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We often focus on student engagement, but student empowerment is a step further. Here, we focus on the seven shifts toward student empowerment.

Two years ago, I was a chaperone for my son’s fourth-grade field trip to a hands-on pioneer museum. Students learned how to make homemade candles, how to chop wood, how to do some very basic woodworking, how to make bread, and how to quilt.

They were fully engaged in the learning. According to Schlecty’s levels of engagement, nearly every student demonstrated both a high attention a high commitment to the learning.

However, I noticed little moments of frustration. When students learned about the peg process used in log cabin design, a girl asked if they still use the same process in modern log cabin construction. If so, had they adapted the process to be more earthquake-proof? Had they changed the peg design? Do they now use glue with the pegs? I reached for my phone to look it up and realized that they had banned devices when we first walked in. So the question hung in the air, unanswered.

At another point, a boy felt how hot the log had become after using a hand drill. His friend said it was because the wood was hotter on the inside just like our bodies are hotter on the inside. The first boy shook his head and said, “No, it’s because things get hot when they move up against other things.” They pulled me into the conversation and suddenly, we were discussing friction, movement, heat, and energy.

“Do bigger drills get hotter than smaller drills if they move at the same speed?” he asked.

But right at that moment, they called us over to a new task.

To be clear, the field trip was amazing. Students remained engaged nearly the entire time – physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. The volunteers at this museum knew how to interact with the students and keep them fully interested in the content. However, after being highly engaged, the students wanted to move to a new level in their learning. They wanted to try little experiments, chase their questions, and make more decisions. In other words, they wanted to own the learning.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for that. As I stood there watching students move quickly from task to task, I thought about all of those moments when I cut off learning right when it was becoming empowering because I viewed it as off-task or because I had something engaging I didn’t want them to miss or because I thought we might run out of time.

From Compliance to Engagement to Empowerment

We often talk about what it means to move from compliance to engagement. It’s the idea of creating an environment where students want to learn rather than have to learn. This is that top level of engagement, where students are highly committed and highly focused. But I wonder how often we stop there, with committed and focused students who aren’t getting the chance to own their learning.

If we want students to be creative, self-directed learners, we need to go beyond student engagement and into empowerment. They need to own the learning. My friend George describes this as a continuum based upon student agency.


Note that highly engaging environments often promote empowerment because they focus on student agency and ownership. The moment you add student ownership to student engagement, you have empowerment.

Some quick nuance here. Compliance isn’t always a bad thing. When the fire drill goes off, I want students to comply. Engagement isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes I want to engage students in learning something that they will find intriguing and interesting. After all, the highly engaging environment of the pioneer museum led the students to a place where they wanted to own their learning. But too often, students in school remain in a space between compliance and engagement, never getting the opportunity to own their learning.

We Need to Shift Toward Empowerment

So, the following are eight shifts that we need to consider as we shift from engagement to empowerment. You can check it out in this sketch-note animation video:

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#1: From giving choices to inspiring possibilities

When I first embraced student choice, I would create 3-4 options on each assignment. In some cases, I might even create a choice menu and tell them to pick a certain number of items. This was a small step toward increasing student agency and it increased their intrinsic motivation. However, students were still selecting my choices from my menu. In other words, we had lots of choice but very little freedom.

Eventually, we shifted toward student-generated options for larger projects. This began with things like Wonder Days, Geek Out Projects (our Genius Hour projects), themed blogs, and inquiry-based science projects. However, in emphasizing student ownership, I ran into a problem. Sometimes students didn’t know what to choose. They lacked the prior knowledge to know where to begin.

At that point, I began to show examples, provide options, and add resources. I worried this would stifle creative risk-taking. However, it actually increased their self-efficacy and gave them a bigger picture of what was possible. This led to greater creative risk-taking.

For example, when creating visual writing prompts, I made them optional. In fact, I called them writing ideas instead of writing prompts because prompts require writing and ideas inspire writing. Instead of saying, “here are ten choices,” I said, “It’s your blog. Write what you want. But if you’re looking for inspiration, here are tons of visual prompts you can use.”

#2: From “making the subject interesting” to “tapping into student interests.”

This is the shift from saying “you must learn this” to asking “what do you want to learn?” So, instead of saying, “how do I make _______ interesting?” you give students a chance to tap into their own curiosity. So, students might be into Minecraft or Legos or fashion or drama and you, as a teacher, have the opportunity to let them explore these areas of interest.

Initially, I scoffed at this idea of interest-driven learning because I thought these student interests were shallow. However, as students began blogging about video games, sports, fashion, and food, I realized that no subject is shallow if you’re willing to take a deep dive. It’s all about the lens you use. I noticed this when a student wanted to explore the history of cartoons in a blog and podcast. Cartoons? Really? What emerged was a deep exploration of culture, gender, and social norms. It blew me away. I saw the results of empowerment.

This sounds great in theory but teachers have standards and curriculum maps. My first thought is that many subjects have content-neutral standards. In language arts, students can explore their own interests while practicing the skills in the Common Core Standards. In other subjects, the standards still provide options for student interests. In science, students might explore forces and motion by studying roller coasters or self-driving cars. Two very different topics but the same standards. In social studies, students might explore various aspects of World War II from totally different angles while still pursuing the areas that they find fascinating.

A little nuance here: There’s still a time and a place for teacher-directed topics. Sometimes students don’t know what they will love until a teacher introduces it to them.

#3: From taking assessments assessing your own learning.

Go to a skate park or watch kids play Minecraft and you’ll see tons of assessment going on. However, no one is waiting for a rubric and a score. They assess in the moment. Sure, they might go to a contest and get a score. They might seek out the advice of an expert. But, the key here is that they view assessment as something you do rather than something you take.

Here students embrace the idea that learning is an iterative process full of mistakes. It’s what they do as they set goals, check their progress, and adjust their actions. But even though it’s self-directed, it is interdependent rather than independent. They engage in self-reflection, peer assessment, and student-teacher conferences.


#4: From answering the teacher’s questions to asking their own questions

Again, there is a time and a place to answer the teacher’s questions. However, this is the idea that empowered students are curious about their world and they know how to explore their questions and find their own answers. It’s the notion that students should be questioning answers as well as answering questions. This is the idea where they chase the inquiry process and take learning off-road.

#5: From uncritical consuming to critical consuming and creating

I often hear about the need to get students to move from consuming to creating and I see the validity in this argument. I’ve met way too many adults who don’t engage in any real creative endeavors. They watch television in their spare time but never craft stories. They follow recipes but never learn to own the culinary process and truly make their own dishes.

But I actually think consuming matters. Chefs consume food. I mean, I guess we all consume food, right? So maybe that’s a bad example. Musicians listen to music. Athletes watch sports. The key difference is that they are critical consumers. They analyze what they consume and they look for ideas and inspiration.

Here students move from critical consuming to inspiration to creativity, where they use the design process to launch their work to the world. In fact, students often work through stages from consuming to creating.

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#7: From rigid to adjustable systems

There’s a fascinating story in The End of Average about what happened when the United States air force based their cockpit design on the average pilot. It sounded like a great idea but the “average” cockpit didn’t fit anyone and our pilots continued to die. One-size-fits-all fits no one. However, instead of trying to customize each cockpit to custom-fit pilots, they shifted toward adjustable design, where pilots could change the configuration of the cockpits to fit their needs.

It has me thinking about “teaching toward the middle” in schools. We don’t have a middle because we don’t have average students. This is why we need to design flexible systems that students can adjust. Students are empowered to own the process. They can set their own pace, choose their own formats, and decide what resources they want to use.

Often, in schools, we focus on a tiered-approach to differentiated instruction. But the adjustable system is a shift from differentiated to personalized learning. Instead of putting students in leveled groups, teachers provide opportunities for students to self-adjust.


This isn’t easy. Sometimes students need help with executive function. At the lower grades, students might struggle with setting their own pace or choosing their own resources. Again, there’s a time and a place for leveled groups. But still, teachers can design adjustable systems and help students own the process of empowerment.

#7: It’s a shift in mindset from compliance to self-direction

We want students to be creative, critical thinkers. We want them to rewrite the rules and to be original. In education, we throw around words like “lifelong learning” and “critical thinking citizens.” But this begins with a mindset of self-direction. This isn’t a rugged individualism, either. It’s often collaborative. However, it’s the idea that students feel a sense of ownership over their learning.

Self-direction is a blend of being a self-starter and a self-manager.


Self-starters know how to initiate learning. They don’t wait for permission to learn. They simply go out and do it. But self-starting without self-management leads to unfinished work. Self-managers know how to finish work. They are able to manage projects, set goals, and check for progress. However, self-management without self-starting leads to complacency and lacks innovation. We want students to be both.

This Isn’t Easy

These shifts are not always easy. The journey toward empowering students can feel confusing and even scary. But if you’re waiting for permission, it might never happen. Sometimes, you just have to take the leap.


Empower Your Students with Voice and Choice

Want to get started with student ownership? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the Empower Blueprint and Toolkit below.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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