Learning at Home

Intellectual Apartheid: Dependent vs. Independent Learners

I saw this post via @vrkimmel Twitter (thanks Valinda!) and had to share it…

Dependent vs. Independent Learners

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Hammond

“Over time, because of structural racialization in education, we have seen a new type of intellectual apartheid happening in schools, creating dependent learners who cannot access the curriculum and independent learners who have had the opportunity to build the cognitive skills to do deep learning on their own. Rather than stepping back, looking at the ways we structure inequity in education, and interrupting these practices, we simply focus on creating short-term solutions to get dependent students of color to score high on each year’s standardized tests. We don’t focus on building their intellective capacity so that they begin to find their own learning gaps with proper scaffolding”

Wow! That’s really heavy…

Basically, what it means to me in relation to the conversations we’ve been having around giftedness, tracking and honors, is that in the past we given students two different types of instruction… one which creates dependent learners and one which creates independent learners. One type of instruction for low-performing students based on test-taking and memorization of facts, etc. somewhat akin to “Here! Don’t worry about thinking too much about it, just memorize this!” And, one type of instruction for high-performing students which asks them to think critically, engage in regular self-assessments, and reflect on their learning: “How am I learning? What do I need to work on next? How should I approach this new task?”

I have seen these two types of instruction in San Francisco and across the Bay Area–often in the same school! It’s no wonder low-performing kids end up giving up. Instead of helping students accelerate their learning to catch up to their grade-level peers, “support” classes often make students get further and further behind by making them more and more dependent. And, let’s not even talk about student engagement!

So Happy We’re Moving Away from This…

I feel we are supported in making this shift by both new standards (Common Core State Standards) and new assessments (Smarter Balanced Assessments). Students are being asked to think about relationships in mathematics and explain their answers. In English classes, they are being asked to reference the text to support their thinking in their writing.

Both state and district assessments have also shifted so that students are being asked to reason (e.g. choose ALL CORRECT answers), explain their thinking, construct answers to solve problems and even do multi-step performance projects where they apply what they’ve learned to real-world problems. Multiple-choice is no longer an option (Pun intended!)

With well designed classroom assessments and SFUSD Common Learning Assessments, students can even get feedback at several points a year about how they are doing in relation to end of year goals. The best type of assessments allow students to celebrate what they’ve learned and see where they need to work harder to make improvements in their learning. This is exciting stuff, and I am seeing it every day in my girls school!

How Did I Do?
This great comic, created by the SFUSD Achievement Assessment Office, shows how students can use assessments to reflect on their progress and become independent learners.

Click here to download a Pdf of this comic created by the SFUSD Achievement Assessment Office explaining the value of self-assessment!

That said, none of this happens if the new standards aren’t truly implemented and if teachers aren’t capable of planning deep, rich instruction. This can happen either because they lack training, resources or are they are just not invested in making this shift.

I feel really lucky to observe this shift taking place in my girls education. It’s hard work. Nonetheless, teachers at my daughters’ school are really amazing and I am seeing it happen every day! That said, it is the first full year of implementation of new standards and assessments and it’s not realistic to think all these changes will be happening in ALL classes across the district at all times. If teachers don’t have training, support or resources, or worse yet, if they aren’t invested in new approaches to instruction, we’ll continue to see the same old instruction that creates opportunity gaps for our most underserved students.


What do you think? Do you see shifts in education happening in your child’s classroom? If you are a teacher, what can parents and community members do to support you in making these shifts?

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