Future Fluencies

7 Ways to Encourage Learners' Independent Thinking

Getting our learners to begin thinking independently is one of the many goals of education.

Getting our learners to begin thinking independently is one of the many goals 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. 

Nevertheless, as we encourage learners' independent thinking we empower them find this reality in their own way.

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 encourage learners' independent thinking so that they may eventually use those skills in practicing interdependence?

7 Ways to Encourage Learners' Independent Thinking

The first thing to do is make the idea of independent thinking feel safe. Many 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 encourage learners' independent thinking the way it's needed.

Of course nobody disputes that there must be order in your classroom because you must have certain rules, guidelines, and expectations. However, once you establish your daily procedures ask yourself,

“How can my students feel safe to think independently?”

For teachers, the quest to encourage learners' independent thinking takes on a priority, and consequently more interesting strategies. Here are a few to consider.

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 then 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 encourage learners' independent thinking? It's because students are not as dependent upon the teacher giving them the answers as they are of each other. As a result, it becomes 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 their mistakes as a way of learning. Student and teacher proceed to take apart the problem and say what went wrong. Remember also this is the last step in the Solution Fluency process and a step which often gets neglected.

How does this encourage learners' 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. Next, ask the learners to determine whether an entry is true or not. When you turn the page the answer is then 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. How about having them write a piece using all of their five senses? This exercise is based on extensive research and delving into using their imaginations. It's a way to encourage learners' independent thinking by asking them to rely on their own minds based on what they find. 

With today’s technology—such as virtual reality, Google Cardboard, and virtual field trips—this could be a real fun project. Because you can’t fake the senses, a project like this encourages students to convey their own unique thoughts and sensations.


Teachers know Bloom’s Taxonomy is another framework to encourage learners' independent thinking. Take a look at Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy to see how you can apply the it to digital media.

We started talking today about independent thinking, and hopefully now you see how it can lead to interdependence. As we encourage learners' independent thinking, a sense of value in collaboration and teamwork become the end result. 

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