6 Student Empowerment Myths Every Teacher Should Know

By Patti Drapeau, author of Inspiring Student Empowerment: Moving Beyond Engagement, Refining Differentiation

6 Student Empowerment Myths Every Teacher Should KnowAccording to the Oxford Dictionary, empowerment is defined as “the power or authority given to someone to do something.” The definition also includes the process of becoming stronger and more confident. In education, this translates to the transfer of power from the teacher to the learner and the feeling the learner experiences as a result of this transference. Empowerment is not just a teaching tool or strategy. There is no set list to follow. It is more than a buzzword in education. It is a philosophy and an approach to learning.

There are two kinds of empowerment. One is “little-e” empowerment, or small types of empowerment. These may be easy to implement, they do not take much time, and they are conducive to spontaneity. For example, teachers can empower learners with choice and give them a voice in decision-making. They empower learners when they enthusiastically praise students’ efforts. For some learners, joining a group is empowering. Kindergartners feel empowered when their teacher asks them to read aloud to the class and lets them choose what book they want to read. Middle school learners feel empowered when they make the honor roll. These accomplishments encourage learners to embrace a can-do attitude. Teachers empower learners by giving up power and control and allowing learners to:

  • Connect their interests to the required learning
  • Choose how they want to learn new information
  • Choose how they will show what they know
  • Choose how long they will spend on a topic (within reason)

“Big-E” empowerment has a broad effect and impacts more people than the individual. This kind of student empowerment is often associated with long-term, multifaceted projects. One example might be for learners to devise new ways to get clean drinking water to places that lack fresh, clean, convenient water sources or to come up with ways for developing countries to grow food. Another big-E example might be for students to create a student council where none exists. A third might be for students to organize an art exhibit. Some teachers offer their students opportunities to engage in big-E projects. Other teachers are unable to allow their students to become involved with such big projects. This does not mean they should forsake the goal of empowering their students. Both little-e and big-E activities make a difference in the lives of learners.

How do we know if our learners are empowered? We can simply ask them if they feel empowered or give them a survey to fill out on the topic. Teachers can insert a row in an existing rubric that is specific to empowerment. Learners complete the row on the rubric by indicating to what degree they felt empowered during the lesson or activity. Teachers can create an observation checklist and use it to observe learners as they engage in empowering experiences.

It is important to keep in mind six myths that lead teachers to believe learners are empowered when they might not be. Let’s take a close look at why the following six statements might not be true all the time.

Myth 1: Empowered Learners Are Attentive

Sometimes empowered learners may be attentive, but not attentive to the topic that they are supposed to be learning about. They are attentive but not in the way you want them to be.

Tip: Make sure learners are engaged through emotion and interest in the topic at hand. For more information, go to this Learning Personalized article on attention.

Myth 2: Empowered Learners Are Obedient

That may be true most of the time, but sometimes empowered learners become so involved in the work that they are not willing to stop when it’s time to move on. They may want to continue their group conversations long after you’ve instructed them to come to order. Empowered learners may not want to follow directions or do the assignment in the way you prescribe.

Tip: Provide opportunities for learners to make choices and become independent instead of obedient. This teacher reflects on a few of the ways our school systems focus on obedience, with some ideas for providing choice. The post is from 2011, but is still relevant.

Myth 3: Empowered Learners Are On-Task

Empowered learners begin their task, but often, as they discover other interesting information, they lose focus and end up going astray. The result is that they do not complete tasks on time.

Tip: Teach learners self-management skills. Take a look at this “Executive Function Fact Sheet” by the National Center for Learning Disabilities for suggestions.

Myth 4: Empowered Learners Complete Assignments

In most cases this is true, but learners who have perfectionist tendencies may keep working on an assignment and not stop because they feel their work is not perfect enough. A truly empowered perfectionist student may only settle for their very best work and, as a result, may not complete their assignment. On the other hand, a student who simply finishes an assignment and avoids responding in depth will turn it in on time.

Tip: Introduce learners to the benefits of using a timer. In this way they can keep track of the time and break up their work into small doable chunks. See this article on the Pomodoro Technique for inspiration.

Myth 5: Empowered Learners Are Courteous

We hope this is true, but sometimes students are so excited about their work that they don’t wait their turn to speak during class or are reluctant to give others a turn to speak. They may even shout out answers. They become so engaged in the learning that they skip niceties and social norms. We can empower students by discussing the power of language.

Tip: Read this article by educator Erika Lusky that discusses Ron Ritchhart’s seven types of language, or check out Ritchhart’s book Creating Cultures of Thinking.

Myth 6: Empowered Learners Are Eager

It is true that students get excited by doing a fun activity or watching a cool demonstration. We hope these types of experiences motivate students and capture their attention. However, learners who look eager are not necessarily empowered.

Tip: According to International Standards for Technology Education (ISTE), there are five areas that develop empowered learners: student motivation, social and emotional engagement, self-direction, constructive use of feedback, and digital fluency. Learn more in this article by Sarah Stoeckl.

We must remember that teaching is not just about covering standards. It is not just about your content or your lessons. Teaching is first and foremost about meeting the needs of your learners. Do school with your students, not to them. Help them shift from engaged learners to empowered learners.

Patti DrapeauPatti Drapeau (pattidrapeau.com) is an internationally active educational consultant, author, and presenter, with more than 25 years of classroom experience. Patti conducts keynote sessions as well as short- and long-term workshops in the United States and abroad. She commonly presents on the following topics: differentiation, creativity, engagement, gifted education, student empowerment, and personalized learning.

Patti is the founder of Patti Drapeau Educational Consulting Services and has received the New England Region Gifted and Talented award for outstanding contributions in gifted education and the Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented award for exemplary service. Patti coached programs such as Odyssey of the Mind, Future Problem Solving, Explorer Vision, and math teams. She also developed a curriculum model for the regular classroom called “Affective Perspectives: Combining Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Affect,” and authored a variety of articles for the Maine Exchange, Teaching Matters, and Understanding Our Gifted. Her other books include Sparking Student Creativity: Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving, Differentiating with Graphic Organizers: Tools to Foster Critical and Creative Thinking, Differentiated Instruction: Making It Work, and Great Teaching with Graphic Organizers.

Patti currently works as a consultant and she is a part-time faculty member at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Freeport, Maine.

Inspiring Student EmpwermentPatti is the author of Inspiring Student Empowerment

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