Every year, as August evaporates into September, I suffer from back-to-school nightmares — the kind where I wake up in a cold sweat wondering, “Did I really attempt to teach English in the nude, and did all of my students keep talking anyway?”
Most of these dreams involve me arriving at school under clothed, under prepared and utterly powerless to change either predicament. Sadly, powerlessness is a common theme in education, and this year — more than any other in the past two decades of my career — teachers, students and parents feel more powerless than ever.
How can we keep our children healthy? How can we change our instruction so students don’t fall further behind and parents can finally take off their homeschool teacher hats?
Most of all, how can we empower our students to stand up for what they believe?
What is the biggest challenge to empowering students?
The most significant obstacle actually lies in the way we educate America’s youth, our outdated Industrial mode of teaching. “This traditional form of teaching has many drawbacks. One of the major ones is that it can destroy students’ enthusiasm and love of learning. By applying Ford’s factory model to schools and seeing students as objects to whom techniques are applied, students can be disconnected from their learning,” Catherine Broom, professor of education at the University of British Columbia, wrote in “Empowering students: Pedagogy that benefits educators and learners” published in a 2015 issue of the journal Citizenship, Social and Economics Education.
This method is a no-brainer, literally. When educators view knowledge as something to be transferred to “empty vessels,” students become passive partners in their own education. This version of teaching has often been called the “banking” model, where students follow the rules, do the homework, learn the content and meet the deadlines all in an attempt to store up their teachers’ knowledge.
In this impersonal system, rather than empowering students, educators reward good behavior with good grades while simultaneously styming students’ sense of empowerment.
What is empowerment?
Undoubtedly, one of the overarching goals of public education is to create good citizens, but how do we define a “good citizen”? According to Broom, “Good citizens are individuals who actively participate in their nation’s civic affairs, whether by engaging in more traditional practices such as voting or more activist means such as boycotting or protesting.”
As one might assume, both of these civic duties demand people to be responsive, to take action.
In the banking model of learning, students who follow all of the rules don’t necessarily make good, active citizens.
What is the myth about student empowerment?
The most pervasive misconception about student empowerment is that it disempowers teachers.
This is simply not true. When teachers share their power, their students become more active and engaged.
As any teacher, parent or individual who has worked with youth can attest, the more adults try to control children, the more resistant they become.
Broom writes, “If instead of micromanaging their students, teachers can learn how to empower them, teachers will make their own lives easier, avoid burnout, and help students take responsibility for guiding their own learning … It seems counter-intuitive, but by giving students power, teachers gain power and better classroom control.”
What can teachers do to empower their students?
September is a good time for teachers to introduce inquiry projects. Broom suggests that as students navigate the learning process, teachers act more like “guides on the side,” easing up on “detailed criteria” and giving students more choice. In inquiry mode, teachers provide general directions and objectives and students take charge of their own learning.
Dr. Richard Kent, author of several education books including “Writing on the Bus” and professor of Literacy at the University of Maine agrees with Broom. “Our job as educators is to help our student colleagues come to understand what they believe in. Once they have a grasp on their beliefs as young adults, they’re more likely to express themselves with confidence,” Kent said.
But how can educators help students build confidence? According to Kent: “We do this work by creating classrooms and schools that provide opportunities for students to explore, wonder, think, and make decisions. There aren’t any worksheets in these classrooms. Kids are involved in problem solving and projects. Ultimately, effective classrooms provide authentic opportunities for students while allowing them to make choices; these classrooms are collaborative spaces… what you and I might call ‘learning communities.’”
When students are allowed to direct their own learning path rather than, as Broom writes, “following the teachers’ set conception of how the work should be done,” they can display their learning in various ways. The sheer variety of student work is further evidence of this outside-the-box thinking and truly reflects the multiple intelligences of our learners.
Like most relationships, teacher-student relationships depend upon trust. Teachers need to be able to trust their students and vice versa. When teachers shift the responsibility of learning to their pupils, educators must believe their students are capable and willing to do the work required of them.
One of the best ways to build trust between teachers and students is setting clear boundaries and expectations from the start. There’s an old adage in education that goes, “You can always lighten, but you can never tighten.” Simply put, if educators don’t establish academic, emotional, and social norms with students early on, then enforcing these expectations later on becomes impossible.
In that same spirit, people are not perfect. There are many times when, despite all of our best efforts, both teachers and students fail to measure up. This is where establishing an atmosphere of understanding and empathy is absolutely crucial. For trust to exist, at the end of the school day students must believe that teachers are on their side and have their best interests at heart.
Tap into students’ interests
It’s not just how students learn, but giving them choice in what they learn that’s important. When parents ask their children, “Which would you prefer tonight, lima beans or Brussels sprouts?” many children would reply, “Neither.”
This response is much the same inside the classroom. When teachers ask, “Would you like to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky next?” students respond, “Who’s that? Can’t we read something by someone we can pronounce?”
To hone in on students’ interests, educators must have conversations that sound a lot like small talk. When teachers listen and respond rather than dictate and dismiss, then we allow students to teach us what they’re interested in.
Provide positive feedback and care
Current education research reveals that the majority of students are not motivated by reward or punishment — they are motivated by connection. Students who struggle with motivation have often experienced many of the consequences that life, adults and/or teachers can throw at them. What they haven’t experienced enough of is positive feedback and care.
Kent echoes this sentiment. “Since learning is about relationships, teachers in 21st century schools serve as mentors and colleagues, not examiners and graders. Our goal must be to offer genuine feedback — not a number, a letter, or a ‘very good,’ but a full-throated dialogue that frames ideas and welcomes further discussion. With that kind of foundation and support in a community of caring, students gain confidence and more readily stand up to speak their minds,” Kent said.
Life is about connection, and students don’t feel inspired to do much of anything if they don’t feel connected to the people who are teaching them. This means the real teacher must show up every day — the person who is human, caring and authentic. When we have real relationships with students based on mutual respect, they in turn feel empowered to show themselves to us.
What is the effect of empowering students?
When educators create an environment where multiple opinions are listened to, lively discussions are the norm, debate is welcome and individuals who hold different values have the opportunity to explain their thoughts, feelings and beliefs, then students will believe they have the ability to effect real change.
According to Broom, with an increased sense of self-esteem and positive self-identity, “Students feel like they can influence their environments positively.”
There is no doubt that we are living through trying times, but educators’ response to life and to learning must model for our students the power we each possess to, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Emily Morrison, Bangor Metro