5 Steps to Creating Independent Learners

The name of my first book is Building a Bridge from “I Can’t” to “I DID!”, which encompasses the mindset of an independent learner. However, what does this actually mean?  How do we move students to success?  How do we actually build that bridge? How do we get them past the productive struggle and to a point where they can say confidently, “I DID IT!“? (Shameless plug- you can grab that book on Amazon by clicking here.)

Well, the subtitle of the book is Creating Independent Learners through Culturally Responsive Teaching. This is actually where the meat of the meaning is.  Our goal is to create INDEPENDENT LEARNERS! How? Through responsive teaching!

Is this easy?  Not necessarily.

Is it doable. Absolutely.

Is it worth it? To you, it is.  That’s why you’re here.

The first step is truly understanding what it means to be an independent learner. For starters, YOU are probably an independent learner.  The fact that you are researching and learning on your own makes you an independent learner.  The fact that you can recognize when there is a problem or when things aren’t going the way you think they should, and then take steps to problem solve, makes you an independent learner. The fact that you can push through even when a challenge is difficult and find a way to figure something out or make something work makes you an independent learner.

I’ve been thinking A LOT about independent learners, and this week, I’ve really been focusing on how I’ve seen independent learning benefit my personal life.  Whenever I try to really dissect a skill that I want to teach, it’s helpful for me to connect it to myself and my own learning.

So I’ve been thinking about times in my recent past that being an independent learner has truly benefited me, and what skills I used to move past hurdles. Here’s what I came up with…

  • Buying and flipping our first house
  • Learning new business software
  • Online marketing
  • Completely self-publishing a series of Bible studies

So, as I started to think about each of these things, I really started dissecting what skills I had, which skills I had to learn, and my feelings during the process.

Here are the skills I brought to the table:

  1. Problem solving
  2. Prioritizing
  3. Setting deadlines for myself
  4. Researching
  5. Asking questions

Here are the skills I learned:

LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE, and still learning!  Everyday!

So, if I transfer that thinking to creating independent learners with my students, I think those 5 skills listed above are among the most important skills to teach!

Let’s think about it.

  • Problem Solving – when I think of my process for problem solving, I assess the situation first.  What do I know?  What do I need to know?  How do I learn the skills I need? If we really dig in, accomplishing a mission is really solving one problem at a time, so getting our students to stop and assess the situation is one step closer towards moving them to independence.
  • Prioritizing – Sometimes we get overwhelmed.  It happens. Next to hitting problems, being overwhelmed is probably the next most powerful hinderance to our students’ success. They act out or they shut down. Being able to prioritize tasks, assignments, or even things to learn is another huge step towards moving forward.   
  • Setting deadlines for myself – I think this is so powerful because it goes hand in hand with self-discipline, taking steps towards forward movement, and then feeling really good when we hit those deadlines. In my opinion, as the mom of a current 8th grader and as someone who is in a lot of schools, this is a skill that a lot of students missed during the school shut downs. How many students are not getting worked turned in, or waiting until the day grades are due to get 15 papers turned in, or forgetting about tests or projects until the very last minute. I’m going to encourage you on a mindset – let’s assume that if your students are struggling with this, they didn’t get the opportunity to build these organizational skills. They never had a common planner where they wrote down assignments and were held accountable for staying organized. Build this in. Print out a monthly calendar and stop class 1 minute early and have students write down due dates and quiz dates. Remind students to take home notes and have them write it down. They desperately need this skill to become independent learners, but they also need to be taught and practiced. Remember, too, that if phones aren’t allowed (which is fine), most of them in the real world, if they do have this skill at all, set reminders on their phone. So again, they don’t have an organizational strategy if they can’t use their phone.
  • Researching – my knowledge was VERY limited.  I mean…VERY. Brendon Burchard says that you don’t grow by staying with in your natural strengths.  You decide which direction you want to go, determine the skills you need to get there, and learn them! WOW!  What a novel idea! Knowing how to learn a new skill is fundamental to being an independent learner, and we can’t assume our students know how to do this.  Sure, most of them are more tech savvy than we are, but it doesn’t mean they know how to learn skills that require more than a regurgitation of facts. Our students need to know how to find the answers to their own questions – whether that’s looking at an anchor chart up in the classroom, going back to their notes, or intentionally remembering a cue to recall the answer.
  • Asking questions – this one goes hand in hand with researching.  Being able to ask the right question means that you’ve gotten to the point in your learning where you’ve determined exactly what you need to know. Make your students ask specific questions.  If you hear, “I don’t get it, Miss”, respond with a question. Keep responding with questions until they can ask you specifically what they need to know in order to be successful.

It’s interesting.  Although a lot of these novel tasks that I took on were very difficult, completely out of my wheel house or realm of knowledge, and even made me super uncomfortable, I never felt like I couldn’t do it.  I never thought about quitting. Procrastinating? Yes (hence the needed deadlines).  Frustration felt? Absolutely. Doubt creep in? Often.  But I always knew I would push through.  I think that is the bottom-line feeling of an independent learner.  They know that the answer is there to be figured out and that they have the competence to find it.

So now let’s think about your students. Do they have problem solving skills?  Do they have strategies for getting themselves unstuck?  Do they have the grit to push through, or the endurance to keep working?  Can they make their own connections, and ask higher level thinking questions?  If so, then you have independent learners!  If not, this becomes your primary goal! Before they can hit a passing number on a test, they’ve got to become learners.

So what is a dependent learner?  A dependent learner is one who can’t seem to do his work or stay on task unless the teacher is standing over him.  This is the student who, after you give directions, sits there for a minute and then raises her hand and says, “what are we doing?”  This is the student who gives up quickly as soon as they come to something difficult. 

In my opinion (warning: controversial statement being made), we can’t work on the grade level skills until we work on the student becoming an independent learner.

So…in a nutshell.  Here are 5 (very concise and tangible) steps to moving students from dependent to independent learners.

  • Provide supports around the room and in instruction. These could include checklists, anchor charts, word walls, Total Physical Response (hand-motions connected with vocabulary), where the students can start to build autonomy and you can pull yourself out of the “help” equation.
  • Post directions and create a student-centered classroom. They should know your processes and procedures and be able to operate the class whether you are there or not. When you are giving tasks, directions need to be posted.
  • Teach vocabulary.  Vocabulary!  Vocabulary! Vocabulary! Once students are able to have the language of the content, they can start to apply it and process it at higher levels.
  • Teach problem solving skills. Keep the rigor high and allow the productive struggle (the figuring it out part that actually increases brainpower), but don’t expect the student to know how to problem solve – remind them of their resources. Remind them of any supports you provided during instruction (an “if you need help” checklist is an example of this).
  • Build Background – Help the student make connections to their prior knowledge and experience.

What do we have to STOP doing?

  • Rushing in to help
  • Giving answers
  • Reading to students instead of letting them read
  • Asking only lower level questions without scaffolding to higher level

…just to name a few…

Responsive teaching is comprehensive, and there is so much we can do as teachers to move students into being independent learners.  This is essentially what my entire book is about, so we will be talking about this MUCH more! Hopefully these 5 ideas will get you started.  Be intentional!  Your kids need it, and it will take a huge load off of you when they become independent!

For your free resource: 5 Ways to Create Independent Learners, CLICK HERE!

Also, our next Virtual Administrator Symposium is November 1st, and it will be focused on…drumroll please…creating independent learners! Listen to the wisdom and idea of amazing adminstrator/teacher teams as they discuss ways to create independent learners at the campus and classroom level! Its free to attend and a replay will be available, but you do have to register! CLICK HERE to reserve your spot today!

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