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Empowerment Starts With Us


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Empowerment Starts With Us

Dr. Barbara McKeon

In this world where only numbers seem to count we have lost the ability to empower those students for whom test scores do not tell the whole story. When we measure only right and wrong answers we have implicitly told students that their individual talents are not worthy of measurement.  I am wondering what ever happened to strengths-based instruction?  What happened to the progressive tenets espoused by Dewey in the early 1900’s of the importance of student centered learning?  Where in today’s educational reform is Maslow’s Hierarchy from the mid 1900’s designed to help educators understand human motivation and performance? Why are we so focused on the right answer that we forget about levels of learning like those found in Bloom’s work from 1956?  Have we become homogenized to the point that Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences of the 90’s are no longer relevant?  Why is it those 100 years of research and reform leave us nowhere other than the score on a test as a measure of achievement?  

In a recent Huffington Post blog, President of Math for America, John Ewing states:  “Policy makers honed the new definition of achievement with good intentions—to weed out weak teachers, to close failing schools, to foster only reform that worked, and generally to make education accountable. They saw data from tests as a potent weapon to accomplish these things. But that redefinition has had unintended consequences”.  I see these unintended consequences as disempowering students to maximize their potential.  I see these consequences each day when student strengths are devalued, when arts are eliminated, when sports are considered ‘after school activities’, when winning is based not on what you can do but what on what you can’t do.  What would happen I wonder if we looked more at what one can do as a measure of personal growth?  What would happen if we adopted what Carol Dweck calls ‘growth mindset’ and believed that all students are capable? What would happen if we empowered our students to develop their own goals and assess their own progress towards them? We need to support students as believers in their abilities. We owe those students who struggle, who do not fit the test score=achievement movement, a new lens from which to measure success.  We are not a one-size all society, why are we promoting a one-size fits all educational environment? 

It is a challenge for our dedicated educators, whose success is also often measured on these same scores, to create an instructional environment that empowers students to take risks in their own learning.  To do so takes resilience and relationships. There are numerous studies that show the impact of positive adult relationships on measures of attendance, graduation and grades.  Too often, particularly as students enter middle and high school primary relationships disappear.  There are capable students with individual strengths in our classrooms that come to school with life barriers that need to be addressed before the teaching-learning process is successful.  There are capable students with individual strengths in our school who are at different developmental levels and we must meet each of them at their respective starting points.  There are capable students with individual strengths in our classrooms who bring a fixed mindset of failure because their strengths don’t count. Capable students are dropping out because there is no primary person to support them in their struggle to succeed and they do not feel empowered to do so.  Our job is to find those students, build relational trust with them, empower them to grow as individuals not as numbers and turn those strengths into successes.  That takes resilience.