Today’s 21st century learners feel less visible, undervalued, and a lack of control in their learning. Consequently, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened these feelings with added unpredictability and uncertainty. A student-centered learning environment is key to growing autonomy and value in their education to combat what students are going through. In other words, creating a student-centered learning environment starts with empowered students.
What is Student Empowerment?
Student empowerment is more than just engagement. That is to say, it requires students to become active participants and agents in their own learning. Students who gain agency can make conscious decisions to implement change and growth in their learning – this is key to empowerment. And only once students feel a sense of agency in their learning can they begin to engage in self-centered learning.
To achieve this sense of agency, learning activities must be made relevant and meaningful to each student, ideally driven by their own interests. Meanwhile, it involves guidance, trust, and course-correction from teachers. Students then acquire the voice and choice to personalize their own learning, increasing interest and motivation.
Therefore, student empowerment cannot exist without agency and both are necessary ingredients for student-centered learning.
How might educators create and foster a student-centered learning environment that’s built on student empowerment?
Areas that Increase Student Empowerment
Today, students must be prepared for a change, starting in the classroom. Here are three areas that can increase student empowerment over time:
Flexible Learning Systems
Educators, including school administrators and school districts, can create flexible and adjustable systems to accommodate students’ diverse learning needs and interests. Systems can offer flexibility in the pace, place, mode of learning, and resources. Teachers can co-create learning goals with students to provide guidance. Gradually, students receive more autonomy to decide how they’d like to reach learning goals.
In the classroom, a practical first step to implement a flexible system can start by including choice in assignments. Overtime, this could mean inspiring possibilities and having students generate their own assignment ideas.
Metacognition means thinking about one’s thinking. Getting students to think about their thinking increases student empowerment. Moreover, when students see the value in what they’re learning and have a sense of control, they become more invested and motivated. Students who see learning as an on-going and iterative process can develop skills to recognize what changes and plans they need to make to achieve their learning goals.
As you know, learning doesn’t happen in isolation. The learning community to which a student belongs can help develop metacognition. Strategies like accountable talk prompts with peers encourage students to think about their learning, beyond the surface level. By posting accountable talk prompts around the classroom and modeling them in discussions, teachers will get students comfortable with this new way of thinking aloud.
Lastly, self-centered planning and learning fosters what is often referred to as a “growth mindset”. What exactly is a growth mindset? It is an individual’s belief that skills and knowledge are not static. According to a study conducted by Stanford, Yale, and Columbia psychologists, student effort can increase by 40% with one simple feedback comment from a teacher, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
Teachers should work with students to help them plan and manage their work with formative assessments as they go through the process. This gives students a blueprint to direct their own learning over time. Through a gradual release approach, teachers can then give students opportunities to set their own personal learning goals in addition to class learning goals.
Steps to Foster Self-Centered Learning Today
When students are not able to participate in self-centered learning, they often become disengaged. Disengaged students feel less visible in their learning space. Students can no longer succeed in today’s rapidly-changing, digital workforce as passive learners.
Two key actions that will build a foundation for self-centered learning include:
Firstly, teachers can provide students with directions and learning goals, while allowing students to direct part of their own learning. Not only will students practise directing their learning, but they can display their learning in a way that works best for them. A good example would be having students create test questions, putting them together on a form to co-create assessments together. This will reduce disempowerment and apathy over time.
Embracing failure is an inevitable part of learning and doing so further reinforces the growth mindset. In addition, acknowledging failure can include providing real-life examples of failure of someone students look up to, such as an inventor, athlete, or politician.
Strategies and resources should not only empower students, but also teach and empower educators to seek out their own style of teaching and continually learn what students want and need to be successful.
If you want students to become lifelong learners who remain curious, yet critical, start with the two key actions above. Educators can avoid micromanagement and embrace failure in small day-to-day interactions. Most importantly, these interactions cause a ripple effect, which touch on the areas that increase student empowerment.
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