From Learned Dependence to Learned Independence

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During workshops that aim to deepen knowledge of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I hear a consistent message from teachers – “My students are already behind with the current standards so it is no surprise they struggle with the new, more rigorous standards?” Or, “My students are high performing but we are afraid they won’t perform well on the SBAC Assessment performance task.” These are valid concerns. Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. In some cases, complex text and challenging math have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students albeit with the best of intentions. The consequences are stark. Many students, especially our lower performing students, have become very dependent learners and have not built the academic muscles necessary to excel at the table of scholarship. While our high performers don’t struggle as much, they too are pretty dependent and how well are we meeting the needs of those kids who already know it? Students at all performance levels need 21st century skills so they can have options when they graduate.

The key shifts in the CCSS ask us to interrupt this dependency cycle by ensuring that all students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. There is a key document linked here provided by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium outlining their emphasis on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that is not a “one size fits all” approach but rather utilizes “flexible approaches that can be customized” that “gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn.” The CCSS challenge us to think K-16 for all learners. But how will we do this?

Consider using provocative, ambiguous questions to frame learning and provide real world lenses to set purpose for authentic learning using technology to enhance engagement. Put engaging, relevant text related to the question in front of students frequently starting off with shorter, accessible complex passages working towards greater text length and complexity reading goals. Students need to learn how to annotate and summarize text across content ideally utilizing consistent procedures. We need to make the invisible, the language of our disciplines – text structures, academic vocabulary – visible to students so they can express the sophistication of their thinking and access core content successfully.

Most importantly this work needs to be built in collaboration with teachers! In my collaboration with teachers around Common Core, I see that teachers really get it! They understanding the need to move students towards independence and how time crunches and incoherence have led dependence. When given some tools to collaborate – to sort, anchor, calibrate and share ideas, teachers and instructional leaders have the expertise.

We just need to get them the right tools and get out of their way!

Sasha Kirkman, Literacy Coordinator

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