How do we empower learners in an institutionalized, educational structure? This is a hard question to answer and there are many answers to this question. In its dictionary meaning; “giving authority to,” one would assume that teachers and administrators simply give students the authority to learn as they wish and what they learn is acceptable for them in their continuum of education. In an institutionalized educational structure this is both true and false. The institution is a system and the learner and teacher must function within the confines of this system.

A child can not just say to a teacher or other authoritative figure, ” I want to leave campus and go to the river and observe and study the beavers and their lodges.” I will bring my device and record my questions and observations and return to school in three hours and explore what I have learned with my teacher and classmates. I say this because the first name of the school where I teach is “River.” Yes, it is very close to a real river and yes there are real beaver lodges on this river.

This idea may seem ridiculous or preposterous in our age of child proof safety and I totally agree on one level, safety. However, to simply bring children to the river and show them real beavers in their natural environment, who, by the way, are extremely interested in animals, practically takes an Act of Congress. The institution and system require enormous measures to take a child on a field trip (off campus), even if it is within walking distance from the campus. The institutionalization of education nearly eliminates serendipitous learning.

Learning, in a common education institution, must occur in the confines of the building or playground, within the walls of classrooms, directed by a teacher leader who is confined by a state and national curriculum and who must abide by a common method of managing all students they teach. The students are evaluated more on the teacher’s learning than their own learning.

Teachers are not free to tilt the learning environment to facilitate students self learning. So who suffers? The teacher definitely suffers because they are so limited in what they can do yet that self same institution wants them to “walk on water.” The children suffer because they are being coralled by the system and can only learn what is available to them in that context.

Yet, even on January 1st, 2017 many education professionals like and want these methods. They want others to follow and model these methods for the sake of the school (institution) not the learner.  To make any adjustments to this model, even minute, requires perception, courage, initiative and energy all the while perhaps having to accept the negative backlash from other colleagues and administrators.

I say, “do it anyway,” but begin slowly, strategically. Do not bring a lot of attention to yourself. After all, our students deserve all of the attention! Demonstrate success with the empowered learner model in careful, quiet ways. In the end, the students will be the ones who reveal they are empowered learners!

2 thoughts on “How Do We Empower Learners?

  1. I think it is interesting what we label as “education.” Of course, the NCDPI has its own definition and teachers are required to teach it. What if we let students decide what they want to learn about and then give them the opportunities to do so? I think of the “I-Search” paper that was popular some years ago. I have actually done one myself and have facilitated students doing them. I must say, it was always successful! With all the access to the “world” that we now have via computers, this could be a cool way to let students direct their own experiences. I think that would be very empowering.


    1. Yes, I agree. I have forgot and remembered the “I-Search” paper over my years of teaching. I know that it is a high school, maybe middle school research challenge in my past teaching experiences. Students in my classes conduct research. I am required to teach it, beginning in the first grade. Now, that I teach elementary school, I have a more difficult time figuring out how they should conduct research and the timeline for it since I only see my classes once a week. However, this is a great idea! I will research the “I-Search” paper and modify it for the elementary learner. Thank so much for the reminder. Keep on thinking, reading, writing and learning!


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