Engagement v. Empowerment — continuing thoughts (part 1)

Go Ahead, by Xavier Donat ((Donat, Xavier. “Go Ahead.” Flickr. 10 May 2009. Web. 8 Jan 2010. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/xav/3519476035/>.))

I’m with Chris Lehmann concerning his sense of discomfort over our recent near obsession with “engagement.”  He says, in a December 27 blog post (Engagement v. Empowerment…) that

“..first and perhaps most disconcerting, is that engagement too often got translated to ‘fun.'”

I agree with Chris that we’re going to lose that battle — and it’s the wrong battle.  We have invaded childhood enough already, and venerating their hyper-connected, hyper-transparent culture as something we need to replicate in our classrooms results in a creepy tree house effect — which just makes us look foolish.

We want our children to learn and we tend to believe that if we see more engagement in them, then we will see more effective and perhaps more relevant learning.  This is possibly true, though I can’t help but feel that the formula that ignites these results is far more complex.  I pulled up the little dictionary app from my dock and read through the definitions of engage in its various forms, and nothing magical jumped out at me.  In fact, most of the definitions seemed to treat the word from the observers’ point of view — we see another person occupied, unavailable, attracted, involved, employed, or having agreed to marry.

Engagement is the learner acting to learning.

Empowerment feels better to Chris, as it does to me.  I see us contributing more to the actions of learning when we empower learners than when we engage them.  It seems easier to facilitate as well.  Lehmann says,

..that in the end, (empowerment) is the word — the idea — that sets us up for a more student-centered classroom because it is about what the students get from the experience once the class is done, not what happens during the class.

What my mind’s eye sees, when I think of empowered learners is that “..it is about what the students are able to do to get (some gain) from the experience once the class is done.”  If students are empowered, as learners, to accomplish learning goals, instead of its being done to them, then fun simply stops being a factor.  Chris writes about the empowering coach who is going to put the team through un-fun and sometimes grueling drills so that they will play their best basketball.  The drill for skills and endurance is work and it feels like work — and, “It’s o.k.” says Lehmann.

..we have to understand that school is work… but that it can be meaningful, powerful, empowering (and even engaging) work.

But my notice that the definitions of engage seemed to be from the observer’s perspective applies here.  The learning experience needs to be meaningful, powerful, and empowering to the learner.  It is not something we should try to see or do, but something the learner should feel.  It’s what fuels the work that enriches the learner in some self-realizing way.

I’m incredibly engaged by my work.  I’m incredibly lucky, that way (see “U.S. Job Satisfaction at Lowest Level in Two Decades“).  And much of my work is fun, though that’s not important.  Fun can’t really be measured or handed out. What engages me is success, and what enables that success is empowerment (appropriate resources & tools), and what is fun is when my imagination is empowered to make success more certain and more interesting.  ..but that’s me.

I just did a Twitter search for “fun” and before I’d read the first two tweets, that little yellow refresh notifier popped up, telling me that there were 63 more tweets with “fun,” then 132, then 349.  Maybe we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of fun.

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Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.