4 Steps for Creating Independent Learners

One of the main goals of culturally responsive teaching is to create independent learners (in fact, that’s the subtitle of my book, Building a Bridge from “I Can’t” to “I DID!”: Creating Independent Learners through Culturally Responsive Teaching! Why is this so important?

In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond states that “Classroom studies document the fact that underserved English Learners, poor students and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students.” She goes on to say that

As educators, we have to recognize that we help maintain the achievement gap when we don’t teach advance cognitive skills to students we label as “disadvatanged” because of their language, gender, race, or socio-economic status. Many children start school with the small learning gaps, but as they progress through school, the gap between African American and Latino and White students grows because we don’t teach them how to be independent learners.

Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2015)

Independent learners are the learners who have the skills to continue to learn outside the classroom, who can think at higher levels, and recall content previously learned. Independent learners can make connections, form opinions and problem solve. When a student is an independent learner, even if he or she struggles with the new vocabulary or concepts being presented, they have the skills to “figure it out”. Isn’t that where we want all of our students to be?

So what happens?

First of all, while the quote that I mentioned above can feel a little pointed, I want to make sure you hear my intentions – I was the teacher that kept her students as dependent learners – dependent on me to answer a question or complete an assignment. But it wasn’t out of a lack of love, or passion or caring. In fact, it was probably because of these things. I wanted to help my “disadvantaged students”, so out of love and wanting them to “feel successful”, I asked easier questions, made myself completely available to answer any and all questions, and even found my self reading to my middle school and high school students because I felt like they would understand it better if I read it them – after all, they were reading below grade level. I had a great relationship with my students. I had engaging activities, and by most accounts, I was a “good” teacher, but I spent too many years not moving my students into a place of independence.

So I come to you, whether you are a teacher or a leader of teachers, with the full understanding that you love your students, that you are working extremely hard for your students, and that you care deeply. But if your students are still depending on you for their every move, here are a few ideas for moving them into independence:

  • Have directions visual – Give directions verbally once, then anytime students ask for directions, refer them to the posted directions. As simple as it seems, this begins to create independence as they figure out what to do for themselves.
  • Have content support posted and refer students back to the supports – anchor charts, checklists, model problems, visual vocabulary. When a student asks a question, if you have the solution or process posted somewhere in your classroom, you nicely refer them to the anchor chart/checklist/etc and let them figure out how to solve the problem! The students may not like this at first, especially if they are used to the teacher walking them through every question, but they will start to feel more capable and competent when they problem solve on their own. This is also when a lot of students go through the “productive struggle”, which is a key step in the learning process. When a student is struggling, and then works through the issue and finds the answer on their own, this cements the learning for them and builds confidence to tackle the next problem. This step is also part of our second pillar of culturally responsive teaching – having a language-rich and culturally responsive environment!
  • Give the students a chance to take ownership – when appropriate, give them choices in texts you read, get their feedback on activities you try, and give them opportunities to share their opinions. Allowing students to share their voices teaches them that what’s in their brain matters, and it also teaches them how to share their voices appropriately.
  • Allow students to correct their mistakes without penalty – so much learning comes from mistakes, and if we can set up an environment that allows and encourages students to learn from their mistakes, especially when being asked to use higher level thinking skills – we will be teaching them a key skill in being an independent learner.

For more information on ordering the book Building a Bridge from “I Can’t” to “I DID!”: Creating Independent Learners through Culturally Responsive Teaching, simply click on the title. For more information about working with us to move your campus or district into being more culturally responsive, visit www.pressing-onward.org!

If you are a campus or district administrator, you are invited to our 3rd Administrator Symposium! Check out the website for more details and to reserve your spot!

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