Independent vs. Dependent Learner

This reading is excerpted from Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond.

Independent vs. Dependent Learners and Rigor

Dependent Learners. “Classroom studies document the fact that underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1989; DarlingHammond, 2001; Oaks, 2005). Their curriculum is less challenging and more repetitive. Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brainpower (Means & Knapp, 1991; Ritchhart, 2002). As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.”

… “In the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (2012) suggests that this dependency is the first leg of the “school-to-prison pipeline” for many students of color. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the school-to-prison pipeline is a set of seemingly unconnected school policies and teacher instructional decisions that over time result in students of color not receiving adequate literacy and content instruction while being disproportionately disciplined for non-specific, subjective offenses such as “defiance.” Students of color, especially African American and Latino boys, end up spending valuable instructional time in the office rather than in the classroom. Consequently, they fall further and further behind in reading achievement just as reading is becoming the primary tool they will need for taking in new content. Student frustration and shame at being labeled “a slow reader” and having low comprehension lead to more off-task behavior, which the teacher responds to by sending the student out of the classroom. Over time, many students of color are pushed out of school because they cannot keep up academically because of poor reading skills and a lack of social-emotional support to deal with their increasing frustration.”


The Dependent Learner

The Independent Learner

  • Is dependent on the teacher to carry most of the cognitive load of a task
  • Is unsure of how to tackle a new task
  • Cannot complete a task without scaffolds
  • Will sit passively and wait if stuck until teacher intervenes
  • Doesn’t retain information well or “doesn’t get it”
  • Relies on the teacher to carry some of the cognitive load temporarily
  • Utilizes strategies and processes for tackling a new task
  • Regularly attempts new tasks without scaffolds
  • Has cognitive strategies for getting unstuck
  • Has learned how to retrieve information from long-term memory


Ready for Rigor Framework Practice Areas:

Practice Area I: Awareness

  • Have to place instruction within the larger sociopolitical context
  • We explore the development of our sociopolitical lens
  • “Every culturally responsive teacher develops a sociopolitical consciousness, an understanding that we live in a racialized society that gives unearned privilege to some while others experience unearned disadvantaged because of race, gender, class, or language. They are aware of the role that schools play in both perpetuating and challenging those inequities.”
  • “They are also aware of the impact of their own cultural lens on interpreting and evaluating students’ individual or collective behavior that might lead to low expectations or undervaluing the knowledge and skills they bring to the school.”

Practice Area II: Learning Partnerships

  • We focus on building trust with students to create a social-emotional partnership for deeper learning
  • Culturally responsive teachers build capacity to establish an authentic connection with students, give feedback in emotionally intelligent ways, and hold students to high standards while offering new intellectual challenges

Practice Area III: Information Processing

  • We focus on strengthening and expanding students’ intellective capacity so that they can engage in deeper and more complex learning
  • The culturally responsive teacher uses processes, strategies, tactics, and tools for engaging students in high-leverage social and instructional activities that over time build higher order thinking skills

Practice Area IV: Community Building

  • We focus on creating an environment that feels socially and intellectually safe for dependent learners to stretch themselves and take risks
  • The culturally responsive teacher tries to create an environment that communicates care, support, and belonging in ways that students recognize. This includes setting up rituals and routines that reinforce self-directed learning and academic identity1


  • 1 : Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (Corwin: A Sage Publishing Company, 2014), 12-14, 18-20. Reproduced with permission from Copyright Clearance Center.

Related Content

Democracy & Civic Engagement

Empathy through Game Play

Students experience the value of hard empathy by participating in a game that requires understanding others' perspectives and goals in order to succeed.

Democracy & Civic Engagement

Creating a Society in Which Everyone Can Thrive

Use this lesson to help your students explore the impact of racism in the UK and what can be done to challenge it.

Teaching Strategy

Gallery Walk

Have students move around the classroom to explore a range of documents, images, or student work.


A Matter of Obedience?

Learn about psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and the insight they offer into the motives of Nazi perpetrators.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.