#130 – The Power of Empowering Students, Part I, with Dr. John Spencer

Unpacking Education November 9, 2022 34 min

“When people would say, ‘We need to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet,’ I kept thinking, ‘Well if we don’t know what those jobs are . . . maybe the best way to prepare students for the future is to empower them in the present.’”

These words from Dr. John Spencer, our guest for this episode, nicely frame our conversation around student empowerment. In the first part of this two-part conversation, we dive into the topic of empowerment by breaking down the book he cowrote with A.J. Juliani, Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. We explore strategies for helping students develop the key skills that they will need to be successful today as well as be adaptable in the future.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Our job as teachers is not to prepare kids for something; our job is to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything.

A.J. Juliani, coauthor of Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning

From Compliance to Engagement to Empowerment

The book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning is largely framed around shifting students from a compliance-based experience in school to one where they are not only engaged but also empowered. “All three of those things matter within a subject area,” notes our guest, and the co-author of this book, Dr. John Spencer. He explains that while we may spend some classroom time where we implement compliance and engagement-based approaches, we need to consistently get our students to the empowerment level.

Dr. Spencer says, “The students who struggle to make it through university are often the ones who aren’t struggling for academic reasons.” Rather, he adds, they often lack skills in being self-directed, self-starting, and self-managing. These are skills that students learn when they are empowered in the learning process. Tune in to our conversation to learn ways that you can empower students in your classroom and help them develop these critical lifelong skills. Here are a few highlights from this episode:

  • About Our Guest: Dr. John Spencer is a former middle school teacher and current college professor. He began his teaching career at a Title I school in Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked with many first-generation high school graduates and college students—many of whom were learning to speak English. He describes the positive impact these students had on him, saying, “I was just constantly blown away by their adaptability, their resiliency.”
  • Compliance to Engagement to Empowerment: Compliance is doing what you have to do with little choice in the matter. Engagement is doing the work because you want to do it and because it’s interesting. Empowerment goes even further and requires more complete buy-in and ownership from the student as well as significant agency throughout the learning process.
  • Empowerment: To determine if students are becoming empowered, Dr. Spencer says we should go beyond our content and academic standards and ask deeper questions about the learning experience that we are planning: “Are they [students] going to be self-starters, are they going to be self-managers, and will they develop all those critical skills?”
  • Skills for the Future: Empowered students are set up for success in the future. Dr. Spencer explains his thinking on this in the context of success in college: “The students who struggle to make it through university are often the ones who aren’t struggling for academic reasons. They’re not self-directed. They’re not self-starters. They’re not self-managers. They sometimes struggle with key critical skills, like metacognition, problem-solving, time management—all of those things that I would argue are much harder to learn than linear equations or binomial nomenclature. Those are really hard to develop. So I would say when they get to that place of empowerment, they will have those critical skills, and they’ll be able to be self-directed as learners.”
  • Teaching Above the Test: John points out that tests are a low bar and not very engaging for students. He says, “When they’re truly empowered to own their learning, teaching above the test means going deeper into the content—having more critical thinking, having more creativity in what they’re doing—so that they learn it at a deeper level.” In fact, Dr. Spencer’s personal experience has shown him that students who are empowered and engaged in more complex projects and problem-solving activities actually do better on tests. He explains one reason why he believes this happens: “When there’s true student ownership in the process, it provides more opportunities for that rehearsal and recall, so the learning actually moves into long-term memory.”
  • A Key Question: We should begin our planning with this question: “What are we doing for our students that they could be doing for themselves?”
  • A Gradual Release: Since students are not all practiced in owning their learning, it’s important that we help them develop the skills they will need to be successful in empowered learning environments. This involves scaffolding the release of responsibility in stages. Instead of giving them full control and choice from the start, gradually release more of the decision-making to them as they become more skilled in making decisions. This will help them build skills and confidence, which will lead to successful and positive learning experiences.
  • From Interesting Subjects to Student Interests: To develop lifelong learners with a prolonged passion for learning, we need to help students develop their own interests. Dr. Spencer says it’s important to shift “toward that place of letting them pursue their interests.” To do this, we must regularly allow students to explore their interest areas and topics of their own choice.
  • Student Choice: Dr. Spencer says, “The choice is the heartbeat, in terms of that’s the building block of building that self-direction. When you have that choice, you have more buy-in. You’re going to be more of a self-starter. You’re going to be more excited about what you’re doing. You’re also going to continue and grow more resilient when it gets tough.”
  • Student Voice: He adds, “The voice part is that identity part. It’s that notion of, ‘I’m going to express a part of who I am.’ That piece is, I think, critical in terms of what do students want to say to their world. What do they want to express about who they are—about their ideas, and their beliefs, and their identity. When those two things are together, I really think it’s the heart of deeper learning.”
  • From Choice to Possibility: “Choice really is about giving options,” says Dr. Spencer. “You give people choices, and that’s a really great starting place. But possibilities are broader than that. It’s opening up new opportunities that never existed before. It’s innovation. It’s creativity. . . . Going beyond choices into that realm of opportunities means empowering students to sort of forge their own path.”
  • The Power of Being a Guide: “Your influence as a guide is more significant than when you’re just the teacher up at the front. The mentoring element—the relational element—is actually really powerful, and you don’t lose a part of your identity as a teacher. You actually become more of who you are and why you want to be there.”
  • Productive Struggle: While it’s hard to watch our students struggle, we need to allow them that experience. We can’t be too quick to jump in and rescue them from struggle, or they will not develop the grit needed to persevere through challenges in the future.
  • Developing a Mindset: It’s not enough for students to develop skills. They must make it a habit to use these skills purposefully. This means developing a mindset of thinking critically and creatively. Dr. Spencer talks about developing critical consumption of information as a foundational skill area. He says, “I think critical consuming is necessary for creativity. When you’re a critical consumer, it inspires creative thinking. It inspires problem-solving.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • In what ways are compliance, engagement, and empowerment all important parts of the learning experience?
  • How do you define student empowerment?
  • What skills do students need to be successful in their future lives beyond school?
  • How can you teach above the test?
  • What are you doing for your students that they could be doing for themselves?
  • What is an example of gradual release of responsibility that you can implement in your classroom?
  • How can you facilitate a shift from making subjects interesting to developing student interests?
  • How can you provide student choice?
  • How can you empower student voice?
  • How can you shift from providing choice to opening students up to discovering possibilities?
  • Why is productive struggle important to developing empowered learners?
  • How can you create an environment where productive struggle is allowed, encouraged, and supported?

Extend Your Learning