How the Heck Do You Implement “Student Empowerment”?

| January 13, 2014 | 15 Comments
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The following is an excerpt from Marsha Ratzel’s new book In High Gear: My Shift Toward a Student-Driven, Inquiry Based Science Classroom.

Most classrooms follow a prescribed formula. Teachers plan and lay out what is going to be learned. Students come into class and have the responsibility of switching themselves into “ready” mode, waiting for the teacher to instruct and guide them in the day’s tasks. There is very little student ownership in this process.

Surely there were parts of the learning process where the control could be shifted to the students – where I could hand them responsibility and freedom and give them a voice in what they would learn. Although it would be impractical for me to think they could run a classroom as well as a veteran teacher, I hoped I could guide them as they took control of the questions they would pursue.

Knowing that handing students most of the responsibility for learning without preparation was not a realistic first step, I designed “skill-builders” to transition the classroom. I used layers of traditional teaching/learning experiences and experiences where the process was open-ended but had a clearly defined endpoint. This built skills in both my own teaching practice and in my students’ learning practice. I tested things for effectiveness and they developed the new personal skills to stay on course as their control of their own learning increased. Notably, experiencing small obstacles helped to develop students’ coping ability—an important skill for open-ended, open-process activities.

What would my classroom look like and how would it sound? So often, I thought, articles and blogs chatter about the idea of student empowerment but offer little in the way of practical strategies. I suspect the reason I failed to find these strategies for shifting the classroom is that the paths to perfecting this blend of student/teacher cooperation are so variable that it would be difficult to reduce it down to a “how to” explanation. Even now I struggle to describe it well.

After some searching and thinking, I determined that it was one of those things I would know when I saw it. For me, student empowerment looked like kiddos investing more time in their work and showing more energy for learning. I would see a new cycle of learning begin to develop. In my blog, I wrote about what this looked like outside of the classroom:

Why are students so busy learning things at home? They are huge into video games, basketball, clothing and so many other things. They are doing what Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach calls passion based learning. I’ve always wondered how a student can remember the umpteenth level of the most recent video game. They can map every twist and turn of how to get to the “nth” location and they will know everything they need to have in order to magically open the door. So why can’t students remember their math facts? There’s a huge gap between what I want them to learn and what they want to learn. Duh.

High GearAlthough I had an idea for where I wanted to take my students, I was disheartened because I didn’t know how to structure the class so they wanted to learn. Even while taking Sheryl’s online class and hearing all about passion-based learning, I felt dumb for not understanding how to implement “student empowerment.” Never before had I wanted to do something for my students and not been able to figure it out. I was stuck. Stuck because I couldn’t see how to meet the obligations of my job, teach the curriculum, and also provide students with this  chance.

Fortunately, Sheryl realized I was stumped and helped guide me to my “ah-ha” moment. She used an entire class period to show us how to plan for the transition. Here’s what I learned in that class meeting that changed things for me.

  • First make sure to meet the school curriculum guides. Although that may take a bit of moving things around and not doing them as you’ve always done them before, it proved to be do-able. We listed out all the required curriculum topics, objectives and targets. Immediately I felt better knowing that what I was required to teach would get covered.
  • Next we looked for places to condense teaching the required curriculum in order to make time at the end of the unit. This “extra” time really isn’t extra. It’s the time you recapture by not doing things that don’t really need to be done to learn the concepts. Maybe it’s repeated teachings that aren’t needed. You pare off small things that can give you a couple of “extra days” later in the unit.
  • Then design the student-owned learning phase. Here students pick their topical study, keeping in mind what will be possible within those “extra days.”
  • During the “extra days,” students have the freedom to pick the way in which they want to go about learning and/or the topic that interests them. In addition to the topical learning, students learn things that didn’t fit in before—such as managing their own time, researching their choices, or exploring questions that are tangentially related to the unit’s topic but excite interest.

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified science and math teacher in the Blue Valley (KS) School District and a popular blogger (Reflections of a Techie).

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  • Carmel Schettino

    Hi Marsha, I find the phrasing in your title very interesting. I’ve never heard of “implementing” student empowerment. I’ve always seen it as something that the teacher either fosters or creates an environment in the classroom to help foster. In fact, the whole notion is inherently something that students do because it is *student* empowerment by nature. They would grow to be more in control of their learning and feel more like they directing their own learning in more ways. I’ve never seen it as something that I would implement in the classroom, but something I would hope students would grow in their own capability. I have many teacher practices that I use that help them to grow in this way, but I do see it as helping them grow. Nice post, and thanks for starting the conversation.

    • ratzelster

      Hi Carmel, First, thanks for your post. I loved the pushback you presented and I can see what you were talking about. It is in the classroom culture that you create. But you can empower people to do all sorts of things.

      My idea was to take empowerment to a whole new level, incorporating more voice, more autonomy etc etc etc. I don’t see that students can naturally know how to do that. For example, while they’d love to invent their own solution to a problem, they may not know how to break apart the task. They may need instruction on how to contact/research. Even they may not know how to get along with each other well enough to collaborate.

      That’s where I step in a ratchet up the understanding of the process. In the “old days” we used to call it meta-cognition….learning to think about thinking. This is that but even more because you note only notice how you are learning but you are allowed the freedom to explore and ask questions beyond the curriculum.

      I hope that makes sense. Ask me more quesitons. Let’s toss around these ideas.

      Thanks again for posting.

      • Carmel Schettino

        Oh yes, I totally agree in the methods. In fact, I use many of those as well. I guess my issue is more one of semantics. It is also one of authority – I’m not familiar with what level you teach, so I’m not sure if you are talking about elementary or secondary levels. Scaffolding tasks so that they feel more in control of their learning is definitely one way to foster their own empowerment – then they are developing their own authority.

        It’s great to hear about other teachers who are creating deliberate practices for these important student classroom learning outcomes.

        • ratzelster

          Dear Carmel,
          I’d love to hear more about how empower students…especially how you scaffold tasks. I really liked the phrase you used …”then they are developing their own authority.”
          I hadn’t thought about this in terms of building student’s authority but it makes so much sense. Can you tell more about how you see student authority in the learning process? I’d be anxious to know. Thanks again.

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  • Astral ugc

    nice post

    • ratzelster

      Thanks. Do you use anything to boost up student engagement? How do you go about it?

  • justmeeeee

    Sounds like a bunch of words to me…does this say anything?

    • ratzelster

      Hi Justmeeeeee,
      I’m not sure what to respond to in your post. I do believe it says something. It talks about how teachers might boost up their student’s confidence by allowing them more responsibility in the learning process. Maybe that’s what you mean by a bunch of words.
      It’s hard to think like a student when you’re the teacher. You plan lessons, design learning activities and invest heavily in a plan of action. The problem is….there is no student input. The very person who is going to do all this isn’t involved in the planning or deciding what to study, how long to stay on something or what to investigate.
      What I hope….and what these words are about….is that somehow teachers need to involve students in the process. I think that will look very different for every classroom given there are different students, different contexts, different curriculums and so on. But the commonality is that students have a say (or the term I use is voice) over some of what and how they learn.
      My experience (and action research) tells me that when I do this student engagement increases. And we all know the direct correlation between boosting student engagement translates into higher achievement.
      I hope that clarifies and addresses your critique. Thanks for posting and asking to know more.

      • justmeeeee

        It seems like the only thing being said here is to cobble together some extra time (by cutting activities here and there) to allow a few free days at the end of a unit for students to sort of “mess about.” Mostly they’ll want to watch youtube videos, but that might actually work if they’re directed to find and show videos relevant to the subject matter.

        But if it’s all about student voice and empowerment (the latest buzzwords) leading to more effective learning, then why isn’t this the main method of instruction all throughout this and every unit?

        • ratzelster

          Thanks Justmeee for your reply. I think you have part of it down correctly…..you do change the way you use time. I supposed it a bit of wordsmithing disagreement, but I don’t just cut activities. I assess the student’s mastery of the material that I’m to cover. Sometimes I can find things that they already know, and instead of going over them again, I skip them.
          And I think you raise the real question….why don’t I do this kind of teaching all the time if it’s so effective? I think I do. But I don’t think I’m able to give them license to study whatever their interests take them 100% of the time. I am required to help them learn the curriculum designated for their age and grade.
          I do activate student voice and empowerment in every kind of learning activity we do. For example, when I taught math and students didn’t like the kind of word problems….they had the option of writing their own but did not have the option of not learning whatever math process or procedure that the curriculum required. I think that preserves their “voice” as much as I can…and it empowers them to take action if they don’t like what is happening to them.
          It’s not the same as when you can create “time” so they can define what they’d like to learn about and helping them answer their own questions.
          It’s a mix. I hope that helps address the concerns you raised. Do you use these techniques? If you do, please add in whatever you have tried that works and could help other teachers learn!!! Are you interested in using them?

  • pgrays

    Marsha – I believe so strongly in what you are doing. That empowerment is not “just words” – It’s allowing students to break free and realize that they can direct and manage their own learning – a skill that will serve them throughout their entire life. It’s also you sending them the important message that what THEY want to learn is important and valuable, and that you are willing to make time for it. The first time I offered to let my students learn about something that interested them, they were paralyzed! They were so used to being told what they had to learn, that they had never thought about what they might pursue! In this day and age, a young learner must realized that learning opportunities are limitless, and be guided as they develop the skills to construct their own knowledge. I love it.

    Question – Do students share what they have learned in these “extra days”? Do they have to produce evidence of their learning? Do you incorporate any of this into their class grade?

    I just recommended you and your new book to a friend who has asked his administrator to purchase it for them. I think any steps we can take toward this student-driven, self-empowered learning are steps in the right direction! Congratulations, and thank you for sharing the wonderful things you do in your classroom!

    ~Patti Grayson

    • ratzelster

      Dear Patti,
      Thank you for your post….how exciting that you’ve experimented with this technique and I want to hear more. Did they get better with the burden of defining what they’ll learn with practice? Did it begin to make sense to them? And most importnatly….how did you lead them to have the confidence that it took to escape their paralysis?

      You asked…”Do students share what they’ve learned? What evidence? Is it incorporated into their grade?
      Great questions.
      “Do they share”….oh yeah!!! I used to define the process of sharing for them and finding an audience. But as I’ve used this technique again and again, I’ve started letting them think about the who and how….and I either help them or I make the arrangements. We’ve had parents, community members, SKype sessions, a museum walk kind of thing and field trips. It just depended on what they were learning.

      Next question–Do they have to provide evidence of learning? Oh boy…yes they do and usually some kind of documentation of the thinking and work that is behind their final work sample. I went thru the National Board process many years ago and that forever cemented the notion that if you can’t prove it with some kind of evidence, you can’t really say that it happened. Again….at the start of many learning acitivities, I’ll ask students what they think a reasonable expectation of evidence might be. We come up with examples and expectations that they can live with. But I honestly think it’s our discussion that is the more valuable part to that. Because they define what’s expected, then as we have class meetings (at the end of the work time every day or every other day), they can pretty clearly explain how well they’re doing. They remember back to taht original conversation…and mark their progress.

      Last question—Is this in their grade? Oh that’s a tough one. And I’m going to say…sometimes. If what we’re learning about is directly related to a learning target in the curriculum, yes. If we’ve decided to go off in some related areas but not really in the curriculum, I say no. Here’s an example. Right now my students are practicing scientific argumentation techniques…now it might sound boring. But remember middle schoolers love to argue and debate. So they are really engaged. I can “grade” their claims and ability to use evidence to support the claim. But I’m not grading all the amazing background research they go off and find on their own because they’re interested….or the neighbor that “does” this for a living that they interviewed and reported back to all of us….or the way I challenged them to be leaders in the chat showing and encouraging the 6th and 7th graders to write better and think better. Could I show you tons of evidence that they are cheerleading the discussion….oh yeah? But I won’t grade it. When and if kids object….I feel comfortable saying that they are learning and that’s the reward.

      I hope this addressed everything you asked. What do think? And please tell us more about your own classroom situation!

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