Mindset Shifts For Supporting Independent Learners

We all want independent learners — students who are self-motivated, can accomplish given tasks, can troubleshoot and confidently tackle problems. And yet, these students can be really hard to find. Why is that? Without a doubt, there are so many factors at play, but our teacher mindset might also be at the root of the challenge. Why are we so hesitant to shift responsibility and offer independence when really all we want are independent learners?

My Wake-Up Call: Apples And Whipped Cream

mindset shifts for creating independent learners

It hit me with the whipped cream.

Let me back track.

My boys have been on a whipped cream and apples kick. (Don’t ask me how that got started). Almost every day, they ask for fresh apples sliced thin (“apple fries”) and whipped cream – on a small white hor-d’oeuvres plate. (Again, don’t ask me how that got started). While I slice the apples, they get the can of whip cream from the fridge. 

The other day, my youngest (who is almost three years old), decided he wanted to spray the whipped cream onto his plate himself. “I do it myself” is a phrase we hear a lot from this one. I try to give them opportunities to be independent (and honestly, it’s easier than fighting with him) so I agreed.

I set his plate on the table, and he lifted up the can. He fumbled to turn it over, to keep it up and yet angled down, to push the white part down to release the fluffy treat. And the entire time he was doing this, my hands were inching closer – darting in and then darting away as he stopped to reiterate, “I do it,” and batted my hands away.

Again and again, my hands jerked forward – to stabilize the can, to lift the end, to press the white part, to help him

And again and again, he stopped what he was doing, he pulled the can away, he stated, “I want to do it.”

This went on for a minute or so, and finally he said, “You keep your hands to yourself.”

First, let’s just acknowledge – it was hilarious. My nearly three year old had apparently heard that phrase enough to spit it back to me. That’s something that’s going to go in the scrapbooks and baby book for sure.

But on another note, why was it so hard for me to keep my hands away??? 

Why couldn’t I just let him do it???

Seriously, it was hard. I actually finally had to lock my hands behind my back – and I definitely couldn’t find it in me to just entirely walk away (although that may have been a better choice because again, it was painfully hard to stand there and not help).

So I ask again, why was it so hard for me to keep my hands away?

I’ve been thinking about this since, seeking out those hidden beliefs that make it hard to release control at home – knowing these hidden beliefs are the same ones we often feel within our K-12 classrooms. 

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far…

The Beliefs Holding Our Independent Learners At Bay

1. I didn’t believe he could do it.

At the core of the issue was absolutely a lack of confidence in his capabilities. I simply didn’t believe he could do it.

The problem with this belief is that it prevents me from ever giving him a chance. It’s a messed up cycle – 

I don’t believe he can do it, 

so I don’t let him do it, 

so he doesn’t learn to do it, 

so he still can’t do it. 

In the end, my belief in his inability reinforces his inability. It robs him of the opportunity – to try, to succeed, to fail, to develop. To be independent.

As I see it, when we don’t give our kids (or our students) a chance to do something, we rob them of two things: 

  • the opportunity to practice and develop a skill or understanding
  • the confidence that comes from accomplishing a task independently (even if the outcome is a bit rough)

So maybe the opportunity is a skill like analyzing data, maybe it is discovering some content idea, maybe it is developing their own questions, determining their next steps, or mapping the course of the learning journey – if we don’t believe our students can do these things, we are effectively holding them back from doing these things.

Now when it comes to whipped cream, of course, eventually he would develop the motor skills that would leave me confident in his ability to handle the task. But I have to wonder, could he develop them sooner if I give him the chance? Could his confidence in his own ability and independence yield benefits in other areas of his life? Could I maybe let this three year old help me and begin to recognize it’s not necessarily my responsibility to do it all? (#momguilt right?) 

When it came to the whipped cream, he got his way (he’s the youngest after all), and he successfully accomplished the task. Sure, there were some questionable moments – when I wondered if he would drop the can, when the whipped cream wasn’t coming out and I could feel his frustration rising – but he did it.

And yet these moments bring me to my next point…

2. I was afraid of the consequences.

In believing that my toddler could not handle the whipped cream can, I had made some assumptions about the consequences of his attempts.

I assumed there was going to be a mess – a physical mess, and an emotional mess.

I could see it all unfolding in my head – the whipped cream sprays across the table as he fails to aim the nozzle, he drops the can and the apples fly into the air, the white ceramic plate shatters as everything clatters to the ground. 

And then the screams and the cries and the wailing. The big alligator tears. Crying about lost apples, about making a mess, about breaking things, about his whipped cream pile getting ruined. 

His four year old brother chiming in, “It’s too loud!” “Stop crying!” – a limited ability to deal with empathy leading him to lash out with pushes and punches. 

And my own nervous system hitting its cool-calm-collected-mom ceiling. Shoulders tense, jaw clenched.

Everyone freaking the F out – inside (me) and out (the boys).

It might not look quite the same in the classroom, but as educators, we all have those same fears – the stress that comes with chaos, with twenty-five teenagers making messes, doing it wrong, goofing off, growing frustrated, acting out as they shut down. 

At least in my kitchen, I’m only dealing with two small children losing-it. A whole classroom of them?

It’s scary.

When we release some control to our students, we leave ourselves and our classrooms vulnerable. The thing is, vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. It’s a scary thing. It’s a thing that takes bravery and trust. But it isn’t bad, even though our nervous systems tend to signal DANGER every time we give it a go. 

Because vulnerability has its benefits. While it requires trust, it also builds trust. It builds community and connection and confidence. It turns instruction in the classroom from a teacher-driven endeavor into a community-built journey. 

In our classrooms, shifting control might look like

  • using an exploration-based approach to teach a content idea, so that students are figuring out the science ideas (as opposed to receiving them passively through lectures, videos, texts, or other “teaching as telling” approaches)
  • asking students to determine which questions (developed from the anchor phenomena) the class should investigate first or next
  • empowering students to determine what supports they may need to accomplish a task, whether academically, physically, or behaviorally
  • shifting feedback, reflection, and evaluation responsibilities to students, using tools like rubrics and exemplars and question prompts

Now, our students are likely not ready to independently accomplish all of the tasks described above if they have never done them before. But these are all tasks that our students are capable of if we help them develop the skills and strategies to accomplish them. You don’t need to “flip a switch” or go all in – your support is still needed. 

But you can also take steps right now to shift more control to your students. 

And yes, there may be messes – both physical and emotional. But learning how to deal with those messes – whether it’s taking responsibility for cleaning up a physical mess or growing comfortable with the discomfort of failure or the frustration of “puzzling it out” – these are experiences and skills that will benefit our students now and as they move into their futures. 

We may not be able to predict all of the skills and knowledge they will need five, ten, twenty years from now – but it’s a solid bet to say our students will experience challenges, frustrations, failures, messes. We can empower them with the skills they need to handle those things by creating opportunities to practice today.

3. I just didn’t have the patience for it.

Let’s be real – it would be a heck of a lot quicker and easier to simply spray the whipped cream on the plate myself. It’s easier to make the smoothie on my own, to pick up their bedrooms, to do their homework. There’s a lot of things that are just easier if I do them myself.

Because when they are responsible for it? Oh, there’s so many things to do… from teaching them how, to motivating and reminding, to watching them struggle through it (or cringing while they do it wrong or mess it up). 

It’s quicker and easier to do it for them.

But who does that benefit???


It benefits me.

And some days, that’s OK. Some days, I spray the whipped cream or pick up the bedrooms or make the smoothie without their help. 

But most days, I recognize I need to give them the chance. 

It’s the same in our classrooms. Sometimes, you do what you gotta do because it’s all you can do. That said, when we do it ourselves, we’re not serving our students.

When we decide what questions to investigate or how to test an idea, our students lose the opportunity to practice those skills.

When we tell our students the content ideas (through lectures, videos, texts, or other “teaching as telling” approaches), we deprive them of the opportunity to discover the ideas for themselves and develop deep conceptual understanding.

When we select every scaffold and determine all of the supports, we prevent our students from learning how to identify and meet their own needs. 

When we grade every assignment, when we provide each piece of feedback, we limit our students’ ability to reflect on their own work and performance – and we reinforce a reliance on the judgments of others.

It takes time and energy and practice to make changes in our classrooms. To build our students’ independence, in terms of both abilities and comfort levels. 

Shifting control to students isn’t something we can do overnight – not when our system has withheld control for so long.

But it is something we can do.

It’s possible.

It’s hard, but it’s possible.

Cultivating Independent Learners: Keep Your Hands To Yourself

“Keep your hands to yourself,” my toddler son told me. It spurred the kind of reflection that can profoundly change our perspectives – in this instance, on my parenting choices, and as an educator, on what happens in our classrooms. 

And changing perspective can change our actions, and changing our actions can change our outcomes – the experiences of the kids in our homes and our classrooms.

We can’t control everything (hopefully by now, you realize you don’t have to), and you may not be ready to really relinquish the things you do control. But I hope you feel one step closer to taking one step further on this learning journey – to a destination I like to describe as student-owned (science) learning.

Want to Learn More?

How Your Students CAN Do This! (Podcast Episode)

3 Reasons You’re Afraid To Ditch The Recipe-Style Science Labs (Podcast Episode)

How to Build Learning Experiences From Student Questions