Back to School: Setting an Independent Learning Culture from Day One

By Donna Whyte

As educators, our ultimate goal is to create an environment where every student becomes an independent and successful learner. This requires developing a classroom culture that encourages students to find and collect information, make decisions about what to study and when, take initiative, complete projects, and collaborate. Building independent habits of mind from the start helps students understand and respect expectations and their role in meeting them.

In this article, we’ll look at simple ways to set the right atmosphere at the beginning of the school year and preserve it.

Changing our own mindsets

Many teachers instinctively intervene any time a student has a problem and “fixes it.” Sometimes this course of action is appropriate. But often it is not. Too much help from the teacher robs students of the opportunity to think and solve problems for themselves. Students learn there will always be someone there to bail them out.

To develop independent learners, teachers must change their way of thinking. Instead of solving every problem, they must encourage students to solve it themselves. A simple question like “What do you think is the best way to proceed?” can put the burden of solution back on the student’s shoulder where it belongs. Or teachers can say “I don’t know—what do you think?” This may be difficult for many educators. After all, we’re supposed to be the ultimate authority. We’re not proposing teachers give up control. We are suggesting teachers sometimes step aside and let students take the ball and run with it.

Give students choices

Research suggests students who are given choices in the classroom about what to study and how and when are more motivated to learn and better at decision-making. Our advice for educators? Yes, give them choices, but give limited choices to younger students. Let the younger students choose which materials to use for an art project, what color to paint with, whether to play at a center or in the block area. Of course, there are many choices children in the early grades are not ready for, especially when it comes to safety, health, and nutrition. The secret is to give choices within a framework of acceptable boundaries that you decide on and set. Young children take this responsibility very seriously and will feel more capable and respond better to teacher direction when allowed to give their input.

Talk less

Gone are the days when the teacher stood at the front of the room and did all the talking. Today, especially in light of the Common Core State Standards’ oral language expectations, students must be encouraged to learn from each other by working together. In collaborative classrooms, a student finds a partner for the day with whom they can communicate, share, discuss, and solve problems. Every question does not have to go through the teacher. Students can be encouraged to turn to their partner or their group. It is amazing what they can come up with when they do.

Whatever strategies teachers follow, they must remember that creating independent learners doesn’t happen over weeks or months. It’s a long-term effort that, when initiated on the first day of school, will pay huge dividends down the road.


The first days of school are so important. Get more routines and management tips to help you create successful learners in SDE’s webinar The First 30 Days (PreK–3) by educator, author, and consultant Donna Whyte.

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