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February 21, 2018

Moving Beyond Student Engagement to Student Empowerment

When I attended Teacher School, I remember that the Holy Grail was student engagement. I believe it still is – it’s increasingly more difficult now to get our students to engage with the content we present in an age where screen time distracts and sucks in all of us, for better or for worse.

I can always get behind the idea of student engagement, and I am always on the lookout for ways I can help teachers engage their students. At some point, though, I feel that engagement is a lower rung on the ladder of student success.

  • I have content the students are interested in – check
  • I have methods that guide them to understand that content – check

You know what? Just like Ariel inThe Little Mermaid, I want more! I want to empower students.

I have long believed that teachers should be more facilitators than the “sage on the stage.” Besides, who among us knows absolutely everything there is to know about our content area? Digging in to learn more was always, for me, the most exciting part of teaching. When a student felt the support to say, “But what about this?” and introduced something I had never considered before – WOW. That’s when I felt like the energy soared: everyone was dialed in, excited discussion continued, and the sun broke through and shined in our classroom.

Why was that so special? One of their own had opened the door to a new way of thinking, and this was exciting. It didn’t come from the teacher, and it may have been something a few students were thinking about anyway. It made them feel more like a community of thinkers rather than students sitting in their desks, which may not be a huge leap, but it is because that means they are truly invested.

This shouldn’t be a moment to be revered and celebrated. It should be status quo.

Empowering students allows them to go through the process of problem-solving without imposing what has worked for us. Teachers certainly need to provide support, framework, and some foundational instruction with most content, so that certainly secures our role as a facilitator. But student empowerment makes students the experts, which is infinitely more confidence-building than engagement: they are not just on the same train that you are, they are the engineers who are driving and steering the train.

The strategies I gravitate toward, like cooperative learning, game-based learning, and any sort of project-based initiatives, put students in the driver’s seat and pushes them to think in ways that work for them. Students don’t just work together, play a game together, or complete a group project; they create a game, they design a project, they problem-solve. They think critically, they communicate, they collaborate, they create.

And eventually, they change the world.

But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Educators must allow these important opportunities for empowerment to develop, and to take place both organically and within a structure. We must hand off the baton to students, and show them how to lead, so they can develop confidence and strong self-efficacy to impact our world in positive ways. One of the huge benefits of empowering students is watching students grow, shine, and develop into the leaders we know they can be.

Plus, we adults might just learn a few things along the way.

Whether you createa game, designa project, or let your studentsproblem-solve, how do you plan to empower your students in the upcoming school year? Comment with your thoughts and ideas below.


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