5 Obstacles to Creating Independent Learners and Why They’re Worth Getting Over

During the first ten years or so of my teaching career, I gave a test at the end of every book unit. What I was looking for in students’ answers was for them to repeat back to me my own ideas on the text. These tests were easy to grade, and students often did well on them if they paid attention in class. I liked being reassured that they were understanding the ideas that I wanted them to, and I admit that it felt good to read my ideas in their essays. 

But I knew that, ultimately, I wasn’t assessing them on skills that mattered. I didn't want them to learn to parrot the ideas of their teacher— I wanted them to think of their own ideas. I wanted them to feel comfortable seeing a Shakespeare play without a teacher to guide them or to be okay picking up a challenging novel and reading it without the structure of the class or to read a poem for fun on occasion and understand what it was saying. 

It wasn't just that this kind of skill is harder to measure and trickier to judge, it was also about letting go of the boost that I felt when students said what I liked to hear.

I now proudly consider myself to be a teacher-facilitator, but I had to get over a few things before I could take on that role in the classroom.

Here are 5 hurdles you’ll have to jump in order to create independent learners: 

It may not look so great if someone walks in the room.

If the image that you would like to portray of your classes is one of rows of silent and attentive students, then it might take some time to get used to the slight chaos. When students are talking to each other and moving around the room, it doesn't always appear that they’re spending time on task. It might even appear that students are goofing off or not paying attention. It might take a little getting used to, but the sounds will soon take on that nice productive hum which is the sound of students learning—not kids wasting time.

You won’t have all the answers all the time.

When you do a lecture, you have all of the information and all of the answers. But when students are in control of their own learning, they might have questions that you can’t answer. At first, it’s difficult to say “I don’t know” over and over again. What becomes much more fun, though, is when you start saying things like, “How do you think you could find the answer to that question?” Creating independent learners is tricky, but it is so much more rewarding. You won’t look as knowledgable, but you will also be empowering them to figure out how to get what they need on their own.

Students might not make the choices you want them to.

If you give them a choice, students might have better solutions than you do. If you give them the freedom to make their own decisions, they will likely mess up a few times. And what might hurt even more, they might come up with solutions or answers that are better than yours. It is so hard to stand by and watch them make the wrong choice, and it’s even harder to watch them make the choice that you really really don’t like. But keeping quiet and letting them stumble, fall, and pick themselves back up again to try something new is the best way to create confident students.

You’ll likely need even more rigorous expectations.

From the outside, student-centered learning might appear more laid-back and easy going, but it is actually much more rigorous than the old-fashioned memorize-and-repeat. If you want your students to move beyond the first few levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, you’ll have to demand a lot of them. Asking students to analyze, create, or evaluate is tough at first, but so worth it when you see what they are really capable of doing.

Assessment might be tricky to assign and difficult to grade.

If your plans for grading include a multiple choice quiz and a Scantron machine, then you’ll have a tough time moving the onus for learning to the students. You’ll have to assess students in totally new ways, and they will often be tricky to grade. You might have a hard time justifying the difference between a B+ and an A- when you are grading work that demonstrates students’ skills or ability to apply what they have learned to a new task. With practice and some specific rubrics, it will get easier to grade essays and projects and group work, but it will never be as simple as a quick fact quiz.

There are a few hurdles to jump as you move your class to a more student-centered way of learning, but the good news is that you don’t have to jump every single one at the same time. Go step by step, get used to feeling a little unsure about what you are doing, and trust your students to take the leap with you.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.