Empowering to Engage

Creating a learning culture that supports the conditions for engagement is different that creating engaging lessons for students. 

You might think that’s a subtle difference. I would argue otherwise.  In fact, I think there is a big difference.

If you are a teacher, do you try and engage students by creating an interesting and compelling lesson that they respond to?  Do you try to create a lesson that will resonate with your kids, that they are interested in, and that they’ll be willing and active and intellectual participants in?

There is nothing wrong with that.  Schools and kids need more of it.

But consider this.  In this scenario, the teacher has carefully orchestrated a pathway through a lesson designed to motivate and involve students – to engage them.  This means that the students respond to the actions and direction supplied to them by the teacher.  As a result of this, engagement is created by something the teacher does and that the students respond to – and that engagement might not exist without the context of the teacher’s lesson.  Engagement is external to the student and is dependent upon the conditions created for them.

Compare that to a situation where a teacher focuses on student empowerment.  There are a number of ways to accomplish this, ranging from creating a classroom culture where students can reshape their learning space depending on need, where they can make their own choice about how to represent their understanding, what resources they choose to employ in their learning, who they learn with, and how ultimately how they shape their own path through the learning process.  The five examples I have just listed are conditions that all involve choice and a classroom environment where the teacher has empowered them to make a personal decision(s) about their learning experience.

In this scenario, empowerment can lead to choice, which creates the conditions and opportunity for engagement to emerge differently.  It’s internal, and develops from within the student, and is manifested as a result of the ownership of the learning experience.  It’s organic and potentially long-term, and not external and based only on a particular lesson on a particular day. 

In my opinion, teachers need to ask themselves a different question.  It’s not about finding ways to engage students by designing engagement for them.  Rather, the question should focus on creating a learning environment and a learning culture where empowerment and choice lead to learner agency and the development and realization of the most important type of engagement- that which is owned by the student.

In the end, learning does not require schools, nor does it require teachers.  It certainly doesn’t require units or lessons.  Students started learning at birth, and most are likely continuing to learn on their own beyond the walls of school in things they are interested in. They have that capacity – it only takes the interest, a device, and an Internet connection.

So, a learning culture in schools that empowers students with the ability to make their own choices about how to navigate the complex landscape of learning will ultimately have the best chance of developing truly engaged learners.

A recognized leader in the educational technology field, David Jakes focuses on using the design process to support the organizational growth, development and change required to create relevant and meaningful conditions for student learning in schools.  David’s thought leadership includes addressing the increased need to develop agile, connected, and personalized learning environments that support a contemporary education, and how the use of technology can be re-imagined to create boundless opportunities for learning.  Before his current position as an independent consultant and as the Director of Learning Spaces with the EdTechTeam, David spent almost three decades in education as a teacher, technologist, and administrator. David's design experience includes working as a Digital Designer and Strategist for CannonDesign and The Third Teacher+, a leading architecture firm and learning space consultancy.   David is a frequent presenter at national and international educational conferences where he speaks about the power and promise of a new expedition for learning, and the roles that all educators have in shaping that journey.

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