Teaching For Independence

My wife has one of those calendars that has an inspirational quote on each page.  I happened to be passing by this past week and noticed the following quote, “The objective of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”       Robert Maynard Hutchins

 This got me wondering how do we accomplish this goal.  It seems to imply much “more” than just teaching them skills and strategies so they can be successful at “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic,” although if all our students could do these things well we’d certainly be doing quite well.  I think the “more” is educating the young in such a way that they want to continue to learn and have developed the necessary independence to know how to learn. 

It’s this issue of teaching for independence that has always intrigued me.  So much of what we hear and talk about centers on the delivery of quality instruction. Certainly the majority of Indistar indicators of effective practice highlight the critical importance of instruction, from preparation through implementation.  I think that implied throughout these indicators is the belief that ultimately we need to be teaching for independence.

Over the years, I have seen some great teachers interact with their students in such a way that promoted student independence, particularly in the language they used; language that communicated the expectation that they were capable and could solve problems on their own.   Yet I have observed other teachers who, through their actions and language, communicated the reverse; that students were not capable of solving their own problems or being independent. To the contrary, these teachers made their students dependent on them for every decision.

When I raised this issue with my daughter, who is a literacy specialist, she suggested I read the Peter Johnston book, Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. (Stenhouse Publishers, 2004).

Johnston makes a compelling case that the language we use with our students powerfully impacts their perceptions of themselves, their status within their learning community, the way they approach (or don't) future learning situations, and their ability to be independent. 

He states, “If a student can figure something out for him- or herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence, …“ (Johnston, Peter. p. 8).  With that belief, the book provides a rationale for teaching that does less explicit providing of information (which he will say is sometimes absolutely necessary) and more powerful guiding so that students figure out more for themselves. (which he says is absolutely necessary to develop independence).

Each chapter provides a list of significant teacher phrases that promote students noticing important details; reflecting on both their successes and failures as learning opportunities; and viewing themselves as successful learners who know why, when, and how to employ strategies independently.

Consider this very partial list of phrases and consider how often you and teachers in your school use them to teach for independence.

  • Did anyone notice…
  • I want you to tell me how it ( the group discussion) went … What went well? … What kinds of questions were raised?
  • What are you doing as a writer today?
  • How did you figure that out?
  • What problems did you come across today? How did you solve them?
  • How else can you do that?
  • Would you agree with that?

Every phrase/question included in the book is followed by an explanation of how that question elicits certain behaviors, provides opportunities to build skills and develop strategies, and helps strengthen the student’s belief that s/he can succeed.   

Click the picture of the book cover below to hear Peter Johnston discuss Choice Words in his own words.  Then click this link (Share Your Stuff) to share how you and your teachers address this issue in your school. 


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Paul Axtell

With more than thirty years of experience helping organizations and individuals be more effective, Paul Axtell has honed his insights in executive offices and training programs for everyone from office staff and line workers to managers and team leaders.

A large focus of his work is how to run effective and productive meetings—to turn them from something people dread into useful, productive sessions with trackable results.

Paul is the author of multiple books, including Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Being Remarkable, and Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He can be reached at <a href="http://www.paulaxtell.com">www.paulaxtell.com</a> and via email at paulaxtell@mac.com.
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