We need to create independent learners

One of the major changes I’ve seen in 20 years of teaching is the subtle shift toward more scaffolding, step-by-step instructions and detailed scoring rubrics.

Today every major assignment — like a paper, presentation or debate — requires an almost legalistic explanation of what is expected and how students will be evaluated, point by point.

It’s a far cry from my school days, when we were assigned a paper topic — “Was the United States right to use the atomic bomb?” — and expected to know what to do.

We have done this with good intentions, in the name of clarity, equity, and academics. We’re more concerned with the final product — that each student can produce an adequate five-paragraph essay using evidence — than with the students’ ability to plan and execute the project independently. We’re also concerned about being able to defend ourselves against complaints of “unfair” grading or vague expectations.

Some of my colleagues have opposed this trend for years, concerned that we weren’t preparing students for the reality of college or the workplace. Turns out they might be right.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a small business owner who hires high school graduates, and he told me that 20somethings’ ability to problem solve is pathetic — much worse than it used to be. I don’t want to hire someone who can just follow directions. I want someone who can figure out how to identify and solve problems, he said.

Then, this weekend, I read a report on an impressive program called the Postsecondary Success Collaborative, which is helping more low-income and minority students get to college. The PSC program has identified barriers that are preventing high school graduates from college success, and one of them was the inability to be self-directed.

The director of Temple University’s first-year writing program said many college freshmen flounder in a less structured, more rigorous academic environment. The PSC program arranged visits between high school and college faculty, and the resulting conversations were “eye opening.”

According to the report, “University faculty were surprised to see such strictly structured lesson plans in high school, while high school faculty were equally surprised to see the level at which students were expected to learn independently and take responsibility for their learning.”

Unfortunately, although the report detailed PSC’s solutions to other vexing problems, it offered no solution to this gap. What can we do to make sure our students are academically successful AND self-directed?

In my view, we need to develop a system that emphasizes and values problem-solving and independent work. We need to resist the demands for rubrics and step-by-step instructions at every turn, instead creating a system that builds students’ independence and weans them from supports as they move through high school.

I know we have been motivated by good intentions, by the desire to make sure every student can complete assignments and graduate high school.

But we can’t be so shortsighted to think the only thing that matters is getting out of high school or even getting into college. Being ready to do college level work independently – or solve problems at a job – has to be the end goal. If it is, our system needs some refining.