Every teacher I engage with offers a sincere smile when I talk with them about student empowerment. Every teacher I encounter wants students to have the autonomy to make choices and take control of their own learning.
This idea, however, loses its luster when we all begin thinking about the practices required to make this happen and the fear of students not making the right choices for their own learning. Is there a way for students to take responsibility for learning and make sure that they learn at high levels? If so, what do I do?
Research on power dynamics in a classroom can be confusing for practitioners. Professor John Hattie's groundbreaking work, Visible Learning, examines more than 800 meta-analyses on student achievement, and on one hand, the research shows that student autonomy is highly motivating and can lead to increased student achievement. However, other research within the same synthesis of meta-analyses shows that student control over their own learning leads to a negligible increase in overall learning. What seems to be the major conflict?
Autonomy, it seems, does not wield long-lasting success if it’s not centered on clear goals and demarcated by accountability and support. As columnist David Brooks shares, “Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in; it is a river you want to cross so that you can plant yourself on the other side.” Student autonomy requires a river to cross—clear and challenging goals, high levels of support, and a means to check on progress over time.
As such, the main crux for students to engage in empowerment and increasing academic achievement has to do with how teachers and students work together to share power and take collective ownership over the work rather than relying on a power differential in which one group possesses all or the majority of power in the classroom. The key is to focus on the “we do” of learning—students and teachers working together.
Such shared power is critical when the river to cross is challenging.
Shared Power and High Rigor
Students are unlikely to be successful in a shared power situation if they are not expected to accomplish challenging goals. Hattie's research has shown that deep learning is primarily driven by strategies that require student discourse, high levels of evaluation and reflection, and peer-to-peer feedback. In this way, shared power and high levels of rigor go hand in hand. We, therefore, need a “we do” culture and complex work.
One way to start this work is to redefine our concept of power and rigor; assess our current level of rigor in our schools; and then invest time, energy, and effort toward habits of practice that promote learning.
Step 1: Redefine rigor. Start by creating a shared definition of rigor with all stakeholders. For example, one school might share that rigor is the following:
- Adaptability and situational skills: Actions that are linked to dispositions, tools, and strategies that enable students to engage within each level of complexity.
- Balanced learning complexity: The equal intensity and integration of surface, deep, and transfer learning.
- Creating a culture of belonging: Students and teachers work in partnership to learn and teach together in the pursuit of growth in learning.
Next, provide tangible examples of rigor by showing student work, illustrating teaching strategies that are demonstrating deep-to-transfer learning, and discuss the research on the levels of learning. Allay fears of surface learning by acknowledging that it is important, we know how to teach it, students know how to learn it, and we need to spend time on deep-to-transfer learning. Keep the conversation focused on the ABCs of rigor.
Step 2: Assess the ABCs. Determine the knowledge and skill level of staff on teaching deep-to-transfer learning, the proportion of deep and transfer requirements in curriculum, assessment and instruction of learning relative to surface knowledge and skill, and the degree to which power is shared in the class. Some of the best ways to capture this data are through easy-to-access data points such as classroom observations and teacher and staff interviews and surveys.
Step 3: Build habits of rigor. Start with changing practice first. Provide staff professional learning opportunities in engaging in rigorous learning and sharing power in the classroom. Ensure that you and the facilitators model the exact practices of rigorous learning and shared power. There is a good chance that the people needing to run this work with your team are already within your staff.
Step 4: Participate in empathy-based modeling. While modeling specific practices for teachers is immensely helpful in supporting new practices, teachers greatly benefit from going through experiential opportunities that mimic those exact practices in which students will be required to engage in the classroom. For example, if students are going to share their writing with each other and give and receive feedback, then teachers write their own pieces of work and give each other feedback.
Through this process they can unpack the emotions they carried in that activity along with the specific writing and feedback strategies they used. When teachers go through the lived experience of the activity, there’s a better chance that they will see through the eyes of students when they are working in their own classrooms.
The aforementioned steps are a part of a recalibration of the gradual release of responsibility of learning to a shared responsibility of student learning between teachers and students. This approach not only builds students’ ability to be independent but also illustrates a strong value and appreciation for interdependence of learning, the necessity of shared power to engage in rigorous tasks, and the importance of building a community of learners that values and respects one another.