How We Teach (Part 2): Is INDEPENDENCE the goal?


The final goal or a step in the right direction?

I often stand in front of school audiences and pose the question:

What’s the point of this whole school thing?

I typically get a variety of answers ranging from the brilliant to the occasional dreadful how-did-that-person-get-a-job-in-a-school type response! Things like:

"So kids can one day get a job."

"For kids to learn to follow instructions."

"To help kids can grow up and be healthy and happy."

"To help kids learn to be creative and work together to build a better society."

Other than the second one, which is Victorian-era thinking at best, I think these are fairly noble answers. We want our kids to learn skills that allow them to become independent – reading, writing, maths, problem solving, emotional resilience, scientific knowledge and reasoning - and all of these are brilliant! Unfortunately, not all of our kids are going to get there as quickly as we would like.

What are the barriers to independence?

Kids face a range of challenges in discovering their independent skills and abilities: home lives, emotional challenges, learning difficulties, or the mis-matched assignments teachers give them. Sometimes we may even be tempted to think a student “cannot do anything independently”. The reason for this is not because that kid cannot do anything independently, but because the assignments we have been giving them do not match their ability! This is an all-too-common problem.

When we give mis-matched assignments (those that are well beyond what that kid will be able to do and we know it before we give it), we as educators are not learning what a kid knows as much as we are proving to everyone, including the student, what they do not know. This is a sure way to ruin a kid’s confidence, increase unhealthy dependence on support staff, and it’s one of the most common problems I see as I travel around to schools.

If a student gives you this face when you give them alearning assignment or ask them how they're getting on with a piece of work, you've got to change how you're teaching them!

Sometimes we forget how to teach kids to be independent - especially those kids who might struggle! We sit next to them for an entire lesson teaching them unhealthy dependence; we correct mistakes for them teaching them they have to be perfect (or to always expect to be corrected). This destroys their self-esteem.

Or perhaps the assignment is too difficult and we leave them alone to do it, only later to discover they've only got their name and date on the paper! Why are we actually surprised to see this?!

The boy who HATED writing I once taught a year 6 (5th grade) boy who had severe spelling difficulties (along with other emotional and behavioural challenges). Throughout his entire school career he had someone next to him writing every word for him (and that was IF he chose to do the assignment at all!). For the first couple of weeks of school he refused to pick up a pencil. As I navigated through some of the underlying emotional difficulties, I encouraged him to simply write the FIRST letter of the word and then move on. This is something he could do on his own. I explained to him that I wanted him to get his brilliant ideas on paper more than I wanted him to spell words correctly. At first he couldn't believe what he was hearing! It was like a giant weight had been taken off him and he finally had permission to simply be himself. He knew what he wrote and could then read it to me.

As he improved in his phonemic awareness, decoding and segmenting skills, I eventually asked him to write the first and final sounds of each word. After weeks of demonstrating he could do this, I encouraged him to write every sound he could hear in the word. Eventually, he began independently spelling words correctly for the first time in his life! This was a monumental leap for him, and one that I was proud to help him make.

Teaching for independence is an art form

We have to teach kids how to be independent in their learning skills and, while the particular focus of this article relates to special education, I’m sure you can apply it to a number of scenarios. Some students struggle with independence in their school work and they don't "just learn it" how we teach them. We have to teach them how they learn. In doing this we can discover the balance of direct instruction- modelling and then allowing them opportunities to perform a skill without our help. It’s an art form that takes time to develop, but it eventually becomes routine.

We must find ways to boost kids’ confidence by providing them with adequately challenging learning opportunities, and it may take a little time to work that out. Like I said, it's an art form!

A bit like painting the Sistine Chapel perhaps?

Is independence the endgame?

No, but it’s a step in the right direction toward collaboration. Independence might be the goal for a small number of students, but to some degree we should focus on helping our students learning to collaborate. In a previous post, I stated:

"Direct instruction/teacher-led learning is the first step in the learning journey, but it is not the final destination. The journey toward collaboration requires skills and ideas that can be modelled by a teacher (modelling), mastered by the student (independence), and worked out and experienced with others (collaboration). This enables our kids to see further and achieve more than if they simply lived a life of "independence".


Find ways to enable your students to succeed independently. Here are a few examples of what this might look like:

  • If you give them a maths assignment, give them 8-9 "easy" problems and 1-2 challenging ones (but don't put these right next to each other).

  • Create independent activities for kids to do to demonstrate mastery of a skill (handwriting, spelling, motor skills practice, posting activities, matching, etc).

  • If you are a teacher or teaching assistant working with a student, follow this method for working: My turn > Together > Your turn. In other words, model it once, do it together, then move away and let them be independent and have a go on their own. It's the best way to analyse your own teaching as well as how they are making sense of the lesson. This prevents unhealthy dependence on support staff- an all too common problem.


As a guide, you can use this for gauging whether your students are independent: ​Independence: Learning as Individual Sense Making

From Chris Watkins' 3 Ways of Viewing Classrooms

This week we’ve covered independence and its importance in the learning process. Next week we will look at what I believe to be the most meaningful and dynamic way of learning:


Remember it was Sir Isaac Newton who famously penned a letter to a colleague saying "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulder of giants." Even the great scientist recognised he needed others to see further and reach greater heights.

I like to call collaborative learning “Learning Together”, and I’ve got some powerful data to share with you from my own school project this past year.

Until next time!

- Adam

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