Deep within each of us, there is a desire to be empowered in our work—the desire to be creative and to know that trust is present. We want to pass that empowerment on to our learners. Empowerment leads to a learner-centered culture—a focus on what is best for students instructionally.

We want students to increase their curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal skills. We want them to develop learning skills that are transferable to any situation. Doing so requires an approach that goes beyond academic training and empowers students as learners.

Five Ways to Empower Students

1. Provide flexible space. Through the pandemic, families have had to create separate spaces for learners to ensure there is room to focus on schoolwork and set up a routine—two things we consider best practices for learning and completing assignments. But another look at the workspaces at home reveals that most of our learners aren’t sitting upright in chairs and tables to be productive.  

At home, learners make themselves comfortable beyond workspaces. They carve out spaces on the floors, in corners, with pillows, and work until they want to change position. Then, being empowered in their own homes, they move and adjust as their brain and body need. The lesson we can draw from this is that static seating or spaces are for conformity, not comfort or learning. If we take it upon ourselves to be responsive to our learners’ needs, we can take this opportunity to build spaces for learning.

In The Revolution, authors Darren Ellwein and Derek McCoy advocate for evaluating every space in schools for learning. Our classrooms are opportunities for conversations and collaboration, not just rows and clean lines. Shifting positions and postures helps engage our brains and keep perspectives and work fresh. This is what our learners experienced at home—when they read a passage, they moved from the couch to the floor, the table, or anywhere else they needed in order to finish. We need to take a critical look at all our spaces through a fresh lens of the learner to facilitate changes that keep brains fired up and engaged in deep work for a more extended period.

2. Embrace choice. Do you want students to be told what to do, or do you want students to think or ideate a better result? This question reveals the level of student choice and voice you have the power to create for your school. Even in this time of more restrictions, we challenge you not to lose the mindset of choice, which fosters student growth in any situation. Follow these guidelines:

  • Allow your teachers to deliver choices on assessments, artifacts, and basic practice. Release control.
  • Assess learning through methods other than tests. Tests are one way to measure understanding of content, but there are other methods. Students can show their learning through mastery projects. The success criteria are created by the teacher, but the students have the opportunity to decide what it will look like.
  • Move from a compliant approach to learning to an empowered approach. Empowerment is greater than engagement. Students can still fake learning engagement; if they are empowered, they own the processes and result. Find ways to empower your students by inviting them into conversations of their own learning.
  • Allow students to lead their future and think freely about their work. We are not in this great profession for us—we do this for our students.

3. Connect learning to people, projects, and possibilities. If we want students to take greater ownership of their learning, it’s important for them to find meaning in their schoolwork beyond grades and compliance. Students need to see that their learning makes a difference now and for their future.

Teaching is far more than the delivery of information; we have to help students discover and develop meaning with that information. Their experience should result in them wanting to learn more, and they need to see how their learning connects with the people and community they care about. How can this happen? Have them interview a friend or family member about the topic. Ask them to find a way to advocate for a cause related to the learning. Challenge them to make something that could solve a problem or meet a need. Encourage them to reflect on how a topic relates to their own story and future possibilities.

It’s important for schools to create an environment where the learning is personally relevant to students. Consider the experience of a student who was involved in a project where her team worked with a new small business as consultants to help the owners with strategic planning. As part of this semester-long process, the students helped increase social media presence, created a new sign and logo, and helped organize a grand opening event. After this experience, she commented, “I felt like I was applying the things I learned. I felt like I was doing something that was really important. It even helped me think about what I want to do after high school.”

4. Coach students to increase their agency. We cannot view agency, empowerment, or responsibility as fixed characteristics. Every person has the ability to increase their ability to adapt, make decisions, and be more self-determined. But this won’t happen if students aren’t given opportunities to make decisions and make mistakes. 

Plus, students need a guide and mentor to help them reflect on their decisions and the outcomes. We need to teach them how to use their agency and give them feedback on how they’re doing. It’s important to teach the behaviors we would like to see. For example, instead of complaining about how students are disengaged or disorganized, make teaching these skills a priority. Give a “Tip of the Day” for developing good habits. Provide them with a method to decide in advance how they will respond to distractions or procrastinating. Have them journal, not just about the content, but about their process for completing work, advancing projects, and engaging around learning.

5. Foster authentic learning and demonstration.
When we began creating work for remote learning during COVID-19, the initial scramble for most of us was out of desperation. As we moved to the new school year, we looked at our competencies in blended learning and engagement, and we truly prioritized the need for social-emotional learning.

As we reflect on what we are doing this school year, we should look at the work in front of learners—what are we asking them to do? Are we giving them busy work or is there authentic research going on? Is our delivery adult-driven or are we creating opportunities for learners to take risks and create their own learning? Are we empowering learners to demonstrate their understanding in different ways or are we giving static assessments with narrow answers?

Currently, we are in the midst of a pandemic that will have lasting changes on our society. With planning and empathy, we can use these circumstances to help learners explore what is going on around them—social justice, pandemic restrictions, community needs—to help learners become better versed in their world and become potential problem-solvers.

What’s Next?

Take a second and ask yourself: What practices are holding me back from an empowered school culture? Why are these practices present? What purpose do they serve? Am I ready for something more? As school leaders, we encourage you to tap into your professional network for support and ideas.

Darren Ellwein is the principal of Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD, and a 2017 Digital Principal of the Year. David Geurin is the principal of Bolivar High School in Bolivar, MO, and a 2017 Digital Principal of the Year. Derek McCoy is the principal of North Asheboro Middle School in Asheboro, NC, and a 2014 Digital Principal of the Year.