In a world of increasing and rapid change, the ultimate goal of education should be deep, authentic learning that prepares students for life in a global, high-tech society. This learning can be amplified and supported through strategies and practices that develop students as empowered learners. When learners are empowered they have meaningful opportunities to use their voice and make choices related to their full learning experience. When empowered, students can engage in the deep learning that supports long-term academic success and true learning (instead of memorization) and mastery of learning objectives. When students aren’t empowered, decisions are made for them and learning opportunities are directed and controlled. Research shows that when students experience this lack of empowerment they engage in more surface learning where their learning and engagement is just enough to meet the teachers’ expectations.
What does it actually mean to “empower learners” in practice? Educators in today’s classrooms, leaders in today’s schools and districts, families of today’s students, and even students themselves often misinterpret the idea of empowered learners. Here are the top four myths of empowering learners that we have observed lately.
Myth 1: Empowering learners requires strategies that aren’t tied to the current goals of my school or district.
Truth 1: The research base for learner empowerment is tied directly to instructional approaches that are on the radar of any contemporary learning organization. Whether the approach is differentiated, personalized, or even problem-based learning, these contemporary best practices can all support learner empowerment. Efforts towards empowerment can be supported through just about any effective, research-based instructional choice that is focused on deep, authentic learning.
Myth 2: I differentiate therefore I empower learners.
Truth 2: Differentiation can happen at many different levels and the strategies that support the differentiation of instruction can support the true empowerment of learners. Research on differentiation shows that differentiation that increases motivation, engagement, and participation in the learning process can improve student academic success. However, more needs to be done to truly empower learners than only differentiating materials, processes, or products. Instead, learner empowerment is nurtured through environment, planning, access to digital resources, opportunities to solve complex problems, engagement with real-world issues, and applying analysis and critical thinking skills. Empowering learners has just as much to do with staging situational factors as it does with being transparent about the planning, design, and facilitation choices teachers make for and with their classroom.
Myth 3: I will lose all control if I really empower learners in my classroom.
Truth 3: An empowered learner has a lot to do with the empowering behaviors of his or her teacher. In the empowered classroom teachers change their focus, away from control and toward facilitation. These teachers foster engagement, motivation, and self-direction of their students. Because of this change in approach to teaching, these educators rethink the very idea of control, giving more autonomy to students, both individually and in groups, while sustaining their goal to manage and create a safe, effective learning environment. Empowering teachers understand the nuances and complexity that allow them to be responsible educators within this new mindset while scaffolding students in opportunities to have choice, use their individual voices, and engage in purposeful, meaningful, and relevant learning.
Myth 4: All students are ready to be empowered learners.
Truth 4: Yes, all students have the capacity to be empowered learners. They key question to ask is if they are all immediately ready to be empowered learners. The answer is, quite simply, no. Students need the time and support to prepare and develop the skills of empowered learners. They need to have an understanding of why they should be empowered in their learning. They should have strategies to engage in critical thinking and analysis. They should have opportunities to practice, fail, retry, and re-strategize about their learning, success, goal attainment, engagement, etc. Empowerment doesn’t happen overnight; students need to develop the foundational skills and understanding so that they can connect their learning experiences into a solid foundation for being empowered learners. Students need to have the vocabulary, understanding, skills, and strategies to practice and perfect their empowerment. Once students are prepared to be empowered learners, they need safe places to practice and participate before they can be fully, continuously empowered.
The takeaway is that teachers are even more crucial in an empowering learner environment, and their role is all the more complex and interesting. While it may seem like a burden or an extra “thing to do” for educators to work towards developing students as empowered learners, the strategies and outcomes all point towards the outcome that all educational organizations strive for: college, career, and life ready individuals that are ready and able to contribute to the diverse, digital, and dynamic world in which they live.