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April 13, 2011

3

Education or Subjugation – Power & Empowerment in Schools

by Peter Skillen

😉 (Note: ‘subjugation’!?  Sorry, I just had to use that word. It rhymes!)

I have been thinking, once again, about empowerment and what it means- both theoretically and practically.

Rules to Follow (CC by Editor B)

You will think about the term and its ramifications quite differently depending on the lens you are using (your upbringing, your values and beliefs, your profession, your education, your life’s mission).

What do we mean by ’empowerment’?

Some definitions demonstrate the diversity of interpretation attributed to the concept of empowerment.

empower – To give permission or power to do something; Abstractly, to give the confidence to do something.

empowerment – The granting of political, social or economic power to an individual or group; The process of supporting another person or persons to discover and claim personal power.

empowerment – …a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power in people for use in their own lives, their communities and in their society, by acting on issues they define as important.

It’s about power

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC-ND

We could continue getting definitions, but clearly, it is about ‘power’ – power over choices, who has the power, how the power is shared, individual power vs the collective needs.

I will focus here of ‘educational empowerment’ – empowerment to learn and for learning. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this is not a closed box uninfluenced by other aspects of life. We, in schools, need to see through a more holistic lens than often is permitted by the school or by the school system. (In fact, we as educators, are often not empowered to do what we need to do to empower the students.)

Having said that, we often feel that we are empowering students:

  • if we are engaging them in their areas of interest
  • if we are giving them choices about all that is mentioned it the differentiated instruction literature – choice over process of knowledge acquisition (construction), content, and product
  • if we are engaging them in the assessment/evaluation process (e.g., collaborative rubric creation).
  • if we engage them in their ‘preferred learning style’ – although this often is a simplistically applied construct.

I don’t dismiss these notions. In fact, I am generally in agreement with them. But, it’s not sufficient.

What we often do is still rather contrived – often by the structures of the institution.

We need an holistic approach

School is only a narrow slice of their life. What we often do is still rather contrived – often by the structures of the institution. Some of this we cannot change – unless we want to speak of education/school reform on a large scale. I prefer, at this point, to examine what we might be able to control within existing structures.

The kids are whole when they arrive at our doorsteps – and come with a full life replete with desires, passions, problems, issues, excitement (not necessarily about school) and confusions.

Neill on his birthday

A.S. Neill on his birthday via Wikipedia

We need to deal with the whole child.

I am a Summerhillian at heart. Always have been. A.S. Neill started Summerhill in 1921. There are, of course, many who have piped in on this topic in one way or the other over the years – John Dewey, Alfie Kohn, Ivan Illich, Gary Stager, Seymour Papert – to name a few.

Our attempts and challenges

We attempt this at our small, independent secondary school. We are somewhat successful…and we struggle with some aspects.

We believe that students have a right to make choices in all aspects of their lives. The principle is: “we are dependable & accountable for choices, actions, & commitments”.

Are we punitive about lates, absences, cell phone and Facebook use (Farmville and Fishville!)?

No.

Do the students meet the curriculum expectations required by the government policy makers?

That is the question that we ask. That is the discussion we have with the students. We encourage and support them in making wise choices that will allow them to succeed in those areas. They have the freedom to make their choices (as long as it does not, of course, negatively impact the group).

I’m not saying this is all easy.

Ego gets in the way

…we choose to ensure compliance through marks.

In fact, there are two major issues we face in attempting to implement a more ‘democratic’ school that will empower students in these ways. One is the ego of the teachers. We, as staff, work hard to prepare the learning environment in order that students may meet certain curriculum expectations. If students are late, absent, inattentive, unfocused, or don’t ‘love’ the activity as much as we hoped they would, we can often become defensive and move to a more authoritarian stance where we choose to ensure compliance through marks.

Empowering or enabling?

The second issue with which we struggle is the distinction between empowering students and enabling them. If we are too democratic…too willing to let them make choices…about behaviour and about academics…are we enabling them to be more lax than they might otherwise be?

We don’t have all the answers – not by any stretch. But, we know that we must educate not subjugate.

Thoughts?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 13 2011

    Once again, you voice something I’ve been pondering. The ‘Power’ question. Who has it? How is it used? To what end? I’ve been trying to espouse the idea of ‘letting go’ a bit in the classroom to truly allow for student choice and autonomy, and not just the lip service of it that I fear we have too often. We still have a hard time with this thinking that the kids will be out of our control (as if that’s a bad thing). I think that the key is much like you said, that if students are engaged in the activities and learning, then the control should rest with them, not us.

    Reply
  2. Apr 13 2011

    I really like the focus on empowering or enabling, Peter. It is so hard as an educator to not take offence to the kinds of behaviours that were shunned when we were in school as students. Today, it is important to take risks and be comfortable with your choices and “experiments” as a teacher. Through rich dialogue and many different approaches we may be able to build a trusting bond with students in education, not just about it. Empower them to be and we won’t enable them. Student voice and action drive the cogs of learning – not our egos and need for control. When we allow this to happen – true education can’t. Teaching is strength in ideas and purposeful pathways.

    Reply
  3. peter skillen
    Apr 14 2011

    Hey Colin and Neil,

    Thx for the comments. They have made me think I need to write a post on the ‘harm-reduction’ approach and the ‘stages of change’ literature and how we apply it to the students at the school.

    It takes this discussion further and really is hard – because it challenges us in ways that are really difficult.

    Colin, it is risky to let students have curricular control – but what about their choices in arriving late, being absent, being high, not doing homework, etc.?

    As for the ‘enabling’, yeah, I feel I have done that too much with many people in my life – beyond the class. But, I need to live with it because I couldn’t live with the authoritarian alternative. Yes…’strength in ideas and purposeful pathways’.

    Thank you both.

    Reply

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