College and Career Readiness: Encouraging Independence in Learners

Harmon walks faithfully through his school day writing down the details of every assignment, collecting the grading rubrics so he can be sure to meet every requirement, and then heads home to have his parents look over his homework for the night and review long-term assignments.

Each day at school, Harmon double-checks with teachers to be sure he is on track. He listens carefully to lessons and takes notes to be sure to focus on what the teacher thinks is important. He works to understand teachers so he can earn the highest grade in every class. Harmon works hard to meet the established requirements, so he gets upset if assignments change or teachers add requirements at the last minute.

Is Harmon a dream student or should we be concerned that he is not becoming an independent learner?

What do employers expect of employees?

Employers do expect their employees to accept the routines and rituals of the company. Routines such as meeting deadlines, stellar attendance, and following protocol blend with important social rituals such as job-appropriate interactions with others that enhance the company culture. Harmon seems to be on track to meet these expectations.

But employers also expect employees to go beyond what is expected. They want employees to be independent and self-motivated with a willingness to rise to challenges. Employees need to be creative problem solvers and get the job done despite problems. Solutions may not be obvious, so employees need to have the tenacity to persevere with little or no supervision while keeping a positive attitude through difficulties.

Building for independence

The 21st-century college and career readiness standards encourage a systematic progression of independence for learners. Independence does not come automatically within the learning cycle.

In Harmon’s case, we see adults involved supporting him with the routines and rituals of learning. By building routines and rituals, learning progresses smoothly, and learners are better prepared to go deeper into the content. When students understand expectations, they are freed to focus on the content.

Independent learners must comprehend basic content before attempting to analyze or critique it. Then they need to take the step to dig deeper into the content. Learners need to be able to consider other perspectives about the content and develop their own ideas based upon facts.

Even at a young age, independent learners can gather evidence to support their claims. Without initial support, Harmon may not be able to easily become an independent, self-motivated and disciplined learner, but he must also be challenged to think beyond basic levels and to take a measure of control over his own learning.

Balance of independence with cooperation

Current research indicates that cooperation among employees is of high importance. Employers are seeking employees who can work together. Thus, it is important for students to learn to work as a part of a community even while building independence.

Independent and self-motivated learning comes more easily when content is engaging. Encouraging students to work together on projects even at the younger grades helps to build a sense of community when tackling difficult problems.

Young people learn important social skills while sharing ideas and considering other perspectives when working together in teams. Teachers need to carefully craft student-led projects to ensure cognitive as well as affective goals are set and monitored during group work.

Teachers must let go of some of the control

Teaching for independence is not a hands-off approach for student learning. It requires teachers to develop finely tuned strategies. Routines and rituals must be established. Grading and expectations must be determined.

However, learners must be encouraged to develop intrinsic motivation and curiosity about the task. This requires that once the basic knowledge is presented and the task is delineated, teachers must step back and allow the learners to explore and discover under their distant yet watchful eyes.

It is not easy for teachers to trust the process and let go of some of the control. Yet, without the trial and error process, students cannot become independent learners.

Is Harmon being adequately prepared for college and career?

Can Harmon independently access information? Can he comprehend the information, analyze it, and then transfer his knowledge to another area for further innovation? Can Harmon collaborate with others to master the task?

It is difficult to say if Harmon is being adequately prepared for college and career. We do not know Harmon’s grade level, nor do we know his ability to organize for himself.

What we do know is that without clear planning, Harmon could become dependent upon the adults in his life and fail to develop the ability to work creatively and innovatively with little to no supervision.

These skills do not magically appear. Teachers must plan carefully to ensure Harmon and other students like him develop independent learning skills that promote future success.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards.