Dyan Branstetter | April 2019

How to Engage and Empower Students

At lunchtime each day, my teaching partners and I typically pop into one another’s rooms to share quips from our morning’s lessons.

Last week, I shared that somehow a highlighter exploded while a student was using it so a few of us spent the day splatter painted fluorescent orange. She came back with a story about while she was teaching an amazing, interactive lesson on equivalent fractions, one of her students was fully sure he was a Tacoma truck and after revving his engines, told her he didn’t have enough gas to participate in the activity. (We teach 8-year-olds, and he was 100% immersed in this alternate reality.)

And then there was the student in our other 3rd-grade class who took the sponge from his science experiment, placed it on his forehead and proceeded to wipe down the classroom floor. With his forehead.

In all honesty, we have stories like these for every single day of the year. And we laugh about them because if we didn’t, we’d cry- the pressure for high test scores is palpable at this time of year. A common phrase my partner says is, “They should be working harder than me, not the other way around!”

This is the truth! We run around trying everything possible to engage our students. And you know what? Sometimes I feel like I could be doing cartwheels while sharing information and students still wouldn’t really hear what I’m saying.

Truly Engaged Students

Sometimes I think I am lucky to have students who are so transparent about their interest learning. While it is a management challenge (and sometimes SO frustrating!), at least I can tell, at a glance, who I’m engaging and who I’m not. I think about my students who are natural rule followers. They know they are supposed to sit and listen during a lesson, and that is very easy to fake when their brain turns off. True engagement is hard to fake.

There are a plethora of resources (see links below) available on Engagement vs. Compliance, probably because it is such an important and powerful idea for educators to be aware of. In fact, George Couros takes it one step further for those of us who have already tackled this idea. He proposes that rather than just engaging students in learning, we need to empower them to take ownership of their learning. What a compelling idea.

What is it?

So what do we mean by Compliance, Engagement, and Empowerment?

Compliance: Compliance is the action of complying with a wish or command. In the classroom, this refers to following teacher directions and rules because the teacher asked students to do so.

Engagement: Engagement is the act of being engaged in something, with synonyms such as involvement, participation, sharing, taking part. In the classroom, I see this as brain engagement- students can be taking part in an activity without actually learning. Brain engagement means that students are participating in learning.

Empowerment: Empowerment is defined as the authority or power given to someone to do something. In a classroom setting, an empowered learner is inspired to learn. Why? Because he or she is curious, they find the content interesting, or because they are working on something they feel strongly about.

Moving from a Compliant Classroom 

Quick answer: It’s has everything to do with student choice, voice, and your instructional approach. Certain research-based teaching approaches are perfect vehicles to engage and empower students. (Fun fact: You don’t need to worry much about compliance because when students are engaged they naturally comply. This means you can spend less time on gimmicky classroom management and more time on true instruction!)

Instructional Approaches that Engage and Empower:
  1. Arts Integration weaved into Project-Based Learning:

In and of itself, Arts Integration increases student engagement. Not only does it allow students to take an active role in their learning, but participating in an art form stimulates both sides of the brain. Creating art (including music, dance, and theater) can also lower cortisol levels, which positively affects mood and behavior in students.

According to ASCD’s publication The Whole Child, when students participate in arts-integrated lessons, they “…are challenged to take what they learn, build a deeper understanding, and then do something with it. When the arts are integrated well, students are involved in making decisions about their learning.”

Combine Arts Integration with Project-Based Learning and the magic really happens. “Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.” (PBLWorks)

We know that students are truly engaged (and even empowered) when they are passionate about a cause or when they have a personal connection to the topic or project. Project-Based Learning fosters this passion because it gives students a chance to work towards answering a driving question. Students learn through the process as they collaborate to finish their task. This results in deep mastery and retention of skills.

To weave in the arts, simply align arts and content standards when designing the task. Merging these approaches maximizes engagement – students reap all the benefits of art integration plus some.

Interested in learning more? Check out EducationCloset’s PBL and the Arts Bundle for four online learning experience that will lead you from lesson design and delivery, classroom management, assessment, and current best practices.

  1. STEAM and Inquiry-Based Instruction:

Inquiry-based instruction is a way that teachers can facilitate learning to help retention. It is an approach of student-centered learning where the teacher (or students) pose questions for students to investigate as opposed to the teacher sharing the information directly with students. This approach applies to all subjects, but it is the crux of a STEM or STEAM project.

While STEAM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics, it is really the inquiry-based and design process that defines it. Students are engaged through inquiry and are actively involved in discovering or creating in response to the question posed, iterating as needed until the result is successful. This STEAM approach (and mindset) allows students to work through the 4Cs, and it is impossible to avoid engagement. If the STEAM project is designed with an authentic question, it can quickly shift to student empowerment.

As Katie Martin said in her book Learner-Centered Innovation, “When we tell kids to complete an assignment, we get compliance. When we empower learners to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire problem solvers and innovators”. Let’s make a conscious decision to shift our instruction and move our learners from compliance to empowerment. Let’s use educational approaches that foster skills we hope our future leaders will possess.

Online Resources:

EdWeek: Student Engagement: Is it authentic or compliant?

ASCD Chart on the Engaged or Compliant Learner

Mindshift Article: How to Ensure Students are Actively Engaged and Not Just Compliant

George Couros’ Blog: Compliant, Engaged, Empowered

John Spencer: Making the Shift from Engagement to Empowerment

Science Daily: At any skill level, making art reduces stress hormones

About the Author

Dyan is a third grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.