The Empowered Learner

The empowered learner creates empowered teachers. At our faculty meeting last week, my colleagues and I unpacked the ISTE standard of the “empowered learnerstandards-header-circlewith many of us leaving the meeting feeling empowered ourselves.  We researched, collaborated, created and constructed shared learning.  Engaging in the process of reimagining our work with children resulted in empowered teachers.  But what happens beyond the faculty meeting?  How do we keep that empowerment going?

In undergrad I changed my major from elementary education to cognitive studies. For years, I agonized over this “failure” as I ultimately returned to graduate school, twice, to get the qualifications and training I needed to fulfill my career goals. And then came the dawn of the growth mindset into the educational field.  My degree ultimately created the conditions, knowledge and strategies for me to develop the growth mindset long ago and transform the landscape of my classroom today.

Many educators worry that the growth mindset means giving up control.  That the empowered learner is too scary, and the teacher is no longer in the driving seat.  I’d like to argue otherwise.  The growth mindset is more of a shift of control, where the individual is in control of effort, perspective, and the ability to keep trying.  Empowering students is the same – teachers still control the learning goals and outcomes (while products might very). They control the high expectations for work and the gentle nudges of instruction. They control the framework and classroom culture of learning.  Empowering students allows teachers the opportunity to develop the growth mindset in the most forgiving environment – the classroom.

Giving up control of making decisions students are capable of making isn’t all that scary once you do it.

I’ve heard of genius hour for the past few years and finally decided that while I rarely have a spare hour in the classroom, we’d try it out. Our initial study was to answer “How can I as a first grader make the world a better place?” While our genius hour was often genius 45 or 25 minutes students were empowered to solve world problems such as helping homeless pets and reducing accidents on the roads. Led by their own passions and strengths, their projects varied from emailing our state governor to forming a camp for younger children. Student engagement and collaboration was high, but they were not the only ones who learned something. By allowing my students to take risks, I was empowered too.

Whenever we had time in the schedule for genius hour, I was excited.  I was no longer the central orchestrator of learning, but entirely the facilitator of making first grade ideas come to life.  While six and seven year olds have bounds of creativity and ideas, their articulation and practical application of these ideas lacks dramatically.  My role was not to impose learning on children, but to help them develop, elaborate and articulate their constructs.  Many people question whether this work is apt for young children and I believe it is critical. To develop a growth mindset we must live a growth mindset.

There were three key components that I focused during our instruction

Setting one clear expectation for the learning environment allowed students ownership for the rest.  I said “You are workiIMG_3429ng on your project the entire time.”  The rest they instilled themselves.

Essential questions, when articulated to learners and returned to often, empower learning.  After our first session most of my students decided they would make a donation box to raise money.  Through our driving question: “How can I as a first grader make the world a better place?” I asked them, who is doing the work with a donation box? They instantly realized they were asking others to make the world a better place.  By returning to the essential question their work was focused on action, not asking of others.

Having an audience, purpose and connection to the real world really does motive learners.  Knowing who you want to communicate your change to is empowering in it self.  It drives the work and elaborates creativity.  Making a sign to drive slower changed to creating a demo video and emailing our governor.  Making a poster to get along with siblings evolved into a planning for a summer camp for younger kids.  Working to inform and help others amplifies the purpose of work and ultimately of learning.

Call it genius hour, student centered learning, or the empowered learner.  It doesn’t really matter.  Give children a purpose, voice and space and they will give you the unthinkable.  Empowered teachers create spaces for students to actualize their potential.   Empowered students will propel our profession forward.