Friday, 5 August 2016

Empowering Students

"When students have the power to make decisions regarding their own learning, they can take steps to ensure they are working in their optimal challenge zone." (Elizabeth A. Barkley, 2010, p. 31).

The notion of less is more has never been more accurate than in empowering others to achieve their best. In Barkely's text, "Student Engagement Techniques," chapter five includes a section on creating synergy between motivation and active learning through encouraging students to work at their optimal level of challenge. Besides making clear, meaningful connections between new learning and previous knowledge and providing authentic feedback and assessment, the author discusses empowering students to challenge themselves and doing this by saying and doing less.

Think for a moment of how many times in a day we receive feedback from the world -- commercials, media, family, friends, our own conscience, and how many times we receive directives -- turn left, grab me that pot, buy this shampoo, be a better student, please press 1 for English. It is overwhelming, really, but it sets the tone for the power of quiet.

Maria Montessori taught widely on the importance of allowing children to realize their potential to concentrate and complete "work," extolling the virtues of patience, organization, and confidence in doing so. And it is confidence that rings true here.

In her book, "Learner-centred teaching: Five key changes in practice," M. Weimer (2002) describes her college students as "hopeful, but generally anxious and tentative. They want all classes to be easy but expect that most will be hard ... Most like, want, indeed need teachers who tell them exactly what to do."

Not exactly the picture of empowered, self-confident, self-directed learners generally suggested by the "recruitment" pages of university and college websites.

One of my favourite political theorists-turned-education-theorist Paulo Freire says the lack of confidence and self-motivation is due to the removal of power and critical thought inherent in traditional education pedagogy. In his famous work, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," Freire says oppression is justified through a mutual process between the "oppressor" and the "oppressed" or the "colonizer" and the "colonized," and says the relationship stays stable because the powerless in society can often be afraid of freedom. "Learners must see the need for writing one's life and reading one's reality," he wrote, calling for "informed balance" between theory and praxis.

Weimer says, in less political terms, that the solution is less -- less direction, less control, by the hand of the instructor. "When students realize she is not going to tell them what to do, they begin to exercise their power tentatively and anxiously, wanting feedback and needing reinforcement in order to move forward with a bit more confidence (Barkley, 2010)."

Students are provided opportunity and freedom to explore, create, fail, recover, and move within their own academic space and the results are empowering and inspiring: "It is difficult to say precisely when it happens," she reports, "but one day, quite unexpectedly, the students are engaged and involved with the course and its content (Barkley, 2010)."

The important thing to note is that the process is not perfect in terms of ultimate success at every turn, but it embraces error and "failure" as part of the process. Think again about how many ways we spring into action when someone is hurt or feeling upset. We can't wait to wipe tears, offer Kleenex, give hugs, throw out distraction, lather people in sympathy -- anything to avoid allowing other people their sadness. But what a service we can offer if we just let "failure" or upset happen and be with people as they experience the full range of their emotions and learn they can recover.

There is an inherent personal and academic growth that occurs from pushing through the discomfort of not always knowing how to manage an assignment or course; having to be in control of the process, get creative, and take risks; and, operate without specific guidance and protocol.

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