Are Independent Work Periods Productive for Students in the Classroom?

As an adult, I have much trouble sitting still.  Just watch me in any faculty meeting and you’ll see me bopping back and forth or side to side or tapping my hands or feet.  I have always struggled with sitting still while listening to someone speak, no matter how engaging that person may be.  My mind and body were just not made for that.  I’m an active and energetic person who likes to be on the move.  As a teacher, I’m the same way.  I don’t have a teacher’s desk or a even a chair.  I have a table where I put stuff on if need be, but it also holds a lot of materials for the students as well.  I never stand in one place while teaching.  Instead, I’m moving all over the classroom talking with the students, asking questions, answering questions, engaging students, and helping my students learn and grow.  I’m a mover and shaker.  I like to keep on keepin’ on as Joe Dirt reminds us.

Therefore, it’s fitting that I teach upper elementary students.  I can relate to them.  I know that they can’t sit still, and so I tailor the curriculum and activities accordingly.  The way I look at teaching this grade level is this: If I’m bored, then they must be bored.  So, I work hard to chunk time and activities.  I mix things up.  I also work hard to not assign unnecessary homework.  The students will only have to complete work outside of class if they struggle to finish their work in class.  I don’t assign busy work, worksheets, or extra practice for homework because I know that at the end of a taxing and long, stressful day processing new information and unpacking complex concepts, the last thing students should have to do is more school work.  Developmentally, young brains can’t take much more after dinner time.  They need down time to reflect and recharge.  Trying to have students think critically to meaningfully complete work after 7:00 p.m. is like asking a baby to recite Latin verbatim.  I structure my class in such a way that they have time to complete longer assignments and tasks in class so that they will not have homework.

However, this does mean, that periodically, the students will have work periods in class.  During these times, the students work to complete a task, project, or activity.  Sometimes it might be a group project or partner activity and so they will work with their peers to complete it; while during other times the assignment is to be completed independently.  Regardless, they will have, at least once a week in STEM or Humanities classes, a work period to complete a task in class so that they will not need to finish it outside of class when they should be relaxing, playing, or spending time with their family or friends.  When they are working with other students, intercommunication opportunities are built in.  Releasing their excess energy through interacting with their peers and moving about the room is built into group work projects, but what about independent work?  Do they need time to move around and talk with their peers?  Should breaks be worked into independent work periods?  Are they necessary?  Should the students even be provided time inside class to complete work on their own for long periods of time as we know, developmentally their brains and bodies can’t take it?  The short answer is, yes.  When classroom expectations and norms are being set during the start of the year, it’s important to share vital information about brain plasticity, growth mindset, focus, effort, and movement with the students.  When a caring and supportive family atmosphere is fostered within a class, time is built in for brain breaks.  The students know how to take care of themselves, learn lots, and stay focused on the task at hand.  This is what happens in my sixth grade classroom.

Today during STEM class, the students had about 45 minutes to work, independently on a long-term assignment due next Tuesday.  The boys need to craft an original and unique graphic novel that showcases their understanding of the seven main consequences of climate change on Earth.  During today’s work period, their goal was to finish the story part of the assignment before working on laying out the body pages with text and hand drawn images.  It was a productive and fruitful work period filled with focus and great effort.  I only needed to redirect two students once throughout the entire chunk of time.  The students stayed focused on the task at hand.  As many of the students strive to exceed the graded objectives for assignments, many of the boys met with me to receive feedback on their work.  They wanted to be sure their pictures and stories were more than meeting the objectives.  They asked, “What can I do better?  What can I improve to exceed the objectives?”  They wanted my honest feedback and so I gave it to them.  I challenged my students to dig deep by thinking critically about the information researched online to synthesize it into a creative story that explores how climate change impacts our world.  Other students worked on their own and rarely asked for help while other students occasionally reached out to their table partner with a question.  Many of the students had almost met the goal we set for today’s work period by the close of class.  I was so impressed with their effort and accomplishments.  The stories I read were creative and interesting.  The students found unique ways to showcase their learning regarding how climate change impacts Earth and its inhabitants.  I read some stories that could easily be published and used to teach young children about the dangers of climate change.  Amazing!

During this work period, a few other things happened as well.  When students needed to go to the restroom, they asked and went.  When students needed to get up and move around, they did so on their own without distracting or disrupting their peers.  When the Internet connectivity in my classroom started acting all funky, the students helped each other to solve their problems.  One boy even said, “Okay, I’m going to go around and help anyone who can’t get online as I know how to do it.”  It was so kind and caring.  They were all looking out for each other.  It wasn’t a competition to see who could finish their work first, it was about working together to help every student be successful.  Wow!

While my co-teacher and I did spend much time during the first two months of school teaching the students how to effectively communicate, collaborate, problem solve, and work together as a group to accomplish goals and tasks, we can’t take all of the credit for how awesome our students are.  They are a phenomenal group of young men who are going to do great things in this world over the next 50+ years.  They are compassionate, curious, and hardworking.  We are so lucky and fortunate to be able to work with them on a daily basis.

With all of that context, I go back to the question in my title for today’s entry, Are independent work periods productive for students in the classroom?  While the answer isn’t straightforward and simple, effective teachers create classrooms that allow independent work periods to be completely productive and helpful for students.  If the expectations are set high and the students know what to do and how to do it, they will spend as much time as they are provided to accomplish a task.  When students feel cared for, supported, and challenged, they can do almost anything.  So yes, my students make great use of independent work periods in my classroom because the tasks and assignments are engaging, they know how to self-regulate and take care of their bodies and minds, the expectations are challenging yet clear, and they know that I am available to support them whenever help is needed.  Creating consistent routines and relevant expectations is crucial to creating a student-centered classroom that fosters creativity, focus, independent work, collaboration, and compassion.

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