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Posts tagged ‘mindful’


Education or Subjugation – Power & Empowerment in Schools

😉 (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!)?


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.



We Make Mistakes and Don’t Even Know It

We go through the world observing and interpreting, making decisions based on what we see and experience. But many of those observations and interpretations are wrong. Plain and simple. Wrong. But we carry on as if we are right. In fact, we don’t even know we are wrong. So we aren’t aware that we have misread something. Is this a problem?

…we don’t even know we are wrong.

I have been reading Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan. He has made me think about this some more and to ponder the implications for our students/youth in particular. How might we address these issues with students to increase their awareness, their mindfulness. Hallinan gives the classic example of the ‘table top’ illusion.

These table tops are identical. Don’t believe me? Measure it. Print it out and cut it up. Or, take them to PhotoShop and play around.

“Turning the Tables” was created by Stanford professor, Roger N. Shepard. It demonstrates “not only that our perceptual machinery is deeply entrenched in our nervous system but that its operation is totally automatic”.  So we can’t even choose to see it for what it is – a bunch of lines in ‘flatworld’* – but we automatically impose our meaning from the real 3D world on it. Our brain circuitry is triggered to see the tables in three dimensions. Hallinan also suggests that even worse, we don’t even know we’ve been tricked. We’ve made an error – but we don’t know we’ve made one.

…we can’t even choose to see it for what it is.

Should kids know about this? I sure think so. How can kids ‘be in charge of their own learning’ if they are not aware of automatic and hidden errors. This looks to me like another reason to focus on helping kids to learn to be mindful – to be aware of their brains and how they work.

Thoughts appreciated.


* Any Big Bang Theory fans out there?



Scaffolding for Deep Understanding

How CAN we help our students be the kind of thinkers we want?

My friend and colleague, @brendasherry, recently wrote a thoughtful post called What is Deep Understanding?  She asked several excellent questions:

  • what kind of thinkers do we want our students to be?
  • what is deep understanding?
  • can schools really provide the learning environment to nurture and develop it?

In thinking about these questions, I would like to ask: “How can we help novice learners become more expert learners?” Read more »


Can Students Multitask?

Can Students Multitask?  This is the Wrong Question.

I hear it all the time from students.  “I am doing my work!  I’m multitasking.” And, in fact, they often are flipping back and forth between the ‘task at hand’, Facebook, internet radio, YouTube, etc.

“I am doing my work!  I’m multitasking.”

I won’t debate the issue of multitasking itself in this post.  That one is open for discussion later. Briefly, many people are now saying that, in fact, people don’t multitask.  They suggest that your mind is switching back and forth (sometimes rapidly) between thought streams or tasks.  Parallel processing models of computation, on the other hand, would suggest that you can indeed multitask.  However, that is not the big question for me.  I would suggest it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’.

…it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’

Mental effort is not unlimited.  It is somewhat finite. However, when you are working on a task it is often the case that it does not occupy your total ‘mental effort’. You may have some spare mental capacity.

Mindful Engagement & Expertise

There are three options for allocating your spare mental capacity.

One, you may exert NO effort, or intentional control, over the extra mental capacity and just allow ideas and thoughts to enter your mind at random… responding to external or internal stimuli such as a phone ringing or voices overheard.

Second, you may choose to direct that spare mental capacity to something specific, yet unrelated to the present task. For example, you may think about an upcoming holiday, or your child’s next sporting event.

Third, you may choose to direct the extra mental effort back into the task itself… evaluating effectiveness, determining better strategies, reflecting on generalizations to other similar, or different, domains.  ‘How am I doing?’ ‘What could I do differently next time?’ ‘How can I kick it up a notch?’ Thus you are reinvesting all your efforts into maximizing performance and generalizable skills.

I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’.

This latter example characterizes ‘expertise’ and ‘expert learners’.  I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’. If they are not reinvesting their extra mental energy back into the task in this intentional, metacognitive fashion, then, in my opinion, they are not ‘doing their work’ effectively.

I have found this explanation useful to students when they claim that they are ‘doing their work’.



Disclaimers – but a few:

I will grant that there may be environmental conditions that may enhance ‘flow’ or ‘state of mind’. For example, Baroque music – at 40–60 beats per minute – encourages beta brainwave activity that is associated with relaxation.  Not that most of our students are listening to baroque!  However, the point is made that some music, as an example, may be conducive to guiding the brain to a better place for learning.

It is also understood that there are other parameters to this discussion. For example, if I am intentionally directing spare mental effort elsewhere – to another ‘purposeful’ task, one could say that I am becoming an ‘expert generalist’.  After all, ‘specialization is for insects’ – said Robert Heinlein.

And indeed, there are personality factors, mood factors, variety and quantity of modalities engaged, and, of course, the inherent level of demand of the ‘task at hand’.  It may be fairly ‘mindless’ or absolutely uninteresting and inconsequential to my life.



MetacognitionJulie Halter Graduate Student, SDSU Department of Educational Technology

Novice and Expert Learners – From: M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino (eds.), How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, xiii.

Expert Learners – a post from Will Richardson

Thank you to Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter for their inspiration to me regarding ‘expertise’.


ZPD – Who’s in Charge Here?

What’s Dynamic Scaffolding?

Forgive this cross post from The Construction Zone website, but I want to bring it forward partially in response to Chris Lehmann’s post about Engagement vs Empowerment.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) may be defined as the zone in which we can accomplish a task with the assistance, or accompaniment, of a more knowledgeable other – a task that we could not handle alone. The student should ideally be engaged at the outside limit of competence.

Advancing one’s knowledge, by definition, requires that one operates in advance of one’s level of competence. One may conceive of the ZPD as being a zone just in advance of the student’s position of competence. It is in this zone where learning and development occur.

But this may be a wide zone – a large ‘depth of field’, if you like. The inner edge of the ZPD (close to total competence) is characterized by tasks that can be carried out with a minimum of support whereas at the outer edge of the ZPD a greater  amount of scaffolding is required. A great deal of complexity is inherent in assuming control of ‘scaffolding’ within that zone. Is this possible, or best handled, by others?

A great deal of complexity is inherent in assuming control of ‘scaffolding’ within the ZPD. Is this possible, or best handled, by others?

Novice & Expert Learners

There are common behaviours that are characteristic of relative levels of expertise. Novice learners display approaches that are consistent across domains. So do expert learners.  This theoretically allows for an easier determination of one’s position on this novice-expert continuum due to similarities of strategic approaches or behaviours. One may therefore be able to identify a ZPD just in advance of this position. For example, a novice may not think to generate a variety of possible solutions before embarking on one approach to a task, whereas a more expert student might, so one could afford opportunities for this generation of alternate strategies to occur.  However, as the student gains expertise and moves up the continuum, the ZPD is always in advance. Therefore, it necessitates that the ‘cognitive partner’ provide ‘dynamic’ support or scaffolding.  Not just the gradual quantitative reduction of support as the learner acquires more competence in a particular skill, but a qualitative shift because now new competencies become attainable with appropriate support.  An ‘optimal mismatch’ needs to be maintained. This is quite a challenge.

…the ‘cognitive partner’ needs to provide ‘dynamic’ support or scaffolding.

Robbie Case developed a theory & technology of instruction that focused on analysis of novice-expert behaviours and procedures and the design of “successive stages for transforming the novices procedures into more expert-like ones” (Bereiter & Scardamalia). My own work on spelling acquisition was consistent with this work. It was determined that relative expertise in spelling could be acquired by identifying and supporting stages & procedures in between novice and expert. However, it is still questionable whether this determination and judgement of one’s position might not best be assigned to the student rather than the teacher or other. In this work on spelling acquisition, there was student involvement in the analysis of the progression of learning.  I remember asking them to think they were holding a video camera just above themselves…that they were watching themselves.  What do they see?

Who’s in Charge?

Is an outside individual able to determine the appropriate support to advance another’s expertise?

Is an outside individual able to determine the appropriate support to advance another’s expertise?  With such complexity involved, even though there are general patterns among novices and experts, many of us believe that one should be proactive in one’s own construction of knowledge within the ZPD. The teacher often assumes responsibility for this learning process and I am suggesting that we turn over this responsibility to the student. This already occurs in many other settings and does not mean abandoning scaffolding.

Bruner (in Toohey) suggests in regard to parent-child interactions “…mothers most often see their role as supporting the child in achieving an intended outcome, entering only to assist or reciprocate or ‘scaffold’ the action.” Donald Graves (in Writing : Teachers & Children at Work, 1983 p.271) says that “scaffolding follows the contours of child growth”. Both Bruner and Graves identify that the child is in control while the adult remains sensitive and responsive.

However, often scaffolding in schools means the ‘imposition’ of a structure on the student. Is a sheet of questions outlining steps on how to proceed on a science experiment effective scaffolding?  “Whose intentions are being honored” asks Searle (in Jordan, 1997)? “The adequacy of the metaphor implied by scaffolding hinges on the question of who is constructing the edifice.” (in Jordan, 1997)

“The adequacy of the metaphor implied by scaffolding hinges on the question of who is constructing the edifice.”

Here is an example of a child in charge of the construction of new knowledge within the ZPD. This is a description of a parent’s support of a child who is learning to count to 100. The child can manage alone through each set of ones, but needs to be prompted at each ‘ten’.


A:“30” (unsolicited)


Further on, perhaps at another session the adult may only have to shape her mouth like the initial sound of the tens number for the child to say it. It is in this way that an adult can collaborate in the ZPD. The adult initially needs to provide considerable scaffolding, but scaffolding is only a temporary building structure that is gradually reduced and withdrawn as the student constructs the knowledge and competence necessary to continue unaided. A cognitively sensitive, attuned adult allows the control of the ZPD to remain in the hands of the student.

A cognitively sensitive, attuned adult allows the control of the ZPD to remain in the hands of the student.

For example,


A:“60” (unsolicited)

C:“Don’t tell me!!”

A:“Sorry, I didn’t know whether to help.”

C:“67..68..69..Don’t tell me…Don’t tell me…(pause)…Give me a hint..”



Here the adult has attuned to the ‘depth of field’ of the ZPD (on this task) and has allowed and encouraged control to remain with the student.

More Complex Problem Spaces

I recognize that the above examples illustrate the concepts with relatively simple learning tasks.  The same holds, I believe, for more complex problem spaces.  Much of my everyday work with students struggles in those spaces.