Empowered Learning Experiences

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I recently finished, Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners through UDL by George Couros and Kative Novak.  Full of inspiring anecdotes as well as thought-provoking ideas, the book is split into three sections:  

  1. The Core of Innovative Teaching & Learning
  2. Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset
  3. You are the Change You Seek

One of my favorite things about the book is the reflective questions that come at the end of each chapter.   Every chapter was meaningful, but the one that has felt most meaningful for me to reflect on today is Creating Empowering Learning Experiences from the Core of Innovative Teaching & Learning section.  When I was in the classroom as both a teacher and instructional coach, my main focus was how to best engage learners.  I thought that if I could plan highly engaging lessons then I would be fully meeting the needs of my learners.  

Previous work of George’s as well as this chapter has helped me to realize, if I am not providing empowering learning experiences, I am not adequately preparing them for the world outside of school.  When we engage students we are the ones who make learning meaningful and interesting to students, but when we empower them, they get to “develop the skills and motivation to solve meaningful problems.”  They are learning as a result of an internal drive which creates a cycle of perpetual learning, a skill that is incredibly important in the quickly changing world we live in.

Empowered Learning involves choice, developing better questions, as well as finding & solving meaningful problems with the opportunity to create.  At the end of this chapter, the following questions is asked, 

What are some examples of “empowered learning” in your classrooms for students and in your school/organization as professionals?  How are you empowered as an educator, and how does that empower students in learning?

It got me thinking about how I was empowering learners when I was in the classroom as well as steps I would take if I were still in the classroom to create more empowered learning experiences.

Empowered Learning Experiences

Previous Classroom Literacy Practice:  When I was in the classroom I tried to offer as much choice as possible to students.  In literacy, they received a weekly schedule with options that they could choose from to plan out their time that included things like read to self, blog post, meet with the teacher, responding to reading, or talk with a partner about their book.   They got to choose the books they were reading as well as the order they wanted to accomplish the tasks.  When we met 1:1 or in a small group, I would give them positive feedback as well as goals for their next steps in learning.

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I offered a lot of choice to students, the activities were dictated by me.  Empowered learning involves giving students opportunities to create learning experiences that are meaningful to them.  If I were in the classroom, I would also include an option for them to choose what they wanted to explore in literacy.  I would also try to balance the amount of feedback I was giving to the students with the number of questions I was asking them about how they felt about their progress in literacy and the new goals they wanted to set.  I would give them more opportunities to set goals for themselves as opposed to their goals being dictated by me.  In elementary this would involve giving students a choice board of goals and letting them pick so that I could support them in becoming independent in goal selection.

Previous Classroom Research Practice:  I used to give students a broader topic to study and let them pick which aspect they wanted to research.  The students learned how to ask questions, take notes, and write a research paper with headings for each section.  Usually, these research papers would involve some sort of creative expression at the end that they could choose from that ranged from making a diorama to creating some sort of video.  

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I taught students to ask deep questions during the research process, it was limited to when we were doing research.  If I went back into the classroom I would include asking questions as a part of daily practice woven throughout the day.  I might start a lesson showing a picture or with a short passage or even just projecting the learning target and have students ask questions that they are curious about.  We would have a Wonder Wall and I would give students opportunities to explore these wonderings.  Another problem with the research I was having students do was that the end product was solely connected to me, the final product reader.  If I was having students research now, I would want them to look for problems in the community, school or world around them and come up with solutions.  The end product that they create would be related to solving that problem.  I would provide opportunities and encourage students to connect with “experts in the field” to get more ideas.  We would share our ideas beyond our classroom by putting them in a blog, inviting the community in or asking meaningful stakeholders for feedback on our ideas.  I could still evaluate all the standards I was covering in this process, it would just take a different process on my part.

Previous Math Practice:  I love math and have always loved teaching it.  One of my frustrations as a kid was that I always had to go at the same pace as everyone else when I was ready to move on so I wanted to make sure that my students never had that frustration.  When I first started teaching this looked like me assigning all of the same problems to the students after I had taught a lesson and then students could come up and check their work with myself or my assistant when they were ready and could then move on to choice activities like games or projects.   In my last years of teaching, I would pretest the students on the upcoming standards on Friday.  On Monday they would get a sheet with the list of standards that they had already mastered and a schedule for the week that included activities like meet with the teacher, a web-based self-paced program or more problems in our workbook.  There was also a column for how they would know they had mastered the standards they hadn’t yet by the end of the week.

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I provided choice for my students and gave them feedback on their progress as well as expected them to monitor their understanding, a lot of the math was dictated by me or the program my district had provided for enrichment.  To improve on this process I would provide students time to explore questions they have related to math.  In my last years of coaching we had students explore questions like, “How is math related to gymnastics?” or “How is math related to animals?”  It would be anything that students were interested in.  They would have time to research and then present their findings.  To make this even better I would stop teaching math as a subject on its own and look for ways to incorporate it into the questions that students were asking in class.  I would give them time to explore these ideas and create meaningful products. (like mentioned above) 

Instead of putting students on a web-based program, I would give them opportunities to create videos to help other students in math using applications like WeVideo or Explain Everything or Seesaw.   They could create games based on the standards or I would give them opportunities to work on math projects that solved problems connected to meaningful topics.  They could create problems or projects for other students to solve as well.  I would give them time to explore math-related problems and see what math they could use to solve these problems.

Final Thoughts

I am in no way criticizing the teaching that I did in the past.  I provided my students with many engaging as well as empowering (and even compliant) learning experiences.  I am proud of the work I did and loved every minute I got to spend in the classroom with my amazing students.  I am also not saying that it is possible to empower learners every minute of the day in the classroom.  As discussed in this chapter, there is a time for every type of learning in the classroom: compliant, engaged or empowered.  

The purpose of this reflection was to help me to be a better leader as we move to give students more empowered learning experiences in the classroom.   By reflecting on what my next steps would be, I can further clarify what types of learning experiences I am looking for as I go into classrooms.  This will enhance my ability to have a deep discussion and mentor anyone who is looking to empower learners.  My next steps will be working on my own practice as a leader who empowers her staff.  I am looking forward to talking to my teachers about their thoughts on empowered learning and to co-create our idea of best practice in learning experiences at Jefferson School.   

“Empowered learning experiences should be something that we, as educators, create with our students for our schools and classrooms.” – Innovate Inside the Box, Chapter 3

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