• Jeffrey Hinton

From Dependent to Independent Learners: Bridging the Opportunity Gap

“It is… nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin.  It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.” – Albert Einstein

The achievement gap between Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian and White students and students in poverty is not a matter based solely on ability. Rather it is predicated on the lack of opportunity. The opportunity gap is due to many factors, including unequal access to skilled teachers, high-quality curriculum, and large class sizes. The discrepancy in educational outcomes can be attributed to the American school system's unequal opportunities, one of the most unequal in the industrialized world (Darling-Hammond, 2016). A general rule of thumb is that students from more affluent backgrounds receive a better public education than those from less affluent backgrounds. Unlike European and Asian nations that fund public education equally, the American school system is primarily funded by local property taxes. In this country, the wealthiest 10% of American school districts spend, on average 10 times more on education than the poorest 10% (Darling-Hammond, 2016). Zip code and homeownership should not be a predictor of a child's educational opportunities, but unfortunately, that is the reality. One of the results of the opportunity gap is that students from "good" schools have the chance to become independent learners, while those in "bad" schools largely remain dependent learners. It should be every teacher, school, and district's goal to provide their students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to become lifelong learners to reduce the achievement gap and provide a high-quality education for all students.

In less advantaged schools, students generally receive fewer opportunities to develop essential skills to become independent learners. This may be due to teachers who do not have high expectations for what their students can do and, as a result, rely on lectures, the textbook, and worksheets to drive their curriculum without regard for students' likes and differences. In his seminal article, The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman (1991) outlines the characteristics of the 'pedagogy of poverty' which permeates urban classrooms. In these schools, most of the learning activities revolve around the teacher, such as asking questions, giving directions, monitoring seatwork, giving tests, assigning homework, and grading. Teachers do most of the heavy intellectual lifting, and through direct instruction, tell students what they need to know (Haberman, 1991). These students get trapped in a cycle of mind-numbing busy work with little intellectual or personal satisfaction attached. Because the student is so dependent on the teacher to direct learning experiences, students are unsure how to tackle unfamiliar tasks or problems. Unable to move forward without the teacher's assistance, students learn helplessness and frequently sit passively until they intercede and solve students' problems for them. The pedagogy of poverty teaches students compliance through punishment and reward mechanisms, in which quiet obedience is a virtue and the mark of a 'good' teacher. Students reward teachers with on-task behaviors as long as they do not require them to do too much. As Haberman points out (1991), "The pedagogy of poverty requires that teachers who begin their careers intending to be helpers, models, guides, stimulators, and caring sources of encouragement transform themselves into the directive, authoritarians to function in urban schools." This symbiotic relationship results in passive students who are unable and unwilling to take responsibility for their learning.

It should be the goal of all learning institutions, urban and rural, rich, and poor to transform students into independent lifelong learners. Due to the rapid development of new technologies and access to unprecedented information levels, it is not enough that students graduate high school possessing static levels of basic knowledge. To be competitive in today's knowledge economy, students need to be independent learners that take responsibility for their learning. They need to ask the right questions, propose solutions based upon sound research and reason, and communicate effectively verbally and in writing. Students need to work productively individually and as members of teams. They must be flexible and understand that the state of knowledge is fluid, and they must be able to adapt to changes quickly. Students need to be culturally conversant and develop understanding and empathy for culturally different people from being successful in a diverse workplace.

Further, independent learners must possess the grit to overcome setbacks. Professor of psychology and author Angela Duckworth describes grit as passion and perseverance for long term goals over an extended time. Gritty students develop a 'growth mindset' or the idea that learning is not fixed and can grow and change with effort. Students do not develop grit by completing worksheets, listening to lectures, or taking multiple-choice tests. They become independent, lifelong, gritty students by engaging in meaningful learning tasks with high cognitive demand. Teachers can help students develop grit by being warm demanders who have high expectations of all students. Failure is not an option, and teachers provide their students with opportunities to reflect and improve.

Teachers can help students become independent lifelong learners by providing them rigorous learning activities that require a high degree of cognitive effort. Norman Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels can help teachers calibrate their practice to achieve this goal. Students engage in recall and reproduction of information at the lowest levels of cognitive depth and engage in activities that require knowledge of some skills and concepts. Classrooms with primarily dependent learners generally work at these levels. Students learn to be independent learners at the highest DOK level by engaging in learning activities requiring them to think critically and analytically. They do this by engaging in the synthesis of multiple sources of information and interpret various representations. They transfer knowledge from one domain to another to solve problems and examine enduring controversies, usually over long periods of time. Further, independent learners identify significant concepts and central ideas as opposed to isolated facts. They have agency in their learning and have opportunities to demonstrate 'voice and choice' and are active participants in the learning activities that address real-world problems. Independent learners question conventional wisdom and challenge the status quo and engage in reflective practices to achieve self-improvement and intellectual growth.

One of the primary purposes of education is to transform dependent learners into independent learners. But this is easier said than done. Implementing new pedagogies and approaches is a perennial challenge in education because traditional points of view and the status quo are the path of least resistance. Most traditional schools do not support independent learners' development, and those intransigent teachers who try to buck the system are usually met with student resistance. After all, the sit and get approach is much easier than having to do the heavy intellectual lifting required of dependent learners. In my next blog post, I will explore some of the pedagogical theories that support independent learners' development.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2016, July 28). Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education

Duckworth, A. L. (2013, May 9). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. YouTube. https://youtu.be/H14bBuluwB8

Haberman, M. (1991, December). The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching. Retrieved October 2020, from the link

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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