Over the past five years, I have come to realize that I spend a lot of time encouraging students to be more independent. I want them to believe in themselves, take risks, and reap the rewards when they have successes. What I tend to find is students won’t try anything new until they’ve asked many questions and checked out all the options.
I love good questions. Gifted students are full of them! I just want to encourage students to try tasks before they give up on themselves and try to talk us into giving them the “right answer.” I never just give students the answer. Usually, my problems have many acceptable answers. (The more the merrier!)
Four Levels of Learners
During the past few years, I have developed four levels of learners that I see in my classroom. Included here is a description of each level. Think of this as a fluid continuum. The idea would be for all students to reach the highest level in all subjects.
- Level 1 — Students in this quadrant have trouble beginning assignments. They ask many concrete-level questions. These questions can impede their process with assignments. Once they fully understand the assignment, they can complete it with a very concrete-level understanding of concepts. They have trouble applying their learning to new situations.
- Level 2 — Students in this quadrant begin working right away, but they don’t always fully understand assignments. Their work shows a basic, concrete-level understanding of the concepts. Their work is stronger in skills than in concepts. They have trouble applying their learning across disciplines.
- Level 3 — Once students in this quadrant are given individualized direction, they can complete assignments thoroughly and effectively. They work better in groups than on their own. However, within groups, they can be effective leaders. They understand new concepts thoroughly and abstractly and can apply their learning with guidance.
- Level 4 — Students in this quadrant begin working independently and create work that illustrates deep conceptual and abstract understanding of assignments. They know when to be interdependent and when they should work alone. They are strong in skills, conceptual understanding, and application of learning to new situations.
At this point, you might be wondering, “What can I do to help a student move across this continuum?” The most straightforward response to this question is, “Do less!” Many students today look for the adults in their lives to give them the answers, rather than searching for those answers themselves. I want students to try new tasks on their own first and come to adults for guidance and support, not answers.
Make yourself not answer questions directly. If your student asks you a how or why question, turn it around and get his or her opinion first. This helps them realize that they can be right about something without relying on you.
For example, if your student says, “Why do we read after recess?” Say, “I’m curious what you think. Why do you think we read then?” Or, if students are pestering you to let them do something (“We really want to have art today.”), you can help them problem solve, “We can’t have art class today, but come up with an idea for how art can fit with our lessons, and I’ll consider it.”
We all want the students to succeed. If we work together to coach them toward more independence in their thinking, they’ll be more successful as they move into middle school and beyond.
In what ways do you encourage student independence? We’d love to know your best practice tips and ideas! Just share them in the comments section.
Emily R. Smith, M.A.Ed., is an award-winning editorial director and former elementary school teacher. She has worked in the field of education as a teacher and editor for 20 years. Emily is currently an editorial director with Teacher Created Materials, Inc. As a former classroom teacher, she knows how hard it can be to reach and engage students in today’s schools. Her experience and insight are valuable tools as she strives to help teachers by creating thoughtful, original products and delivering them in flexible and innovative ways.