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November 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 3

Independent Learning Was Amazing—Until It Wasn't

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The remote learning experiment taught us a lot about the benefits—and drawbacks—of students learning on their own.

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Instructional StrategiesEngagement
Independent Learning Was Amazing—Until It Wasn't
Credit: TATYANA_TOMSICKOVA / iSTOCK
When the pandemic hit and remote and hybrid instruction replaced in-person school, many of my long-held assumptions about student learning were upended. Distance learning taught me many things. Probably the most important and humbling lesson was how much I had been underestimating the capacity of my students, at least in certain regards.

Overachievers in the Zoom Room

In the fall of 2020, I returned to school after taking a year's leave to care for my sick husband. Zoom school was new to me, but not to my students; they had been learning online for the last part of their 4th grade year. To be honest, I was prepared to meet a group of struggling students who needed a tech-savvy teacher to resuscitate them.
That wasn't who greeted me. Instead, I found myself with a class of 10- and 11-year-olds who had become quite capable with virtual learning platforms and practices. Although their learning environment hadn't been ideal, they had made the most of it and had figured out how to effectively produce work from assignments and projects primarily posted on their Google Classroom. (As an important clarification, my colleagues hadn't checked out of their instructional roles that spring; they, like most teachers, had been left scrambling to figure out how to teach from their homes).
When my new 5th graders entered my Zoom Room, they immediately distinguished themselves from previous classes I'd taught in terms of their productivity. I was struck by their appetite for independent challenges and their flexibility, resourcefulness, problem-solving skills, and self-discipline. My experience was that students who didn't face specific obstacles to learning, such as language-based learning differences, complicated home situations, or poor internet access, had become independent learning superstars in the absence of an in-person teacher. They also demonstrated an unprecedented level of appreciation for their learning and willingness to do challenging, unsupervised work—all skills and learning competencies my prior students could not claim. In fact, if I put the classes side by side, these students' strengths were my former students' identified weaknesses.

Setting up a false choice between independent and collective learning would be a mistake. Both kinds of learning, if practiced exclusively, can lead to blind spots.

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Locked down in their homes, this group had also developed new skills and revisited dormant ones. They were passionate poets, builders, magicians, knitters, readers, painters, bakers, musicians, diarists, coders, naturalists, filmmakers, and seamstresses. One student had become an expert on the orca whales of the Salish Sea from her online research (she knew each whale by name, behavior, and family tree). Most of their activities were self-taught and all were self-directed. My new students explained that once their schedules had been cleared of typical schoolwork and after-school activities, they had discovered—or rediscovered—a multitude of interests worthy of their time, energy, and focus. For instruction, some had gone online for information. Some accessed their local library. Many others asked the adults in their lives for help.
This resilient group also graciously and patiently coached me through tech challenges and demonstrated persistence when the internet let us down. Their competency and engagement inspired me daily and caused me to reconsider many long-held assumptions about the capacity of this age group that I had taught for more than a decade. I became fascinated with their ability to self-pace their learning and personalize their work schedules, study habits, and content consumption. By the end of our year together, I had begun to seriously wonder if distance learning didn't possess significant advantages over the conventional classroom in terms of cultivating learning autonomy.

The Flipside of the Upside

Then the 2021–22 group arrived. My new cohort of 5th graders had spent even less of their early school years learning in traditional classroom settings and more time working independently. With all that practice, their production skills even outpaced my previous class. Sometimes they finished work so fast I had a hard time keeping up with them. My colleagues were reporting similar experiences in their classrooms.
But it didn't take long to see the flip side of this exciting new student independence. When the pandemic protocols were lifted and I started to bring my students together to learn as a community, I was stunned by their response. They weren't only impatient with in-person learning as a group, they weren't very good at it. They struggled to listen to each other in discussion. They failed to explore below the surface of content and ideas in lessons and discussions. Their empathy for the characters in the whole-class novels we read was minimal, and their implicit understanding of texts was weak. Observations were shallow. Curiosity was almost non-existent—and so was enjoyment in learning.
I realized that in their time away from classroom instruction, these students had become transactional in their learning. For these distance-learning whiz kids, the learning process had become driven by wanting to get the work done quickly so they could get back to playing video games, living online, or doing whatever they liked to do in their "free time." They were less compelled by curiosity or love of learning, especially if they weren't setting the learning agenda. During a good chunk of the past two school years, their teachers and parents had asked them to figure things out on their own, and they had not only complied, they had excelled. No wonder they were reluctant to return to the diminished flexibility and independence that collective learning involved. But this reluctance also belied what they had missed in being away from the classroom for so long.
Witnessing my efficient, capable producers struggle to make meaning from our lessons reminded me that learning environments matter. How we get our learning matters and where we get our learning matters. Helping students grow discrete skills and knowledge banks is essential, but making meaning is the ultimate goal. Learning together invites students to become a part of a curious, caring, and connected community, where they benefit from conversations and shared ah-has. Magic often results from students learning together, and sharing their ideas allows them to refine, deepen, and grow those ideas.

Social Magic

This social magic of learning is explained in Annie Murphy Paul's book The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. By coincidence, I read her book right when I was trying to figure out what was going on with this new cohort of 5th graders. I was particularly fascinated by the sections related to brain research on collective learning. Paul highlights findings showing that "development of intelligent thinking is fundamentally a social process." Studies using new imaging technology, she explains, suggest that "when people interact socially, their brains engage distinctly different neural and cognitive processes than those when they think or act alone." This research has led to the discovery that there is actually "a third, and heretofore unknown language-related circuit" that's only engaged when subjects are actively talking and listening to other people, but not engaged when people are simply passively reading or passively listening.
Paul also shares research related to something most teachers regularly observe: the increased understanding that results when a student teaches, explains, or shares their knowledge. According to Paul, social interactions trigger increased alertness, which leads to enhanced attention and memory. Teaching their peers, arguing about ideas, and discussing content enhances students' learning. Students improve their thinking when they have to defend their opinions and evaluate classmates' ideas. Arguing also helps diminish confirmation bias (the tendency to seek and emphasize information that supports our previously held beliefs and ideas). When thinkers encounter conflicting ideas, they are typically encouraged to seek additional information and organize their thoughts more carefully. The book makes a strong case for the many ways thinking is different, and elevated, when students learn together.
As the year progressed and these 5th graders spent more time learning as a community, I witnessed this kind of social alchemy reappear as they re-engaged in discussion and interacted around ideas (although getting there required significant teacher patience and salesmanship). Students began to care about, say, the Sustainable Development Goals, rather than just learning what they were. They empathized with the protagonists in classroom novels, instead of simply learning the plot. They identified the irony of American patriots wanting their slaves to help them fight for freedom from England. Instead of just reading past unfamiliar historical references or vocabulary, they asked questions about them; they even began to identify who in the class to ask about particular issues or interests.
Learning engagement grew as students extended one another's ideas and insights and made connections between them. Through practice and experience, they came to understand that the point of learning was to engage with the content, not simply store it.

Leveraging Both Kinds of Learning

I intentionally designed the final project of the year to leverage both the independent and social aspects of learning. My students independently chose and researched a subject they wanted to learn more about so they could compose a children's picture book on the topic. The audience for their books would be their classmates and the 1st grade buddies they had been paired with for the year. Writers were challenged to identify an appropriate text structure (circular, question/answer, alphabetic, two-sided text, etc.) from various children's books we'd studied to best communicate their information.
The room buzzed with engagement. The students offered each other feedback during the writing process. They shared their research, debated text structures, and offered composition ideas. Our classroom came to resemble a bustling publishing house, with a diverse group of opinionated writers, editors, and critics bouncing ideas off one another.
This group's capacity for independence made them strong researchers, and their renewed collaboration skills helped them interact with each other in generative ways while remaining focused on their individual projects. They brought visible energy and attention to their work, performing for each other in ways that a solo teacher audience could never inspire. By the end of the year, this group was displaying a level of academic confidence and competence that I had never witnessed in previous 5th grade classes.

A Few Takeaways

Here's what I learned from my experience with these two classes about how to maximize independent learning:
  • Independent learning that includes clear expectations, modeling, and scaffolding helps students develop agency, autonomy, and responsibility and reduces frustration.
  • Independent learning that includes opportunities for students to share and test their independently gathered ideas, arguments, and understandings in a collective setting, with their teachers and peers, helps them make meaning from the content. Good strategies include peer teaching, class discussions, and collaborative activities and projects.
  • Combining independent and collective learning gives students the opportunity to practice working in ways that more accurately reflect the way learning is pursued outside school. Be explicit with students about why both kinds of learning are important.
The pandemic forced an unprecedented amount of independent learning on students of all ages. As such, it presented a rare opportunity to observe the striking capacity middle-elementary students possess when offered agency, flexibility, and independence. But limited opportunities for collective learning also illuminated the ways learning in a group nurtures curiosity, deepens ideas, and grows student thinking.
My experience of teaching these two 5th grade classes ultimately cautioned me against structuring my teaching exclusively around one type of instruction or the other. Setting up a false choice between independent and collective learning would be a mistake. Both kinds of learning, if practiced exclusively, can lead students to develop blind spots. Implemented together, they make a powerful combination.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ If you now have students in class who've experienced two years or more of remote instruction, do you notice differences in how they work and learn? What's different, both positives and negatives?

➛ Does the "social magic" of cooperative learning Redford talks about ring true for you? How could you tweak your classroom setup or instruction to bring more "social magic"?

End Notes

1 Murphy, P. A. (2021). The extended mind: The power of thinking outside the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kyle Redford is a veteran 5th grade teacher at Marin County Day School in the San Francisco Bay area, and an expert at Understood.

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