I was reading a blog post by Chris Lehmann about Engagement v. Empowerment. In it, he ponders a question many educators feel deeply: how to teach students what they need to know, while also getting them to want to learn. Is keeping students engaged in learning the issue, or do we become too wrapped up with entertaining or even spoon-feeding students knowledge in an effort to almost (or not-so-almost) bribe them into learning? He deals with the realities that learning is not always fun, and I like his analogy to coaching teams, where there is hard work, monotony sometimes, skill building, and at the end, empowerment.
I know that I spend a lot of time trying to develop lessons that students will like – that will “trick them into learning” by making the learning more fun than it could be. But it occurred to me after reading Lehmann’s post that as hard as we try to make them enjoy learning, if students don’t have any say in what they are doing, they may choose not to learn, no matter how fun we try to make it. It’s still our fun we’re pushing on them. And no matter how hard we try to get in touch with what they want to do, we are still ultimately making the decisions.
How would we as educators respond to an environment like this? I attended a meeting for a school district I used to work for, where we were given lesson plans that we had to teach to meet our curricular goals. After we taught the lessons, we were to perform an evaluation of the lessons so those who created them could improve them. No doubt this initiative was designed to save us time because we are busy people, and the lessons were indeed good and potentially engaging. But the media specialist sitting near me put a voice to that strange uncomfortable feeling welling up in me: “Please don’t tell me that my last bastion of creativity is now being taken away from me – I have my own ways I like to teach these topics – now I can’t even do that?”
Now it is fair to say that as educators, we do have a certain expertise in learning, and we obviously need to be guiding instruction. But perhaps we need to think a little more about student input into assessment. I have been experimenting with giving students objectives ahead of time in a unit, and then leaving it up to them how they show me they have learned the material. We teach them about multiple intelligences, and then we say: by the end of this unit, here’s what you need to have learned – how would you like to demonstrate that you have learned it? Then we use our expertise as educators to help develop the students idea into a workable assessment tool. It takes time, and a loosening of control over outcomes, but I think that it may be both engaging and empowering.