Are your learners fostering their independent thinking abilities? Have them periodically ask themselves these 10 questions.
You’re a teacher. You’re not only committed to being a different kind of teacher, but you have told your learners that you will be different from many of their past teachers. “My job here is to help you grow intellectually,” you told them on the first day of class. “I know you’re used to memorizing information so you can get good grades on tests, but I want you to do more than that. I want you to improve your independent thinking abilities.”
Many of them look confused. They have the “you have two heads” look. You then explain to them the importance of demonstrating problem-solving skills in college, in job interviews, and in the workplace. Do they get it?
As a teacher, you will be able to assess to an extent whether individual students’ independent thinking abilities are improving. Independent thinkers are often:
- more creative and curious
- more willing to express complex ideas in discussions and in writing
- more willing to challenge conventional thinking via reasoned and sophisticated arguments
- more willing to tackle difficult academic projects
Here’s the truth, though: the learners themselves should know whether their independent thinking abilities are improving before you do. But will they? They might not if you don’t give them guidance.
Fortunately, they can assess their own skills by periodically asking themselves what I call learner self-analysis questions. Perhaps they can do this exercise monthly during the academic year. Hopefully, they will—in a probably less formal way—continue this exercise long after you’ve been their teacher.
1. Am I asking questions while I’m reading?
Typically, learners try to memorize facts so they can do better on tests, particularly multiple-choice tests. Memorizing names and dates isn’t the best way to improve their thinking. They should instead be asking “why?” and “how?” questions. When they’re reading about the Civil War, for example, they should be thinking ‘why did the Southern states secede from the Union?’ or ‘how could the Civil War have been prevented?’
2. Am I formulating answers while I’m reading?
Visualizing future scenarios and problems and then formulating a plan to deal with them is a crucial part of the process of being an independent thinker. In this case, thinking about potential future essay questions such as those mentioned above can improve a learner’s critical and independent thinking abilities.
3. Am I investigating answers to my questions?
In many cases, the answers to the questions that students are thinking about might not be in the books they are reading. Independent thinkers will seek those answers. Perhaps they’ll ask you, the teacher, or else they may find the answers via independent research.
4. Do I understand the importance of what I’m reading?
Social studies students should be more focused on understanding why the Civil War was important than memorizing, for example, the names of the winning and losing generals. English students might substitute “meaning” for “importance.” They should be more focused on understanding the meaning of what George Orwell was seeking to convey in his book “1984” than remembering the exact plot and characters.
5. Am I becoming more curious about what I’m studying?
Learners—and employees—who just follow instructions are less likely to improve their independent thinking skills. Science students should be interested in conducting experiments without being instructed to do so. Social studies students might become more interested in volunteering to write an extra credit report in lieu of a test or even visiting a museum to learn more about a subject they’re interested in.
6. Can I add something to my teacher’s explanations?
As a teacher, you know that your explanation of a subject is sometimes incomplete because your time is limited. Sometimes, your students learn more by listening to other students’ explanations. Independent thinkers can offer a completely different point of view rather than a summary that’s basically the teacher’s explanation in different words.
7. Can I challenge conventional points of view?
Understanding why experts believe something is one level of thinking. Learners who can question and challenge the experts’ conclusions are better thinkers. Of course, they should have evidence that bolsters their viewpoints.
8. Can I communicate different points of view?
The Civil War ended in 1865, but Americans are still debating its causes and ramifications. Learners who disagree with the Union’s or the Confederacy’s viewpoint become better thinkers when they’re asked to communicate the opposing viewpoint orally or in writing.
9. Are my communication skills improving?
Students should be able to assess whether the arguments they’re making in class discussions and the points they’re making in written reports and essays are improving. As they’re planning their statements or writing, they should be thinking about points that will make classmates and teachers say “that’s interesting” or “wow, I’ve never heard that before.”
10. Am I becoming more imaginative and creative?
Of course, learners need to understand that they must be able to show why their ideas are credible. Being imaginative or creative is particularly important in science classes. Those who keep seeking solutions despite obstacles are more apt to improve their independent thinking abilities than classmates with less perseverance.
Hopefully, you and your learners will find these question useful in your academic and personal quests to cultivate independent thinking abilities. As a teacher, you can meet individually with learners to discuss their progress in becoming better independent thinkers. Remember the goal is to improve their independent thinking, so make the suggestion that they could try to create their own questions for self-assessment.