7 Strategies for Getting Your Learners to Start Thinking Independently

by | Oct 23, 2017

Many people believe getting our learners to begin thinking independently is the main goal of education. “Teach students so that they don’t need the teacher.” But what if that wasn’t the case? What if there were something higher than independence? After all, Stephen Covey reminds us: independent thinking alone is not suited to interdependent reality.

Thinking independently comes as a part of working together collaboratively. In order to get there, these are the stages that we want to lead our students through: dependence to independence to interdependence. If we can get them from dependence to independence, we’re almost there. Interdependence comes with applying their hard-earned skills toward relationship building.

How are we going to help our students to start thinking independently so that they may eventually use those skills in practicing interdependence?

7 Steps Toward Thinking Independently

The first thing to do is make the idea of independent thinking feel safeMany students don’t believe they have freedom to have their own thoughts. In many cases when curriculum is geared toward literacy of a subject only (just the facts), students are taught to regurgitate ‘right’ answers. Unfortunately this doesn’t foster independent thinking.


Of course, you have your rules, guidelines, and expectations, and nobody disputes that there needs to be order in your classroom. But once you establish your daily procedures ask yourself, “How can my students feel safe to think independently?”

For teachers, the quest for getting learners thinking independently takes on a priority, and consequently more interesting strategies. Here are a few:

1. Circus labs

Think of a 3-ring circus where something different is going on in each of the rings. If you use this strategy it may seem like a circus at times, but here’s how it works:

  • Approach your lesson via different angles or independent investigations.
  • Each student group takes over one of those angles and investigates it as much as they can.
  • After a while the groups rotate to another section, building upon what a previous group has done.
  • By the end of the lesson the subject matter is well covered by all groups.

How does this contribute to thinking independently? Certainly students are not as dependent upon the teacher giving them the answers as they are of each other. This makes it a great team building and collaboration exercise.

Perhaps we can be clearer in saying this is a project on “interdependence,” but it certainly requires independent thinking to get there.


2. Fail usefully

This technique is a great way to get kids to honour mistakes as ways of learning. It sends the message that seeing mistakes in your own work is a great way to learn. Student and teacher proceed to take apart the problem and say what went wrong. Remember this is the last step in the Solution Fluency process and a step which often gets neglected.


How does this contribute to independent thinking? It allows students to make mistakes and instills in them a growth mindset, which is one of the surest paths to independent thinking.

3. Revise old papers

Let’s say students have written something at the beginning of the year. How about towards the end of the school year we revisit that old paper and try to rewrite it and improve it? Can you imagine what allowing students’ thoughts to gestate throughout the year will do for their writing, especially after receiving great instruction from you?

By reflecting upon previous instruction and applying it to revisited work, students grow by seeing how their thoughts and techniques have changed.

4. Set goals with “big questions”

Make the “big question” the important driving force of your instruction. Begin the first week with one question to encapsulate the following weeks as students ponder it. For instance, “How can we play this musical piece at a professional level worthy of Carnegie Hall?”


From these driving questions students will set personal goals in line with the big objective. The responsibility is focused on them finding out the answer, not the teacher giving it to them.

5. “Fact or Fiction?”

Create a booklet about a particular topic with each page highlighting a statement found from the Internet or other source. Ask the reader of your booklet to determine whether an entry is true or not. Turn the page and the answer is revealed, with references that either dispute or support the statement.

This is a great way to get kids to really practice research and information-vetting. This also supports their mastery of Information Fluency. You’ll find an exercise similar to this one along with many other great activities for thinking independently in our popular Critical Thinking Workbook.


6. Engage the senses

Imagine asking your students to report on a place or time in history or in another part of the world. Have them write a piece using their Five Senses. This exercise is based on extensive research and delving into using their imaginations.

It guides students to rely on their own minds based on what they find. With today’s technology—such as virtual reality, Google Cardboard, and virtual field tripsthis could be a real fun project. Because you can’t fake the senses, the Five Senses project forces students to use their own thoughts and words.

7. Bank on Bloom’s

If you haven’t recognized Bloom’s Taxonomy, take a look. We teachers know the importance of Bloom’s work as a way to foster abilities for thinking independently. While you’re at it, take a look at Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy to see how we can apply the it to digital media.

We started talking today about interdependence. Collaboration and working together are the end result of what we want to achieve along with independent thinking.


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