Empowering Learners

I’m in the middle of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians conference. The keynote was this morning, and I was nervous. I’m always nervous. But I was especially nervous this morning, because this seems like an especially bookie conference. The address went well, and people were very thankful and hospitable. One person told me that he overheard another library administrator leave the room after the address saying, “I feel like a cave man!” That’s not my goal, and it disturbs me a bit. The talk was not really about technology, but about this time of rapid change. Perhaps you can be my age, hear about rapid change, and not feel like neanderthal.

Another librarian told me a story, which she gave me permission to report here. She manages a high school library, and has for 39 years. Pause! She told me about a project that she had coordinated with a chemistry teacher, where students were required to produce a multimedia presentation on one of the elements, and that they were to convince the rest of the class that their’s was the greatest element — in some way. She told me about one student who was constantly in the principal’s office, constantly missing class, but that during this project he was never sent to the office and did not miss a single day.

She also told me about another student who was completely deaf. She had a sign interpreter who worded with her each day, and she worked very hard on her product. When the day arrived for the presentations to be delivered to the class, her interpreter was out sick, and a substitute was there. The girl was devastated, because she didn’t feel comfortable with the new person. She went to the librarian, not knowing what to do. She didn’t want to mess it up, but she had worked so hard on the presentation that she didn’t want to not do it. The librarian urged her to do the presentation with the substitute, to go for it.

Instead, the girl presented it herself. She spoke it in language that was barely understandable, but did it. The librarian told me that the class paid attention to that presentation more intensely than any of the others, because many had never heard her speak at all. She said that from that point on, the girl started speaking out in class, when she never did before.

Many people talk about how technology is so much more engaging to kids, that it’s why they work harder on projects such as this. This is true, but I think it’s much more fundamental. I think its about power. The purpose of most classrooms is to disempower students. We sentence them to a desk, to a chapter in a text book, to listen to, note, and remember a lecture, to passively receive, accept, and repeat. When students are given access to information and asked to use it as a raw material, and the technology to work the information, they become information artisans — they become empowered learners.

15 thoughts on “Empowering Learners”

  1. I like this story for many reasons, one of them being that I have a deaf niece who has been so marginalised that no-one actually knows what her true capabilities are – least of all the girl herself. She has resigned herself to a half-life that breaks my heart.

    Another reason is that learner empowerment is a subject very dear to my heart. A lot of the time, the teaching methods I observe pay lip service to more up to date notions of learning, but are in reality thinly veneered havens of behaviourism. There is talk of learner empowerment and the learner having a voice, but the moment that learner uses that voice to say something the teacher doesn’t like, there is reversion to the days of yore. Result: mixed messages and cynicism. I’m not proposing anarchy, but in my view learner empowerment must be well thought out and contingency plans must be in place for when things go wrong. I think the principles in my post on organisational change hold true here. http://karynromeis.blogspot.com/2006/10/managing-organisational-change.html

  2. On a lighter note….I attended your keynote address yesterday and I was amused when you flashed up a photo of your son playing an online game on this laptop, with his headset on talking to his team in Ventrilo. I was particularly interested, however, to hear you say that he was learning teamwork, cooperation and compromise and how he researched his game online. I find online gaming to be challenging and fun and a learning experience as well. It is far more interesting to me than the one-sided experience of watching television. I scarcely watch TV any more.

    I of course posted about your positive comments on online gaming in our guild chat. You have some other fans in our guild, heh. One of our members who is a school administrator posted: “WARLICK ROCKS!!!!” Another educator posted about an article in Discover magazine a while back on the positive effect online gaming has on the brain. (Yes, our guild, The Syndicate, skews a bit older than average).

    I find the subject of online gaming to be a facinating topic. If you are interested, Nick Yee’s Daedalus project has some very research on the subject of online gaming.

  3. *putting all the connections together in my mind*…wow…and, of course, the current “learning” environments were adequate for preparing our youth for the vertical world of yesterday…but the flat world of tomorrow needs empowered, independent decision makers who know how to work collaboratively with information…an amazing connection David…:)

  4. I think you’re right on in that too often schools become a place where students learn to conform and to cope. We need to find ways to help students express themselves in positive ways. I think the popularity of MySpace and Xanga and etc. comes from students wanting to express themselves – wish we could harness some of that desire and use it within school.

  5. Dave, I have understood the empowering nature of technology since 1988. At that time I was engaged in one of educations first “internet” chat experiences.. using CompuServe’s EdForum. A fellow named Chuck Lynd and a gal named Georgia Griffin were the co-sysops. As I learned to “chat”, I sought help and was given assistance by both.

    Imagine my surprise when I read an article in TIME Magazine a few weeks later about CompuServe, and saw Georgia’s name printed there. I read it more closely to find that Georgia, who was helping me, was blind AND deaf! She used a VersaBraille writer and her disability was totally transparent to me.

    I knew then that technology had the ability to isolate OR include people, no matter the circumstances. It was a lesson I never forgot.

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