In a world of 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 empower 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.
Lack of empowerment = surface learning
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 they do 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.
Myths and truths about empowered learning
Here are the top four myths about empowering learners.
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 toward 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 shows that differentiation that increases motivation, engagement and participation in the learning process can improve student academic success.
However, it’s not enough to just differentiate materials, processes or products. 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. 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. The 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 toward developing students as empowered learners, the result is an outcome that all educational organizations strive for: college-, career-, and life-ready individuals who are able to contribute to the diverse, digital and dynamic world in which they live.
Sarah Stoeckl is a senior project manager in the ISTE Standards Department. She worked as a writing and literature teacher before becoming an administrator, writer and project wrangler.
Cheryl Lemke is president and CEO of the Metiri Group, a consulting firm dedicated to advancing effective uses of technology in education.
Jody Britten, Ph.D., is a senior associate at Metiri Group assisting educational stakeholders in the use of research-based strategies and tools to advance digital learning in PK-20.