No matter what grade we teach, we are getting learners ready for a meaningful life and vocation. Current professional conversations are rightfully about developing knowledge, reading comprehension, math literacy, and the like. Yet lost in this achievement quest is the question: What are we doing to ensure students leave formal schooling able to think for themselves?
In this blog, I define what I mean by independent thinking and share three strategies for cultivating it across the school day.
Independent thinking is the opposite of groupthink. It is a way of examining information, ideas, and virtually anything in the world so that each of us can filter out manipulations and data that don’t sit with what we know. When people learn to think independently, they form their own theories, decide what is and is not important, and draw conclusions that seem logical to them, given what they know. Independent thinking is a vital part of being in a classroom community of society because it allows each of us to find meaning. Independent thinkers are able to stay curious, reassess, and adapt to ever-evolving situations.
If students do not learn how to think for themselves, they are more likely to make short-sighted decisions and may miss opportunities for growth. As teachers, one of our main goals is to create the conditions for students to become independent, critical thinkers. When we build this capacity, students apply this skill as they read, write, and synthesize. Independent, critical thinking enhances all learning.
Educator and author Vincent Ruggerio claims critical thinking “is searching for answers while reaching for meaning” (2012, p. 4). He explains that critical thinkers typically:
- Acknowledge personal limitations.
- See problems as exciting challenges.
- Have understanding as a goal.
- Use evidence to make judgments.
- Are interested in others’ ideas.
- Are skeptical of extreme views.
- Think before acting.
- Keep an open mind.
- Engage in active listening.
Three Strategies for Developing Independent Thinking
In my professional development work in schools recently, I’ve noticed that students seem to have fewer opportunities to process learning than they did a few years ago. In response, I’ve worked with teachers on methods for developing knowledge and ways of acting on that knowledge. In a book I co-authored, Active Learning, you will find forty practical teaching and learning ideas. Here, I present three strategies: asking students to pose and answer their own questions; creating space for students to research, debate, and form their own claims about a topic; and inviting students to make connections between what they have learned and how it may apply to their own lives.
Ask & Answer Their Own Questions
Across the day and across the year, students can ask and then seek to answer their own questions. In science, this might look like asking why the leaves are falling off some trees and not others. While listening to a fiction read-aloud, it might sound like asking if they would want to be friends with the main character. Ways to support this include:
- Open space for students’ questions before, during, and after a learning experience.
- Build in time for students to discuss their questions with one another
- Create a class question wall.
- Make time for students to share their answers and emerging understandings with one another.
Research, Debate, and Form Their Own Opinions
When units are designed with compelling, essential questions and open-ended inquiry, there are lots of opportunities for students to form their own opinions. Instead of asking students to research topics for which there are already answers, consider asking them to help with authentic topics that no one has really figured out. For example, once I found out that one of our favorite class treats contained trans fats, I brought the issue to the group. Should we continue to eat this treat, knowing it has a hazardous substance in it? This led to research, discussions, and debates, and then students came to their own conclusions. Students presented their case to the class, and we reflected together. While this example might seem trivial (to eat a yummy treat or not), it created context for us to research, weigh pros and cons, and support our thinking with evidence. This also helped us connect our literacy skills to life experiences.
Connect School Learning to Life Outside of School
Independent thinking is not just a skill we teach in school but a vital way of being in a democratic society. Teachers can teach toward standards and still consider how those standards connect to the places, issues, and experiences students are encountering each day. This might look like:
- Using photographs of local places as springboards for writing and research.
- Community walks to discover issues we may want to address.
- Students each identify a character trait they want to develop and then choose a book to read where the character shows how to develop that trait.
Independent thinking is a skill that can be fostered with all students. As you plan tomorrow’s lesson and design a learning experience, ask yourself, “How might this develop students’ independent thinking?” Try to make space for questions, forming one’s own claims and personal/community connections.
Watch the full episode of Literacy Matters with Gravity Goldberg to discover more ways you can learn from your students.
About the Author
Gravity Goldberg is the author of nine books on teaching, including her latest release, Active Learning: 40 Teaching Methods to Engage Students in Every Class and Every Subject (Corwin, 2023), co-written with Barry Gilmore. Her book Mindsets & Moves (Corwin Literacy, 2015) put her on the world stage with its practical ways to cultivate student agency, leading to speaking engagements and foreign translations of her work.
Dr. Goldberg has over 20 years of teaching experience, including positions as a science teacher, reading specialist, third-grade teacher, special educator, literacy coach, staff developer, assistant professor, educational consultant, and yoga teacher. Gravity holds a B.A. and M.Ed. from Boston College and a doctorate from Teachers College. As the founding director of Gravity Goldberg, LLC, she leads a team that offers side-by-side coaching and workshops that focus on teachers as decision-makers and student-led instruction.