A Strategy of Empowerment

Every classroom is a balance between control and empowerment.  If you have too much control your students won’t learn autonomy.  Too much empowerment and it becomes a rudderless meandering with little academic rigor.  The key is to a) avoid the extremes, and b) establishes a learning strategy that favors empowerment.

Strategy is how we use our resources to achieve our ends; it’s the way we operate to foster student learning.

The ends are our learning objectives:

  1. Identify and grasp the nature of complex problems
  2. Habitually use critical thinking strategies
  3. Actively seek divergent points of view; value cognitive diversity
  4. Possess Intellectual courage and curiosity
  5. Cooperatively create and communicate knowledge
  6. Design your path in the Quinnipiac Educational Experience
  7.  Initiate the journey toward having an inquiry and integration mindset; practice it in the arts, humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences

The resources we have at our disposal are typically things, such as

Readings (Books and Articles)

Campus Events (Academic and Non-Academic)

The Internet

Physical Classroom Space

Virtual Classroom Space (Blackboard)

But there are also intangible resources as well, such as student time, attitude, and motivation.  And these are key for what you are trying to achieve in FYS. I’ll come back to this thought in a moment.

Lastly we have the ways, namely how we set policies, arrange classroom chairs, create grading schema, assign grades, create assignments and rubrics, choose readings, determine time allocation for discussion, reflection, lecture, small group work, and presentations, and establish discussion forums and blogs.  Whew.

In other words, we talk student empowerment, but we control the learning strategy from start to finish.

We say we value students and student centered learning, but it appears that we value elaborate structures.

All we’ve left for our students are intangible resources: time, attitude, and motivation. What if they had more say in the strategy? Would they devote more time, come with a better attitude, and find the joy of intrinsic motivation?

What if we turned the ways – how we operate into how they

What if they Co-Create policies, arrange classroom chairs, create grading schemata, self reflect and assess – propose grades, create assignments and rubrics, choose readings, determine time allocation for discussion, reflection, lecture, small group work, and presentations, and establish discussion forums and blogs – or other ways of sharing?

You cannot cede all of your authority (in fact – you are still the University’s representative).  But the more responsibility you can give to your students, the more ownership they’ll assume.

And yes, there’s a point where empowerment becomes rudderless meandering, and good management becomes stifling conformity.  If you are going to allow students to control more of your classroom strategy, than you need to establish the protocols for giving direction and instruction.

You can offer detailed and explicit instructions (centralize) that remove all doubt about who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Or you could let students know the overarching purpose of an activity (the learning objective, or the meta-cognitive objectives) and let them work out the mechanics of how it should be done.  You can decentralize.

As you decentralize – as you cede control to the students – you can use more implicit instructions.  It’s normal to take back control on occasion.  Some activities require centralization.  The mechanics of the poster session come to mind.  But you should consider these moments a temporary state.  You should strive for an equilibrium zone that is to the right of the intersect where the level of implicit far exceeds the level of explicit.

IntersectCaution:  if you say “let them work it out” and they do something typical of suddenly liberated 18-year olds, you are about to be tested.  Do you snap and take control back?  If you do, you lose credibility and your words about trust and empowerment become just that: words.  See my post on trust.

Here’s a list of concrete steps that you can take to foster autonomy:

Arrange the chairs for student-student interaction.  This does not mean that the Professor cannot interact.

De-emphasizing grading as a measure of success or as a tool for motivation.  This does not mean a lack of feedback.

Allow students to chat socially in working groups; let them forge relationships.  This does not mean that student can use all of their work time on non-related topics.

Allow computers/Phones/Tablets (even if they use social media during class).  This clearly does not mean that it’s okay to stay on Facebook the entire class.

Negotiate due dates.  This does not mean students can blow off work.

Treating students as collaborators and respected partners.  This does not mean being their friend.

Student set their own quality standards.  This does not mean that students produce substandard work.

To create a culture of empowerment, you must take risks and invest in the long term.  There will be bad days, but you can fix process and rigor through after-action reviews (a subject for another day), but there are no second chances when it comes to trust.



1 Comment

  1. I like your “mean/does not mean” and I hope it satisfies any critics who might mistakenly perceive learner empowerment as a less rigorous academic endeavor!


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