Scary Stuff: Encouraging Independent Student Activities in a Science Classroom

Seeing as it’s Halloween, it’s a great time to talk about a scary situation: letting students loose to work independently in your classroom!  For many teachers, the thought of their students being in class without sitting quietly in rows and dutifully paying attention to the front of the class is scary indeed.  Other teachers have maybe allowed students to have a little more autonomy from time to time, but see it more as something for special occasions instead of how their class is generally run.  But more and more research has shown that traditional methods of teaching (chalk and talk) are among the least effective ways to get students to actually learn.  To really get our students excited, we need to face our fears of classroom anarchy and allow for meaningful time for students to work independently, with teachers as facilitators instead of lecturers.

As teachers, there are two contradictory statements that we will often utter, usually without acknowledging the inherent contradiction between them:

1. “If I don’t tell the students about it, they’ll never learn it.”

2. “I told them about it two days ago.  Why can’t they remember it today?”

The fact of the matter is that simply telling students about something is rarely enough for them to actually remember it.  People learn the most through their own experiences.  No one ever learned to ride a bike or play the piano by watching someone else do it or listening to someone talk about doing it.  While there is value to lectures and demonstrations, nothing beats hands-on activities for deeper understanding and longer retention of concepts and skills.

The scariest part about letting students engage in discovery on their own is often summed up by teachers who talk about “losing control” of their class.  However, students can participate in independent activities without their teacher actually relinquishing their control over the class as a whole.  Even in a class where students have five different kinds of activities that they could engage with at one time, the teacher is still controlling what happens: students aren’t free to do whatever they want, they’re free to choose among five acceptable activities.  In many ways, the key to successful independent student activities is allowing for the illusion of freedom.  Students feel empowered because they get to choose what they want to do, but in reality their choices have been developed and limited by a teacher who’s ensuring that each activity is rigorous and useful in pursuit of the key concepts and skills of the particular unit.

Another key to successful implementation of independent activities is the availability of scaffolding and support resources.  Students must be able to solve problems they encounter on their own, or the teacher will be utterly overwhelmed by requests for help.  By encouraging students to turn to other sources for hints, review of covered topics, or supplemental information, the teacher is freed to deal with only the largest and most pressing difficulties.

But the most important aspect of independent work is having a large goal to work towards.  Why should students want to complete these activities in the first place?  With an attainable, visible goal in place — solving a large real-world problem, or completing a complex project — the smaller individual activities can be seen to be in service of the larger goal.  With such a structure in place, students will be driven to understand content themselves, rather than being dragged through it by their teacher.

Giving students a large, real-world problem to solve, providing plentiful support materials, and allowing students to choose what they’ll work on are three steps that will go a long way towards relieving the fear of allowing independent activities in your classroom, making your actively engaged classroom a much less scary place!  Have any strategies that have worked for you in your classroom?  Feel free to share them in the comments below.

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