Engagement, Empowerment, Enthusiasm – Part Two

Chris Lehmann, on his Practical Theory blog, has recently written about empowering students as opposed to engaging them in school.  He makes some very good points, especially for his high school students.  He states that student engagement in school is more about having fun than about learning, and he cites video games, Facebook , and other “fun” activities as engaging for kids.  Instead, Chris argues that we should be empowering students, and not just engaging them, as he writes:

Empowerment feels better to me. It, in the end, is the word — the idea — that sets us up for a more student-centered classroom because it is about what the students get from the experience once the class is done, not what happens during the class.

I can see how this works for high school or middle school students.  But, how does student empowerment translate into an elementary school?  Are kids who are still learning basic skills ready to be empowered?  Or, is engaging them in learning these skills more important at this age?

Interestingly, and maybe a little disturbing to me, is that I talk about student engagement all the time with teachers.  This is something I look for as I visit classrooms and observe students and teachers.  Are the students truly engaged in the activities, or are they off task and disengaged?  When I see engaged students, I usually see enthusiastic students at the same time.

If Chris is right, how do we empower young children in school?  Or, an even more difficult question is whether young children are ready to be empowered. This is a very difficult idea for elementary teachers to deal with because there is so much pressure to teach students to read, write, and compute, especially in grades K-3.

I have spent much time working with my staff to develop authentic learning opportunities for our students.  Is that empowerment or just expanded engagement?

Around 3rd grade, students move from learning to read to reading to learn. Maybe this is the point at which they should be empowered to take ownership of their learning.


8 thoughts on “Engagement, Empowerment, Enthusiasm – Part Two

  1. I think empowerment, like most things, has to be scaffolded for kids. High schoolers with no experience will struggle with the responsibility involved.

    My daughter’s first grade teacher has the students setting goals for their own learning in reading, writing, and math (she began with just one and has gradually added them). Throughout reading, writing, and math workshop times she conferences with kids about their goals. They are learning to take charge of their own learning. It’s amazing.

  2. Yep–Around 3rd grade. The outcome of nearly all school projects ought to be something that will actually impact the students’ world and that aligns with the mandated curriculum. A problem-based learning unit is not an “extra” unit that teachers do at the end of the year when they have time. Rather, it is how they do the instruction–with dozens and dozens of natural opportunities for differentiation and high-level instruction.

    Primary grade level students can also do such projects, but if we don’t engage our intermediate grade, middle school, and high school students in this type of work, they will definitely see school as separate from learning and as irrelevant from their lives–which is how many students see school today.

    For the first time in history, are today’s students correct when they look at adults in school and think, “You don’t know anything about how the world really works…”?

  3. The funny thing is that I’d argue that learning to read is the most empowering thing we do in school. Granted, with little kids, engagement is really important as well, but on some level, I was thinking about how empowering we make elementary school — the kids learn things there that they genuinely need.

  4. Chris,
    Sure, learning basic skills empowers people at a basic level, but it’s what we do with the skills that is important. Teaching someone to read does not necessarily teach him to think critically or to solve problems. It only allows the person to decode the written word. I think students can be fully engaged in reading some text (decoding the words) yet they are not empowered to do anything unless they fully comprehend how the text relates to themselves, to others, and to the world. That is empowerment.

  5. RE: The Empowerment / Engagement Dichotomy.

    All dichotomies are either reductionist or enlightening.

    That said: Vygotsky’s theory of “whole language” calls reading a “literacy event” which brings the reader into deeper relation with a cultural context. But the power of those literacy events can be for ill, if the cultural context is consumer culture and mass media (which Vygotsky didn’t know from).

    Literacy is the battlefield of a cultural context war: Meatspace Culture (classroom -> school -> local community) versus Mediaspace Culture (television & internet -> consumer mass media).

    Consumer Mediaspace wants to engage people with messaging that convinces them to identify with their sameness, so they can all be marketed to with the same commercials and have their purchasing scheduled and planned for.

    Meatspace cultures ideally want to empower individuals to develop and celebrate their individuality and diversity so they can build on strengths and contribute to the culture.

    Consumer Mediaspace has the money to make literacy events of video watching and game playing “engaging” (and convince schools to spend money on computers for the purpose of providing “engaging software” – pah!).

    Schoolteachers have the opportunity to create contexts where students experience their meatspace literacy events as more personally relevant and empowering than their cyberspace literacy events. But they need to do it right.

    If faculty give more and more informed and meaningful choice to students as they are ready for it, just as their principals empower them likewise and their boards / governments empower the principals (fie, NCLB), then the literacy activities along the way feed into membership in that culture (and it’s reciprocal support of individuality), and give it weight.

    Where a principal has the power to charter a learning organization that honors empowerment it its members, every new sentence read in class by every 2nd grader is a “membership upgrade” – even if not explicitly so.


  6. Pingback: Mark’s Learning Log » Blog Archive » Student empowerment vs engagement

  7. Dave,
    I’m also following Chris’s conversation about empowerment vs engagement and wrote about this on my blog as we in Victoria as expected to set engagement improvement goals.

    My only comment on regarding the younger students and your example of reading is that we are bringing the work of comprehension to the younger students [so that they learn to make self connections to text and connections from text to world] as well as decode the text – I think that’s empowering.

    PS I see your daughter has to wait till 13 for the facebook page – I made a similar choice.

    Thanks Mark Walker

  8. Dave,

    I just discovered you and Chris.

    I have to tell you both, I’m not interested in measuring engagement! I’m interested in creating an active engagement environment where students are expected to perform at their best, and reach their full potential.

    I’m the Founder of The Active Engagement Movement in Education. The Movement is driven by a Leadership Framework that identifies 12 Leadership Layers. Active Engagement is embedded in the Framework. The focus is on the student.

    So, it’s all about joining forces, focusing leadership (on students), and improving student performance. One goal is to reduce the dropout rate be 50 percent in 10 years.

    I’m working on The Official Active Engagement Website, but for now, you might want to visit my rough cut blog.


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