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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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3 Strategies to Promote Independent Thinking in Classrooms

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

Imagine the intentional focus you would bring to crossing a rushing creek. Each stepping-stone is different in shape, each distance uneven and unpredictable, requiring you to tread with all senses intact. The simple act of traversing water on stones is an extraordinary exercise in concentration. Now think of how, with all the tweeting, texting and messaging that technology has given us, our attention is frittered away by the mundane. The speed of communication undermines the continuum of thought. That rushing creek is much harder to cross.

In his study of people who find satisfaction with their lives, Harvard psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as autotelic those who are happiest when they are absorbed in complex activities. By focusing on tasks and outcomes that stretch their skills, these young people are more likely to grow into contented adults. The most significant factor for autotelic development is what Csikszentmihalyi terms attentional capacity. Consequently, if his research into self-motivated learning is correct, then the classroom should become an incubator for growing students' attentional capacity. Instruction should be organized in intriguing yet challenging ways to foster attention.

Teachers can utilize three strategies to cultivate improved focus: sequencing instruction, recovery from mistakes, and setting goals.

1. Sequencing Instruction

Finding intriguing ways to sequence information is one method for promoting students' sense of discovery. One science teacher organizes his physical science class into circus labs. This requires that his students, instead of all doing the same activity in the same period, will instead be working on independent investigations to teach one aspect of the lesson. To understand the concept of "heat," they rotate among 14 different explorations over the two-week unit. Each lab forces students to collaborate as they uncover scientific properties. After all the labs are complete, they have a fuller picture of heat's physical properties. Students have reported these activities as intriguing, compelling and shared -- all of which promoted long-term concentration to make the learning more effective.

2. Recovery from Mistakes

Learning from past errors also provides capacity for continued student learning. Here are two unique approaches demonstrating this method.

A math teacher begins each class with a simple question: "Who made the biggest mistake last night?" Then he waits for volunteers to share errors from their homework. After correcting one volunteer's problem, he challenges the other students: "That wasn't a big enough mistake. Surely somebody else made a bigger one than that!" With his generous encouragement for learning from failure, he ratchets up his students' curiosity for process solutions. Revisiting and revising will concentrate the mind if done without judgment.

Another example of recovery from mistake making is through teaching students how to improve their writing by having them revise papers they've already written. Students who experiment with new sentence patterns and advanced grammatical structures, not from a textbook but from their own previous essays, are learning from application. For improved expression, this is far more motivating and worthwhile than going back to a less personal source.

3. Setting Goals

Teachers also have success by incorporating purposeful goals in classroom instruction. If students can be motivated into exploration and discovery in any subject, they will set certain goals for themselves in the classroom. The teacher, by encouraging such goal setting, cultivates their focus even further. For example, in an American studies course, one teacher centers students on the Big Question of the week. The first week begins with a very compelling question. "Who is an American?" she writes in large letters on the board. Through aligning the central intention early in the period and opening doors for understanding, she provides a scaffold for ongoing dialogue. As another example, a biology teacher poses the question: "What is living?" Again, the psychic energy in the class is amplified. This central question alone funnels the course readings, class discussion and research into a purposeful focus.

By testing and analyzing unique ideas, the classroom can grow students' attentional capacity and show them the value of and methods for thinking independently. Only through strategy and design can the classroom become a laboratory of focus and attention. This is what we must do if we want schools to fulfill their purpose: developing young minds that have been assured new ideas are exciting and worth pursuing.

How do you encourage independent thinking in your classroom?

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute
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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Yes, we make mistakes--thank you for acknowledging that and empowering teachers and students to iterate, and even reiterate, developing stamina for success.

Jo Bass's picture

The basic premise of attentional capacity here, sounds like the extension into secondary school teaching of the early years free play, in which children are encouraged to learn in their own ways through social interaction playing with other children.

In Early Years this means less structure to activities allowing young children freedom of choice, and therefore independent thinking. It's good that the importance of attentional capacity is being recognised for older children too - and maybe could be incorporated in similar ways to primarily schools with interactive smart tables (http://www.earlylearningfurniture.co.uk/products/Rectangular-Smart-Top-M...) and free computer access - with appropriate restrictions enabled.

Carolyn DeCristofano's picture

Thank you, Margaret, for this informative post. I am struck by the correspondence of these three strategies and what happens during engineering design challenges that are designed to integrate with math and/or science.

The teachers I meet in PD are often liberated by the fact that engineering, by its very nature, has built-in opportunities for students to redesign. Redesign presents the chance to recover from mistakes, and the very fact of redesign/improvement being an integral part of engineering communicates to students that some or all of their ideas may fail or at least not work out the way they anticipate. That's the point of testing the design!

Strongly connected to testing the design is the idea that there are criteria for the successful performance of an engineering design. You want that mousetrap not just to be better, but to be better in a specific way. Performance criteria focus student teams on specific goals.

At their best, engineering challenges integrate seamlessly with other content areas, and students authentically "bump into" the need for the information. (At least that is what we strive for when developing curricula and projects.) The order of instruction anticipates a need for discovery and often delays formal instruction until the students feel that need.

Perhaps the framework you have offered here, Margaret, goes a long way toward simplifying an explanation of why integrated STEM education is so powerful. Certainly, stories from many teachers and the research base attest to meaningful learning and expanded attention on the part of many students. I'll be sure to use this framework in m future workshops with teachers (and credit you and this blog, of course!).

Thanks, again.

Andrea Beaty's picture
Andrea Beaty
Author of Rosie Revere, Engineer & Iggy Peck, Architect

Kids put so much pressure upon themselves to "get it right." Sometimes, it shuts them down and keeps them from trying. I hear this from parents and educators all the time.

Just letting kids know that making mistakes is normal and even to be celebrated is liberating for them. And in the end, failing is an enormous part of discovery and innovation. I hope kids take away that message from ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER.

"The only true failure can come if you quit!"

Sarah Kang's picture
Sarah Kang
Future Elementary School Teacher, California!

Thank you for this article! Learning from mistakes is one of life's most important (and liberating) lessons. By opening up the space to expose mistakes, we see that we can not only help students feel safe to do so, but empower them to use mistakes to take themselves to the next level. On a deeper level, it is a form of self-acceptance. I'm excited to share this life lesson in my classroom. Though learning from mistakes for my students may now pertain to a math word problem or a paragraph, they lay the skill foundation for life success.

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