Recently I asked my Instagram followers what they wished their students knew before distance learning began, and there was an amazing number of responses about students not being able to read directions or turn in documents properly. This generation of digital natives may not be as tech savvy as we thought, right? Or is it just that we need to teach students to be independent learners?
This time last year, I was planning to start the school year with an intense focus on the skills the students would need if we went remote again, and I wrote about this on The Secondary English Coffee Shop. This year, the hope is that everyone will be teaching in school, but one thing that pandemic teaching emphasized for me what that building community and strong, independent learners is important no matter where we are teaching.
Teaching students to be independent learners is an awful lot like parenting. When you are trying to get a four, eight, or fourteen year old to clean up their toys, take out the garbage, or make their lunch for school, it’s often easier and less stressful just to do it ourselves. There are fewer arguments and it takes a lot less time. However, what happens is that we continue to have to put the toys away, take out the garbage, and pack the lunches. More importantly, our kids aren’t learning those all-important life skills.
It’s no different with our students.
It takes some time but it’s worth it
Yes, it’s easier just to answer something for the 15th time rather that engage in the difficult job of teaching students to do it themselves. But, if we keep answering questions and providing help with things that they should be able to do on their own, we get frustrated with the situation – and students aren’t learning those all-important life skills.
So, this fall, there will be a focus on reducing the learned helplessness and showing kids how to help themselves. I am going to adopt the elementary teachers’ “Ask Three Before Me” method, and my students will be encouraged to check all of the places where I may have provided instructions.
I will make a clear distinction between not knowing the answer and not understanding the task, so students aren’t afraid to ask for help when they do need it. There’s a big difference between not knowing what to do and not knowing how to do it.
Be firm and consistent
For this to work, it’s vital that I remain firm and consistent with this. If they ask me what they need to do for a task or when an assignment is due, I can’t answer them. I’ll just point to my lovely poster and ask, “Did you…?” If they have, I’m all about the helping.
First of all, I’m going to be very careful in my approach. No one likes to be told they have to do something, especially teens. However, if you show them why doing it will help them, they are more likely to buy in.
And, it’s always best if you give them a reason beyond school. Ask them to imagine when they are in the workplace: who will be a more valuable employee? The one who can figure things out on their own, or the one who has to ask the boss about everything?
I’m also going to make it clear that I mean business when I ask for a good copy. I typically get a number of them that are riddled with errors that high school students shouldn’t be making, I’m not talking about students who have learning difficulties, but rather the ones who just don’t take the time to edit their work (even when Google identifies the error for them.)
How do I do this? Well, I learned a few years ago that the best way was to stop reading an assignment with small i’s and misspelled there/theirs/your/you’re, etc. I hand it back and say “fix it before I read it.” It took a bit more time at the beginning of the year, but guess what? Most students started editing more carefully because they knew I wasn’t going to let them away with being careless.
I reviewed each of these lessons early in the year and gave students the handout you see here.
If you would like this poster and the handout, you can grab them here.
Independent learners can follow directions
This is true. However, I know that an inability to do what I asked them to do might actually be my fault. Why is that? Well, I realized when looking for a post on Google Classroom, that my organizational skills on there are not great. The titles of my posts, or the random announcements I added, would make it difficult for anyone to find something.
If my instructions are buried, then it’s going to be hard for my students to complete them.
Once I realized that my Google Classroom was a mess, I started deleting things that didn’t need to be there any more, and being wiser about my titles and assignments. I started posting once a week with a title like this: Week of May 18 -22. Then, all of the work for that week was placed in that assignment. Each doc that I upload is numbered if there is an order I want them to follow and/or has the day of the week that I want it completed.
Since I got myself better organized, I’ve had fewer questions and problems with kids handing things in. There will always be some, no matter what I do, but when I’m clear, I’m at least taking away that obstacle.
What about you? Do you have any great tips for teaching kids to be independent learners? Let us know in the comments. And, if you’d like more classroom management tips, check out this post on managing talk in your classroom. If you’d like to learn about my digital course on classroom management & engagement, you can check it out here.