Giving students more autonomy over their education and creating climates that foster student expression are growing priorities in K–12 education. The trend results from the intersection of personalized learning plans tailored to offer individualized experiences for optimal outcomes, and student-centered learning movements, which prioritize student needs over institutional goals.
Regardless of its impetus, the goal of student empowerment is to engage young people in learning using modalities that help them take ownership of their progress and remain accountable for their effort. Student empowerment also fosters a more democratic learning environment, which can further enhance student engagement. If you are looking for opportunities to bring students into your decision-making processes, and enable a culture of collaboration, find inspiration from the example empowerment strategies that follow. And since it’s undetermined if the next school year will be face-to-face, virtual, or a combination of both, we’ve included a distance learning tip to put each idea into action to accommodate the evolving educational landscape.
#1 – Allow Students to Lead Parent-Teacher Conferences
Conferences with parents are crucial as youth need the support and guidance of parents and guardians outside the classroom to be successful inside the classroom. Instead of limiting these interactions with teachers, a student-led conference offers an ideal opportunity for students to take ownership of their progress and be part of the discussion about their current performance and any planning strategies for improvement.
Distance Learning Tip: Ask your student to put together an agenda for your meeting including the top three things they’d like to discuss and the top three things their parent/guardian may want to talk about. Send out clear meeting instructions including how to use platforms such as Zoom or Google Classroom ahead of time. Also remember that some families may have little to no access to technology, so you may need to adjust your approach to accommodate them.
#2 – Give Students Mechanisms to Provide Feedback
Whether you teach kindergarteners or high school seniors, your students will want to share ideas for activities and give you feedback on content or learning strategies that they value or do not find as helpful. Make it easy for them to share their opinions and to do so using a method that makes them feel safe and capable of being entirely candid. Survey students at the start of the school year or semester, mid-way through the term, and at its end to gather insights as to what they would recommend adding, removing, or changing about the class. You may not be able to accommodate every suggestion, especially those that jovially support a full elimination of tests to increase free-time. Still, you will likely obtain valuable insights that you can incorporate into future classroom planning.
Distance Learning Tip: Ask students before the first day of school what worked for them last school year with distance learning and what was frustrating or challenging. Knowing what worked and didn’t work before the school year begins will help you eliminate potential challenges down the line.
#3 – Enable Leadership Opportunities
As often as possible, give students a chance to lead. Some potential opportunities may involve leading small group work, classroom discussions, and team projects. When students can experience what it means to be accountable and to direct others to accomplish a mutual goal, they learn critical confidence-boosting skills.
Distance Learning Tip: Plan times for small student-led group discussions virtually. Allow students the opportunity to “meet” with other students to work on projects, study, or review homework together.
#4 – Allow Students to Make Some Decisions in Their Learning
While some areas of state-mandated learning are non-negotiable, student empowerment involves allowing students to make collective decisions on negotiable elements of their curriculum. The changes also do not have to be drastic. They only have to be meaningful to students. For example, if a specific learning modality requires students to write an essay about one particular piece of literature, ask students if they would like to all write about the book they are reading as a class, or books read individually. Not only will giving direction on the assignment empower students, but if they choose independent reading assignments, the ability to choose one’s own story will provide students with a sense of confidence and authority.
Distance Learning Tip: Now that we are learning and working at home, allow students to have a voice whenever possible. Ask for input and feedback along the way about what works and what doesn’t.
Remember, empowerment is possible when those in a position of power shift some of their authority and decision making to someone else. These moments are crucial in student development and can enable optimal outcomes in both student academic achievement, and personal growth, and are vital to overall classroom success.