How can teachers encourage student independence?

Encouraging Social Independence

As a teacher and learner talk about your own learning careers and histories, particularly the times when you yourself struggled to understand. This enables the students to recognise that you were not always the fully formed expert that you might appear to be now. Learn aloud and externalise your thinking, feeling and decision-making so that your students can follow the processes and difficulties involved.

Have visible ongoing speculative learning projects in the subject that you are studying which takes as its focus things that there might not be easy answers to. Ask them to discuss and contribute their own thoughts and intuitions to these projects. Stress that all of them together are by definition cleverer than any one of them alone.

Focus on quality of response, brevity and tight timelines but try not to become the classroom ‘ringmaster’. Allow your students opportunities to lead sections of the lesson, including the plenary sessions. They probably won’t get it all right the first couple of times, but that will improve with practice. The mistakes themselves can become significant learning points if treated well. Try not to just reward the fast thinkers in discussions and use approaches such as ‘think, pair, share,’ to give your students collaboration, exploration and reassurance time.

Don’t accept their first, easy or glib responses and by rigorously using ‘so what’ interrogation approaches you can challenge selected students to go beyond the superficial. They need to become more aware of what they are thinking, but also why they think these things and how they can justify them. Provide specific opportunities for able pupils to show what they are capable of achieving. Be prepared to negotiate, to be surprised or to be wrong.

However tempting it is, try not to paraphrase on their behalf. They will become used to having you as a ‘safety net’ and not develop the skill of listening to themselves accurately. Before your students are allowed to speak in debates sometimes insist that they are able to accurately paraphrase the previous speaker and show how the point they will be making follows on from what has gone before. This means that they need to be genuinely responsive to their classmates, rather than just waiting until someone else has finished before launching into a new opinion.

Encouraging Speculative Independence

Actively encourage your students to chew over, digest and question your learning methods. This encourages a clearer understanding of what you are trying to do and what you expect/want from them, as well as offering them an insight into the learning process.

Present your students with subject matter that is genuinely difficult and therefore more intriguing. Try to not pre-empt their learning by pre-chewing the materials and ‘neatening up’ the subject learning. Be prepared to pull away the rug to challenge their sense of security. Your students can also only really learn to become more experimental if you yourself are prepared to take risks and fail.

Respond to unforeseen events and questions in your lesson in ways that model curiosity and learning to your students. Try to make your learning environment a safe place to be uncertain and to make mistakes. Use probing questions to deepen the level of challenge. Be open about your responses when you are asked genuinely challenging questions.

Encourage your students to meet ideas with a ‘could be’ point of view and genuine questions. Establish that the significant questions in your subject have a wide number of possible solutions and that easy facts are often convenient simplifications.

Wait before you reveal the purpose/objective of your lesson. Give your students the chance to be inquisitive before it gets too locked down too soon. Rather than restricting potential exploration at the outset give your students a chance to discover their own limits and methods. By not trying to control or regulate how they approach tasks or where they are going with them, you might be surprised by where their journeys can take your lessons. Give yourself time in the lesson to observe what is happening and to give the students similar chances to observe and notice. Allow them time to observe and comment on the lesson to improve their own noticing abilities.

Don’t support their helplessness by reassuring/intervening when they encounter a block. Allow your students to struggle and not get it, and then have to work out ways to get it for themselves. Don’t fall into the controlling trap of thinking you always need to be there to support or scaffold out difficulty. Setting up protocols like ‘three before me’ lets your students know they must go elsewhere for ideas and that you are not on tap. Your students need to be allowed/enabled to form their own ideas and to learn from their mistakes. Only by experiencing key blocks to their learning and overcoming them can your students learn how they learn, and develop the necessary resilient strategies they will need later in their lives.

Don’t unconsciously prejudge outcomes or define the parameters of inquiry. Often it is only by letting your students off the lead that you will find out what they are capable of achieving. Try not to leave the best/most challenging activities to last where time is often tight and discussion usually rushed. Don’t always require a detailed written response and through having writing free days/weeks and using thinking maps as evidence of inquiry allows students more freedom to explore.