The notion of “empowering” students has become more prevalent in the last few years, and for a good reason. In a world that is moving at a faster pace than ever, we need people to initiate and make things happen. To do this, you have to have ownership, and with ownership, one becomes empowered in finding and creating their solutions.
Bill Ferriter, has pushed my thinking on this notion, and I love this image he created:
AJ Juliani and John Spencer also wrote a great book that is 100% dedicated to the idea of the importance of empowering students. They push the idea of how important an “empowered environment” is to create, going beyond the thought of engagement.
Empowered environments allow our connections and impact to move beyond the classroom walls and continue to be powerful, long after our students are out of sight. There is no better time to be in education than right now. Education is the bridge to so many opportunities for our learners. We must step aside as the gatekeepers and instead move next to our learners to take the journey together.
As with any new narrative that comes into education, “empowering learners” has pushback in what it means for education. Below are some of the arguments I have heard in the context of why “empowering” students might face criticism, and some arguments against the idea of empowerment.
1. It is a “free-for-all.” When people hear the term “empower”, they often envision a free-for-all where learners just do whatever they want. For example, the notion of Google’s “20% time” (which has often been debated), is that people just do whatever they want with 20% of their time in which they work for Google. The reality is that the time is meant to advance Google, not a “do whatever you want” initiative. From “The truth about Google’s famous ‘20% time’ policy”:
“We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google.”The same is true within education. In my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset,” I wrote about a Health Class that I turned over to the students. Instead of planning everything myself, I turned the curriculum objectives over to the students, who planned for each objective and how they would teach it. I still met the curriculum objectives through this process, but the students had a much better understanding of each objective because a) what they planned for other students was much more powerful than what I would have planned myself and b) they had to teach it to others. One of my favorite quotes on learning is from Joseph Joubert, where he states, “To teach is to learn twice.” Empowering students within constraints of education is about innovating inside of the box.
This interpretation of empowerment leads to the next myth.
2. It is disconnected from the curriculum. As shown in above, you can empower students, while still teaching the curriculum. Yong Zhao opened my eyes to the concept of “individualized” and “personalized” learning, and their differences:
“Individualized learning is having students go through different paths to get to the same endpoint. How you get there is different, but the destination is the same. Personalized learning is having students go through their own paths to whatever endpoint they desire. How you take the path and where you end up is dependent upon the strengths and interests of the learner.” Within individualized learning, students still have to get to the same endpoint of the curriculum, but the process of how they show their learning can vary. If you give a student the opportunity to create a video, write a story, create media, etc., that allows a different process that the student has ownership over, yet the assessment is still based on the understanding of the objective. I love this quote from Chris Lehmann:
“If you assign a project and get back 30 of the same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.” Opportunities for personalized learning are also important. Things like Genius Hour and Identity Day allow for students to not only learn about their passions but more importantly, learn about themselves. We have to find opportunities for both while ensuring we meet the requirements of our jobs.
3. Students are becoming entitled. If anything, I am hoping that “empowering students” creates the opposite effect.
When someone is entitled, they think things should come to them. When you are empowered, the belief is that you need to make things happen. With empowered learners, the expectations should be greater, not less. I wrote about this idea previously, and the difference between creating a “GoFundMe” account versus creating something of value:
Here was an example of a fine line that I struggle with in teaching a child to be “entitled”, as opposed to “empowered”. Think about what we are saying to students when we ask for money through “GoFundMe” or something similar for our classrooms or ask for others to retweet something so that our class can win a competition? This borders on modeling entitlement. “Give me something because I’ve asked for it.” Now if you have ever asked for money for your classroom to give your students opportunities that may not exist without that funding, I can fully understand why you would do that. Every great teacher wants to provide every opportunity they can for their students. But as I had written before, what if we created something of value to earn that money? If we asked students, “What would you create to earn this money? What rate would you sell the product or service? How would you get the word out to others?” This is quite hard work, but what if you earned furniture through this process? There is ownership over the creation process while entrepreneurial skills are developed. Empowering students means teaching them that they are going to create their own future, not that someone will do it for them.
I have tried to distinguish examples of “compliance, engagement, and empowerment” previously:
This does not mean that “compliance” is never necessary (think submitting taxes). It also doesn’t mean that “engagement” is now irrelevant. It is just about pushing further into our world today. I always say that you can be engaged without being empowered, but if you are empowered, you are definitely engaged. Those that are empowered create the(ir) future and do not sit back and wait for it to happen to (for) them.