Should We Be Engaging OR Empowering Learners?

One of the themes that I’ve spent the past few days wrestling with is the difference between engaging and empowering our students. It’s a theme that Scott Glass and David Jakes touched on early in their Saturday Morning #educon session and it’s caught legs in Twitter — starting more conversations than pretty much every strand dropped in the stream over the weekend.

Here’s my initial thinking, expressed in note form:

(click to view/download #agencymatters on Flickr here)

(click to view/download Engaging or Empowering on Flickr here)

So what do YOU think?  Are engaging students and empowering students fundamentally different and yet equally important?  Does one naturally precede the other?  Can you be empowered without being engaged?  Is engaging learners a short term goal and empowering students a long term goal?

Do phrases like ” we need to engage our students” and “the first step towards motivating kids is building buy in” hint at dysfunctional power relationship between students and teachers?  Are they just further evidence of our reluctance to give students the chance to own their own learning?  When we see engaging students as our ultimate goal, are we somehow suggesting that teachers are the only ones that can determine topics worth exploring?

I guess the reason this conversation is rumbling through my head is that I’ve always used “engaging” and “empowering” interchangeably in my head — but I’m starting to think that they aren’t as synonymous as I thought they were.

#agencymatters

#wordsdotoo

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Technology Gives Kids Power

Doing Work that Matters

My Kids, A Cause and Our Classroom Blog

 

12 thoughts on “Should We Be Engaging OR Empowering Learners?

  1. Pingback: Solar Powered - I am not here to sell you an Education

  2. Anneke Radin-Snaith

    I love that your posts get me thinking! This one brought up a ton of questions in mind.
    If focusing on engaging and motivating students might “hint at a dysfunctional relationship,” then what would a “functional” relationship look like? How can we empower students to pursue their own interests when we are bound by time and content restrictions? Wouldn’t all of this be easier if our days (especially in high school) were not compartmentalized into 44 minute pieces? What responsibility, as teachers and adults, do we have to teach ideas and information that students might not be interested in. Where is the balance between empowerment and the idea of Core Knowledge – a basic set of knowledge we should all have? Also, isn’t exposure to a wide range of ideas and perspectives important?

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  4. Derek Hatch (Hatcherelli)

    Hey Bill,
    I always love your Sharpie notes! Funny that some people think you are using an app. I guess that speaks about the age that we live in. You bring up a great topic. Empowerment and engagement are different and are both essential.
    The first thing that came to my mind when I read your post was this. Do we want our teachers to be empowered or engaged? To me, I would like to have a school culture in which teachers feel empowered to learn and try new things. This builds leadership capacity. Should teachers be engaged? Absolutely…after they feel empowered. I don’t think this would be different for kids. I know that I have a way easier time being engaged if I feel empowered and I feel like what I am doing is important. That’s assuming that my goals don’t stray too far from the goals of the school and the district. Thanks for making me think.
    So I guess to answer your question, I think that empowerment naturally preceeds engagement.
    Derek

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Derek wrote:

      Do we want our teachers to be empowered or engaged?

      _____________________

      This is a brilliant point, Derek — and it’s got me thinking again: Can we really expect teachers to create empowered, engaging learning spaces when they work (as they so often do in the States) in heavily scripted, consequence-heavy workspaces?

      It’s funny to see how disconnected #edpolicy is from the kinds of outcomes that policymakers claim to care about producing. They shout “Be innovative, dammit” while simultaneously threatening to fire us if our kids don’t produce “results” on tests that measure fact memorization.

      #sheeshchat

      Thanks for the comment. It’s going to brew for awhile.
      Bill

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Definitely, Sherry — I think there are students who need to be engaged. My worry, though, are teachers who think EVERY kid needs to be engaged — or who assume that their content can remain teacher-chosen and the interests of their kids can be completely ignored as long as they are “engaging.”

      Whaddya’ think?
      Bill

  5. Ken C

    First of all, are your notes actually old-school pen and paper with some fantastic pen or other, or is this another app I’m still lapping the miles to catch up with?

    Re: your question. If students are not engaged, how do they become empowered? Isn’t engagement a prerequisite (if only as an opening act)?

    That’s what I don’t get. Did anyone at educon elucidate? Meaning: How do unengaged kids become empowered? And can’t we engage them strictly for the purpose of empowering them?

    Agree empowerment is the Holy Grail, I’m just looking for a Northwest Passage to the Promised Land here….

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Ken —

      Those notes are old school pen and paper with a fine lined Sharpie! I kind of dig the manual-ness of the process and the constraints given by paper size. Helps me to focus my thinking.

      And I think there are definitely overlaps between engagement and empowerment — and agree with you that some students are going to need more help being engaged. My own personal challenge, though, is recognizing that I don’t have to “engage every kid” and that it’s impossible to engage kids when you do nothing to consider their interests and opinions.

      Too often, “engaging” becomes code for “putting lipstick on a pig” in schools. We continue to ignore student interests or to look for ways to release control of our classrooms over to students all while whipping up “engaging lessons.”

      Does this make any sense?
      Bill

      1. Ken C.

        (Low whisper) I like pen and paper too, and am always looking for a great pen (too many Bic pens in my youth, maybe). Just a fine-line Sherpa, eh? Not bad!

        You said: “Too often, ‘engaging’ becomes code for “putting lipstick on a pig” in schools. We continue to ignore student interests or to look for ways to release control of our classrooms over to students all while whipping up ‘engaging lessons.’ ”

        I see why there’s a disconnect in my thinking then. To me, “ignoring student interests” and “engaging them” — pig lipstick or no — are antithetical. You can’t do one and achieve the second. Or if you can, it’s a neat trick.

        So I guess you’re focusing more on teachers who gussy lessons up so they can deliver THEIR OWN messages, period. In other words, they go through the motions and pat themselves on the back for being “good teachers” because kids are “engaged” by said teacher’s definition. Finally, as lords of knowledge, these teachers tell students what they need to know.

        Yep. With you, if that’s the scenario. I just had to clarify it in my mind because I haven’t experienced it this way.

        Bottom line: Empowerment is all about the customers (our students).

        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          Ken asked:

          So I guess you’re focusing more on teachers who gussy lessons up so they can deliver THEIR OWN messages, period. In other words, they go through the motions and pat themselves on the back for being “good teachers” because kids are “engaged” by said teacher’s definition.

          ———————-

          Absolutely, Ken — these are the folks that leave me burned. But I don’t think their intentions are nefarious. Instead, I think they are just trying to adhere to the required curriculum at all costs — which leaves little space for anything “student-centered.”

          It’s a consequence of jamming everything AND the kitchen sink into one year’s worth of teaching and then setting high stakes for mastery of said sink.

          Does this make sense?
          Bill

          PS: Bic pens stink. I’ll never use another for as long as I live!

  6. Alison

    Thanks for the post! Again, you really get me thinking… This important distinction also holds true for teacher professional learning and parent leadership efforts as well. Are district and site leaders “selling” ideas, or are they empowering teachers and parents gain the skills and knowledge that will allow them to follow their interests, feed their passions, and achieve their goals?

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