[I’ve written about this in a roundabout way before… I’m hoping this blog post is the beginning of me hashing out — in writing — the evolution of my thoughts on this topic.]
In my recent article in Principal Leadership magazine, I wrote this:
Those of us who work in education talk a lot about student engagement, but I dont think that goes far enough. Engagement is certainly better than boredom, but schools should set the bar for themselves is much higher. What schools should strive for is student empowerment.
For the longest time, the idea of engagement has dominated the conversation in ed-tech, and it’s never quite sat right with me. There are a couple of reasons for this… first and perhaps most disconcerting, is that engagement too often got translated to "fun." And that put us in competition with video games and and Facebook and movies and hanging out after school and everything kids do for fun that isn’t school. We lose that battle most of the time almost by definition. (And that’s not because kids are kids… it’s because kids are people. I love my job, but in any isolated moment, would I rather be hanging out with my kids or my wife or my friends or playing Ultimate or basketball or reading a book of my own choosing? Easy choice.)
We chose engagement because it beats boring. But it’s not a goal. And in fact, I think it’s created some weird developments in education because too many folks have set it up as a goal, because teachers have been placed in a position where the engagement of the student created a performance aspect to class that, in the end, didn’t serve the goal of student learning.
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. It also allows us to do away with the notion that the classroom is always fun. It’s not. Let’s look at coaching for a moment… a coach who is worried about engagement as the goal lets the kids scrimmage most practices because it is engaging and fun. But an empowering coach puts the kids through smart drills that allows them to play their best basketball during the games. Those days when you walk through the offenses and the defenses 100 times aren’t always engaging… in fact, they can feel like a lot of work. But they pay off. And that’s what we want in our classes. It’s o.k. if there are days when the work that kids do feels like work. We have to be o.k. with that. And we have to understand that school is work… but that it can be meaningful, powerful, empowering (and even engaging) work. And that the work we do together in school means that kids can apply that work to their own lives in ways they see fit and that allow them to thrive.
So yeah, I’m thinking a lot about empowerment these days.