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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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Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ira Rabois's picture
Ira Rabois
Semi-retired secondary school English, Philosophy, history teacher

I enjoyed reading your post. Your ideas are very helpful. I am a writer and (mostly) retired secondary school teacher. I love starting a lesson with a question, especially very real questions or ones brought up or inspired by student's and their concerns. The class then "flows" so naturally. Flow is an inspiring book. Flow and intrinsic motivation occur more frequently when student's own concerns can be brought into the lesson. Do you use mindfulness practices or even a moment of silent writing to begin a period? I know mindfulness is frequently being talked about lately. I find that it strongly develops "attentional capacity" and helps students (and myself) reflect on what I've done or want to do; it creates an inner space for innovation. Presenting students with unanticipated theories to evaluate and critique can also spark independent and in-depth thinking.

JReit4's picture
JReit4
Teacher, Rural New York

Yes I agree. Students need to not be afraid to make mistakes. It is part of life and part of growing up is learning how to deal with your mistakes. Students need to be able to move on and figure out what went wrong instead of dwelling on the mistake.
Thanks for this!

Jackie Miller's picture
Jackie Miller
7th grade math teacher from Mississippi

I was happy to read that someone thinks we should strategize to develop attention spans instead of always catering to the fact that students now have short ones. The specific help for me was that you offered suggestions for "how" to do this. Thanks for including the specific idea about acknowledging mistakes. I will copy that!

Narender Gilhotra's picture
Narender Gilhotra
17 years classroom teacher-4 to 10 grade

Thanks for sharing the ideas to have students be engaged. I usually start my lesson on a new fresh pattern, sometimes by asking my students the questions which have remote links with the concept to be taught and let them think and find a link. This way they go a long way to reach the conclusion and experience some more facts.
I encourage them to ask until they are satisfied. This is a great way of giving them independence to explore.
Students should be encouraged to find mistakes, accept them and correct them. But not be asked to repent.

Dimitrios Nigiannis's picture
Dimitrios Nigiannis
Middle school Special Education teacher from West Virginia

Thanks for sharing your ideas. I think trying to get the students to discover new things themselves is the best way to keep them interested. The idea of keeping them moving around the class is great.

Brent Douglas's picture

Learning from mistakes is very powerful. I've been encouraging my students to be honest about their mistakes, and it's amazing how much they learn when they problem solve mistakes they made. Thanks for your post.

Richanda Pearman's picture
Richanda Pearman
Pre-K Teacher

This was a very interesting post. Just last week my class was discussing reflective practice and there is a statement in the book On Being a Teacher The Human Dimension that says, "Being reflective essentially means being an independent thinker. It means knowing how to reason, to think for yourself, to combine intuition and logic in the process of solving problems." I love the strategies you have given and as a pre-K teacher I believe it is essential to encourage independent thinking at a young age.

Jeanine A. DeFalco's picture
Jeanine A. DeFalco
PhD student in Cognitive Studies, Intelligent Technologies

Dear Ms. Reagan,

In your blog you cite "Harvard psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi" (I thought he was at Claremont Graduate School in California, not Harvard). In either event, could you post the citation for the research you mention?

Also, in your analysis of how instruction should be organized, could you tell me if this is based on research (if so, I'd love the citations) or your personal experience?

I am working on a literature review on instructional designs of student engagement and the information would be very helpful.

Many thanks!

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia
Facilitator 2014

A really great article - I liked the practical steps that you included. One the subject of failure, there have been lots of TEDx talks about failure and how it can drive growth if approached in the right way. Sometimes, I think that we, in schools, get failure wrong - we should view it as an essential part of the learning process.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music
Blogger 2014

This is great! I especially love the part about mistakes. Students so often get in their own way by assuming everything needs to come out A+ the first time through. Life isn't like that-- why should school be?

Our song "Messy" is one of our most popular with kids. I'm sure it's because it cuts them some slack. "Life's kind of messy... but oh, what a journey.. bless my mess!"
How else do we learn?

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