Promoting Independent Thinking in Classrooms

Michelle Bouslog
Michelle Bouslog
EdTech teacher; M.A.Ed. in EdTech, Concordia University St. Paul, MN
An elementary aged student sits at his desk and thinks, holding his pencil to his head.

We know that children go to school to learn how to read, write, and answer mathematical questions. But we often don’t think about another important part of education: promoting independent thinking skills. When children develop the desire and the skills to think on their own, they are able to problem-solve on their own. They need less adult assistance and can use their abilities to complete tasks.

Students who are independent thinkers learn how to think outside the box and ask questions about concepts they are learning instead of accepting everything as a fact. What are some other reasons independent student thinking is so important, what are some ways to promote independent thinking in the classroom, and what does it mean to be an independent thinker?

Why Student Independent Thinking is So Important 

There are many reasons why a student’s independent thinking skills are so necessary. For starters, independent thinkers don’t have to rely on adults to help them with tasks they can complete on their own (think getting dressed, tying their shoes, sharpening a pencil).

When independent thinkers get stuck on something, their first instinct becomes: “how can I solve this problem?” instead of, “I need someone to help me.” Independent thinkers are confident, persistent, and have a strong self-belief that they are capable.

Another reason independent thinking is so important to instill from a young age is because it provides children with more opportunities to think in new ways. Independent thinkers can begin to perceive the world around them with their own twist, instead of being handed information and accepting it how it is without question.

They learn to evaluate a situation, challenge others’ thoughts, or handle crises with their own skills. They can design and create with the tools they are learning. Their finished products, projects, and papers will be much more unique and less cookie-cutter. So, how do parents and educators promote independent thinking within student learning?

Ways to Promote Independent Thinking

Give Students Responsibility

For many students, there is nothing they love more than having the chance to complete tasks by themselves that make them feel empowered. This also majorly helps a more dependent student, easing them into more independence.

For the littles, assign class jobs like watering the plants, sharpening pencils, or keeping the chairs pushed in. For older students, have them help organize parts of the classroom, design seating arrangements, or come up with class rules and consequences amongst themselves. Even high school-aged students like the sense of community and independence they feel when they have a choice and say in their classes and class work.

Encourage Students to Ask Questions 

Teaching students how to ask questions is an important skill that promotes independent, student thinking. There are many easy ways to incorporate question-asking in classroom instruction. Have students use sticky notes to jot down a question before starting a new piece of literature. As a get-to-know-you activity, have students write questions to each other and stick those questions to each classmate’s desk.

As a way to take learning deeper, have students question how another student solved a particular math problem:

  • Can you explain to me how you knew to regroup the tens?

An anchor chart that explains types of questions (open, closed, rhetorical) and examples of each can help support students’ work on their questioning skills.

Allow Opposing Views 

Give students the opportunity to express their views and beliefs, but also be taught how to disagree or challenge another classmate’s ideas respectfully. When done in a healthy setting, this can help strengthen one’s views or lead people to a more informed mindset. Teachers can use healthy debates in class to teach varying viewpoints. Assign students different opinions on topics and let them argue for that viewpoint.

This can become even more educational if you assign viewpoints that differ from how that particular student usually thinks or from what the norm may be (argue that cats are better than dogs, that sugar has benefits to the body, that screen time has benefits.) By developing an open mindset, students will be more flexible and more respectful when facing differing views in real life situations.

Incorporate Coding 

Coding, sometimes more formally called computer programing, is how humans communicate with computers. If you read that and think, no that’s not for me or my child, you may want to think again. Coding has a bounty of benefits for young learners. It not only encourages patience and perseverance to break down complex concepts into smaller steps, but also depends on teamwork, communication, and (you guessed it) independent thinking.

Students of all ages can learn to code by using apps such as:

To inspire students, take part in the Hour of Code, a global movement in 180+ countries that takes place each year during Computer Science Education week.

Independent thinkers change the question “Can I have help?” into the statement, “I am capable of trying this on my own.” Students who are independent thinkers think outside the box, ask questions, and have flexible mindsets.

Teachers can incorporate independent thinking skills into their days by giving students more responsibility, encouraging students to ask questions, allowing opposing viewpoints, and incorporating coding. An independent thinker grows into a person who is better equipped for future schooling, their workplace, and their relationships.

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