In my experience as a teacher and a coach, I have generally found students to be compliant. Give them a task, and in most cases, they will acquiesce. I would say the same about the educational professionals – teachers, counselors, and administrators alike. But compliance alone does not lead to active learning nor sustainable growth. If we want those we serve to exponentially grow, it is imperative that we solicit opportunities to use that compliance in order to engage, and ultimately, empower.
When learners are compliant they listen, follow directions, and complete an exercise as asked of them. This may include tasks on the lower end of Bloom’s, such as knowledge/comprehension, to perhaps simple analysis and/or application. If lifelong-learning is a primary goal that we seek in education, we need these learners to become empowered and take charge of their learning. The nexus between compliance and empowerment is engagement, where students are active participants in the learning process, seeing the relevance of the instruction and the task at hand. However, engagement, although crucial, is fleeting; it comes and goes as the excitement wanes, after curiosity piques, and the novelty wears off. Empowerment, on the other hand, is sustainable and continuous; a fortified pillar that, once inspired, can only be leveraged, not leveled.
By definition, empowerment is the giving of authority or power to someone to do something with that new found power. Although very vague in its definition, that is the intention, because the power transfers from the mentor to the learner with no limiting outcome. The learning goes beyond internalization. Students “go off the reservation” and seek to further understand beyond the parameters established by the teacher. Boundaries no longer exist and students intrinsically extend the learning regardless of the “carrots” and “sticks” within the brick and mortar learning environment. This is where I see technology fitting most into our curricula, as it can unleash great opportunities and open doors that were much harder to unlock decades ago. It isn’t about the device or the tool that matters most; rather, it is the foresight of the educator to embed new learning opportunities that pave the way for their students to expand their horizons that otherwise might be restricted.
Empowered learning can’t be prescribed, nor can it be limited, but it must be inspired through some form of action. Let’s assume you have diabetes and a doctor prescribes a medication that controls your blood sugar – you comply and take the medicine. If you recognize the importance of controlling the disease, you hang on to every word the he/she mentions regarding the medication and you are engaged by the recommendations from the expert. However, the prescription is limited to a recommended dosage based on a formulaic compound, and all you have is basic knowledge (which is fantastic, but again very limiting). However, the best doctors will encourage you to, in addition to the medication, change your eating habits and routinely partake in vigorous exercise to effectively combat the disease. If this sage advice inspires you to take action into your own hands and commit to a holistic diet and regular exercise, you now own the situation, and thus, you extend the outcome. That inspiration led to empowerment.
Recently, I was in an engineering classroom when I asked students what they were learning. A pretty simple question that many administrators ask when observing a classroom. The two lab partners told me about their research and many different pathways their research has taken them. They spoke about how that class, and the other engineering courses they had taken in our building, go well beyond traditional methods that they typically see. I asked them what the difference was, and the one student told me, “In this class, this project is ours. The research is ours. We aren’t just given an equation and a problem to solve. We get to choose the problem we want to solve, and then go for it. When we hit a wall, we have to find ways around it, and there is no end to what we can discover.” As they were talking, I was in my glory. Single-handedly, the most refreshing conversation I have had in my educational career. These students had complete control of their learning. The teacher was a guide, but also a learner, as these students and the others in the class, are the experts on their topics. The teacher was feeding off of the student’s learning, but also feeding his students kernals of wisdom and encouragement to push forward. The teacher provided an opportunity for them to discover on their own, connected them to resources, and then said “Go!” That type of empowered learning is not defined by a finite set of boundaries. The learning can go on forever and become transferred to many other aspects of their lives, especially in college and their potential careers.
As teachers, coaches, counselors, administrators – mentors of any kind – we have the means to inspire action, and in turn, we have the ability to empower. One of my favorite quotes comes from a teacher I greatly respect and admire: “I am just the door hinge that allows students to pass through and take charge of their learning.” This mantra encapsulates the essence of empowerment, as you, the mentor, have the ability to pass the torch of power and authority to students to own their learning, as the motivation has transferred to being intrinsic. As a lifelong learner and a continuous student, how are we extending our learning and developing our own capacity, and thus, demonstrating empowered learning? Reflect. Stretch. Grow!