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills. Learning is viewed as an activity that students do for themselves in a proactive way rather than as a covert event that happens to them in reaction to teaching."
Zimmerman says that the benefits of this self-regulation, or independent learning as we would call it, are that "these learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals and task- related strategies". He concludes: "Because of their superior motivation and adaptive learning methods, self-regulated students are not only more likely to succeed academically but to view their futures optimistically."
In short, a student having control of their learning can have a big impact. It will mean that they naturally buy into the process, whereas those without control, who expect regulation from others (or who actively oppose all regulation), are by definition passive and less likely to engage.
Further evidence comes from the growth mindsets theory offered by Carol Dweck. In her delineation of the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset, she suggests that the latter is far more likely to lead to success for students. Her definition of a growth mindset is closely connected to what we would term independent learning: students thinking about their own learning, taking control, embracing challenges and retaining motivation in the face of adversity.
Although this theoretical stuff reinforces why we should pay more attention to facilitating independent learning, it does little to give us a framework for doing so in the classroom. So here are five things you can do to create independent learners.
Minimise teacher talk
I am not saying we should jettison teacher talk - that would be ill- conceived - but we do need to use it only when absolutely necessary: where it confers benefits not achievable through other means or when there is a sound pedagogical reason for doing so. Teacher talk asks a roomful of children to sit and absorb information as it is dispensed from the front of the class. As such, it promotes dependence and fails to stress the importance of critical thinking.
Provide students with checklists
Make self-regulation easier by giving your students checklists to work through. These will help them to internalise the processes of self- regulation. For example, you might give them a checklist to use whenever they have finished a piece of work. This could contain questions such as: What could you improve? How did you deal with challenges? What would make your work better?
Repeated over time, this process is likely to become internalised, meaning that students will be in a position to regulate their own learning without outside intervention.
Refuse to help
"What?" I hear you cry. "This is anathema to all the best instincts of teachers around the globe!" True. But think about it this way. If you help a student every time they ask, the message you are sending out is that they do not need to be independent because someone is always there to think for them. Instead of immediately offering help, why not ask students to try three ways to solve the problem first, or respond with a question of your own (what might the answer be?), or give them a hint but nothing more. Repeating this over time will help to alter your students' mindsets, making them more independent and confident in their learning.
Before the lesson, write out a set of instructions outlining what it is that you want students to do. Print these off and cut them out. As students enter the room, hand out the slips and explain that they should read these through, work out what they need to do, plan how they will do it and then begin. You might like to supplement these verbal instructions with a slide containing the same information.
One of the major obstacles preventing students from becoming more independent is a fear of failure. To encourage a more independent approach, we need to change students' minds when it comes to failure. A simple way to begin this task is to talk to your class about the benefits of failure. Use examples such as cooking, learning to drive and playing sport to illustrate how failing actually helps you to learn. A second technique involves praising students for making mistakes and then praising them again for learning from these mistakes. A third strategy involves talking about your own experiences of failure and using these to demonstrate learning experiences in your own life. A common example I use is learning to teach. All of us make plenty of mistakes at the beginning. In the end, it is these that help us to become great teachers.
This list of five tips and techniques is by no means exhaustive: there are hundreds of ways a teacher can construct a lesson and assist students so as to facilitate independent learning. By recognising them and using them regularly, we can ensure that we are genuinely creating independent learners in our classrooms, rather than just assuming that we are doing so.
Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published several books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect and expands on this article in his booklet Strategies to Develop Independent Learners, available to TES Pro subscribers.
Dweck, C (2007) Mindset: the new psychology of success (Ballantine Books).
Pintrich, PR (2000) "Multiple goals, multiple pathways: the role of goal orientation in learning and achievement", Journal of Educational Psychology, 92: 544-555.
Pintrich, PR, Schunk, DH and Meece, JR (2002) Motivation in education: theory, research, and applications (Pearson).
Zimmerman, BJ (2002) "Becoming a self-regulated learner: an overview", Theory into Practice, 412: 64-72.
Give them more with these extension activities for independent workers.
Expand your vision with this Teachers TV video on independent group work.
How do you get students to be independent? Teachers discuss their strategies in this TES Connect forum.