Student Empowerment Through Education

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Sometimes we need to step back, let go, and empower our students to take charge of their own learning.  It’s something collective — the diverse imaginations, observations, opinions, hopes and dreams of students. By empowering students, you can engage them further in learning, provide a more democratic learning experience and, of course, find the most powerful resource in your classroom. The following strategies will prove to be powerful when utilized with any age.

The following strategies will prove to be powerful when utilized with any age.

Choice

Do you allow students to choose the goals they work on each day? Do they choose their materials? What about their resources? Are students allowed to choose the path they take to reach their academic goals, for instance in a project-based learning environment? Do they choose where they sit to experience learning or who they work with? All of these factors can be crucial to student’s learning. Take the time to establish routines and model expectations, but then step back and offer opportunities for students to make choices. Let them be their own guides. Misfortune may ensue, but true learning occurs through mistakes and the correction of them. This is empowering in itself.

 

Reflection

Are students reflective in their learning moment to moment, or passive? Is time set aside for reflective purposes or pushed to the wayside when time runs short? Is reflection a part of the daily routine?

Students must actively engage in the learning process and reflect on their own personal contributions, knowledge, and connections. They need to be allowed time to process their learning as a step of retention. Reflection allows for closure to a situation, conversation, or lesson, empowering students to make sense of their learning.

 

Students as Teachers

Do students have opportunities to articulate their knowledge? Are they given the chance to help others understand a concept? Do they get to demonstrate their strategies and assist others with a similar learning style?

By allowing students to teach students we enlarge the learning platform. We suggest to them that there are other experts present in the learning environment. Teaching empowers students to demonstrate and share knowledge, deepening their own understanding.

 

Self-Assessment

Are students aware of their individual goals? Do they have the ability to assess themselves according to specific criteria? Can they provide effective feedback to others? Are they an integral part of the assessment process?

When given opportunities to self-assess their own progress towards specific goals, students’ growth will soar. They can also be given the chance to positively impact others’ learning by offering feedback. Peer conversations regarding student work is a powerful thing. Again, it provides the clear message their are other experts in the learning environment. Allowing students to engage in these conversations expands their academic awareness. Students clearly understanding their own strengths and challenges is empowering.

 

Student Voice

Do you ask the students for their opinion often? Is their voice used to make decisions in the classroom? Do you allow them to provide you feedback? Is their feedback honored?

The most valuable voice in the learning environment is that of the student. They are the consumer of the knowledge and can provide feedback regarding their needs being met. It is important to ask for input on a regular basis regarding structure, routine, systems, rules, responsibilities, etc. Taking their ideas into account for lesson planning/design and instructional strategies can also prove beneficial. You never know the possibilities unless you ask. Seek out their voice, you may be surprised. Honoring their ideas builds trust and empowers them to think critically.

You may remember from your own school days how much students sometimes complain about teachers (“she gives so much busywork,” “he gave me a D just because I turned it in a day late!”). Now that’s only amplified through social networking. What if you could use that to your advantage? I’m both a teacher and a student. I receive a lot of feedback from teachers for class work and homework, and I also really appreciate getting constructive feedback from the students I teach via video conferencing. Setting up a forum for students to provide constructive and timely feedback — criticism or praise — through mediums like a group Google Doc, Twitter hashtag, Edmodo site, blog, etc., helps you improve your teaching. It also helps students, emphasizing that learning is about partnership and working together.

 

Give Students Decision-Making Power in an Area of Curriculum

This might seem like an unrealistic idea in an age of common core standards and high-stakes tests — what if students veer drastically off the required course? However, this is actually entirely possible to incorporate with existing curriculum. For instance, if you teach language arts and the goal of the unit is teaching students how to write an effective response to literature or a literary analysis essay, who says everyone has to write about the same book written by some ancient dead writer (no offense, dead writers)? Besides, if you’re already scared of writing your very first response to literature, having to decipher ancient syntax isn’t going to help. So instead, why not have students pick a book of their own choosing — a novel like The Hunger Games , even (gasp!) a graphic novel like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis , or even (double gasp!) a smart comic book like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes ? All these works provide plenty of themes to analyze and are compelling reads. You could turn this response to literature unit into a book club unit where students make cases for picking their suggested book to be read and analyzed by the rest of the class. This student-directed curriculum idea is applicable to many other subjects. Giving students the power to choose creates a sense of ownership over the learning.

 

Encourage Meaningful Technology Use in the Classroom

Many teachers tell students to turn off their devices when they walk into the classroom. However, it can be incredibly empowering to do just the opposite. By having your students bring their own devices, you open up a world of new learning opportunities (like the flipped classroom model, web quests, podcasts, virtual field trips via Skype, livestreaming with classes across the world, etc.), and you reaffirm that learning can happen anytime, anywhere. When students use their devices during class time to access learning resources that they can also get at home or on the go, we see that learning doesn’t just happen within the four walls of a classroom. Plus, it literally puts learning power in our hands. I know some teachers who have expressed concerns about rolling out any kind of technology they themselves didn’t know how to use that well. However, if that’s the case, don’t be scared to let your students teach you a thing or two about technology. If you’re worried about students slacking off on digital devices, it’s worth checking out the #pencilchat discussion.

 

Involve Students in “Real” Issues

A big complaint a lot of students have about what we learn in class is that it doesn’t seem applicable to the real world. Have students practice skills they’ve learned or topics they’ve come to understand in service learning, debates, leadership/volunteerism/community service, or by having opinions on “real” issues like education reform or the 2012 election (shriek! politics! you might think, but as long as you stay objective, the students are civil to each other and parents are okay, politics can be one of the most energizing topics there is for students). Have your students make a difference with what they’ve learned, and they’ll be more motivated to learn further — because they’re seeing that it’s having an impact. They’re learning to help others instead of just working toward some lofty, seemingly distant goal of graduating and going to college.

 

Ultimately, empowering students is about a realization: teachers and students have a lot to learn from each other. After all, as the pioneering American librarian John Cotton Dana once said,

 

“Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

Empowering students helps us all do just that.

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