Creating Independent Thinkers

When I was moved from 5th grade to 3rd grade a few years ago I was freaking out. Not because it was new curriculum but because I knew without a doubt that third graders were not as much of independent thinkers as fifth graders were. That was one of the things I loved the most about fifth graders – how they were so grown up and yet, still wanted to please you (most of the time).

Are you spoonfeeding your students or are you creating independent thinkers? Check out these tips and ideas to help your students learn to be independent!

After adjusting to students that were a little more dependent, I realized it wasn’t so much the dependency that was – forgive me here – driving me nuts, but that some students acted like they wanted me to spoon feed them everything. Perhaps I’m one of those mean teachers, but I just don’t “play that way.” I expect my students to think. When I go home at night, I want to feel good knowing that my students were the ones who worked hard and are tired – not me. And let’s be honest, if they aren’t willing to “think more for themselves” and put in the effort needed, they aren’t going to be successful.

Sometimes I think we live in a society where everything is quick and convenient – so when something isn’t immediately that way, we give up too quickly. Isn’t that starting to be evident in our students? That’s why I wanted to write this blog post, creating more independent thinkers who don’t rely on you spoon feeding them the answers.

Are you spoon-feeding your students?

First, let me define what I consider spoon-feeding. To me it is when you walk students through each step, failing to develop the endurance in your students to work through problem-solving. There is a difference between first teaching something to students and guiding them. I’m talking about students who are definitely capable or nearly capable.

Spoon Feed Strategies

I’m sure in your classroom, you are already teaching some strategies in math and reading, but have you ever considered teaching independence strategies? Teach students what steps to take when they get stuck on a problem. Teach them different things they can try. For instance, in math, I’m going to teach my students to look back at their notes at the part similar to what they are working on. Then I’ll have them ask themselves “what did she do here?” This doesn’t always come naturally to students. They often copy down notes and never look at them again. They don’t know they should reference them. It’s the same with Anchor Charts. You may even want to make a checklist handy for students for just this purpose.

Spoon Feed Mistakes

Students are not going to work independently if they are not confident. The best way to do that is by providing students with plenty of opportunities to make errors and mistakes so they can learn what doesn’t work and why. When a student makes an error, and I casually mention it’s not correct, I am quick to ask a student why they think it’s not correct. I don’t let a student create mistakes so many times that they “learn” the wrong way- but I do let them make errors. I think of it this way. I can tell my teenage child over and over again that _____ is bad. But she is not going to learn it until she experiences it. I did it. If you think about it, you did it. (Of course, there are some exceptions. I wouldn’t want my daughter to find out the hard way drugs are bad. But you get my point… I hope.)  Then after they have created errors and learned what doesn’t work- they will have that internal excitement when they get it right. These errors can be referenced later during encouragement. “Do you remember how you worked through that really hard problem before? You can do it again!” Boost that confidence!

Spoon Feed Delay

If you run to children as soon as there is a question or problem, they begin to rely on you. Instead, delay. Take your time getting to them. Casually mention to the student, “I’ll be right there. Why don’t you try a few different options before I get there.” I require my students to try at least 2 different ways first. I tell them, “when I get there I want you to show me what two ways you tried first.” This requires them to think. It also helps me see their thinking process and what went wrong. If I get to a student who hasn’t tried two different ways, I’ll say every time, “I’ll come back to you when you have tried two different options.” (I explain to parents ahead of time at the beginning of the year how I do this and try to encourage them at home to do the same.)  Further, you may want to check back frequently with the student to verify that the student has a repertoire of strategies and isn’t just sitting there.

These are just a few ideas I had. I know I have high expectations of my students – and they rise to it! Sometimes I can be “mean” but I have to remember, it’s for the good of my students – both short term and long term.

11 Responses

  1. yes, Yes, YES! I have often been referred to as the "mean" teacher, but students still respect me! We had a program at my last school where students could earn a pass to eat lunch with a teacher. Guess who ate with students 3-4 days a week (compared to other teacher's 1-2)? The mean one – me! When you hold students to high expectations and give them strategies to become independent – they WILL rise to the challenge! I've taught Kindergarten through sixth grade, and I've seen this at EVERY grade level. Great post!
    ~Heather aka HoJo~

    1. Heather I am slso the mean one in our 4th grade. I like you do the same thing. It is truly amazing if you set the expectation the students with some time snd patients will meet that expectation. Kuddos to you.

    2. Heather I am slso the mean one in our 4th grade. I like you do the same thing. It is truly amazing if you set the expectation the students with some time snd patients will meet that expectation. Kuddos to you.

  2. At the beginning of the last school year, I was at my wits end with this exact problem! Teaching children that you are their problem solver only leads to dependence and is doing them a disservice. I love the strategies you have suggested, particulary the 'show me two ways you have already tried'!


  3. Amen! I am a third grade teacher, too, and am sometimes labeled the ‘mean’ one.

    It is so important that children learn to problem solve independently. Partner/small group work is important and has its’ benefits. But I find a good number of children unable to function when asked to complete something on their own. In my room, you need to show your answer and explain how you got it, before I will step in with a clue.

    I’m finding, too, that parents have an increasingly harder time letting their child struggle with a problem, rather than spoon-feeding an answer. With work, sports, and activity schedules they just don’t feel as though they have the time to really help their child learn.

    1. Yes! I agree that parents have to be on board with promoting independence–it’s something I talk with parents about from the very first day. I taught 5th grade for 12 years, and am used to teaching students to be “resourceful” (and thus, more mature–an idea that appeals to this age group) as it relates to moving on to junior high school.

      I have to move to 4th grade next year. I’m a little worried about the level of frustration I might experience with students who may be even more dependent than 5th graders, but also see it as an opportunity to instill independence at an even younger age. We are failing our kids if we expect anything less!

  4. Great advice! I’m an 8th grade math teacher and our district is really big on the Direct Instruction “I do, we do, you do” method. This method works great with reading (which it was created for) but when overused in Math, it strips students any opportunity to think for themselves, since they are just reusing the strategy that they just observed the teacher doing. But when we give students a problem and then a good chunk of time to solve it, without giving them the method to use ahead of time, we allow the productive struggle that creates real thinkers out of our students. And it is these real thinkers that employers are looking for!

    1. My district is allowing us to move from “I do, we do, you do” to “You do, y’all do, we do” in math. This gives students a chance to struggle with a problem, both individually and collectively, before discussing their solutions/observations together. I am really excited for how this will create more independence in our students this year! Maybe you could talk to your principal about keeping the I/we/you components but switching up the order?

  5. I agree 100%! My student teacher was AMAZED at what my students could do on their own. I encouraged her not to “park” next to needy students, because they won’t learn self-reliance, or even how to ask for support, when needed. I say, “The struggle is where the learning happens!”


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