Empowering Learners and Teachers
- "With great power comes great responsibility." (Stan Lee: Uncle Ben, talking to Peter Parker in Spiderman movie.)
People setting educational goals find it easy to include “Empowering students” or "Enabling students." However, they find it hard to agree on what these lofty phrases mean or how to accomplish them. (They may also discover that they want these goals to apply only when it’s not inconvenient for those in charge.)
Many of the examples in this document are oriented toward math education. However, the general ideas cut across all disciplines.
Empowering and enabling, though closely related, have somewhat different meanings. Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation states:
Empower em·pow·er vt 1. to give somebody power or authority (often passive) 2. to give somebody a sense of confidence or self-esteem
Synonyms: authorize, allow, sanction
Enable en·a·ble vt 1. to provide somebody with the resources, authority, or opportunity to do something 2. to make something possible or feasible
Synonyms: allow, facilitate, permit, make possible
This document may serve as a platform for people to share ideas on how our informal and formal education systems can and should empower and enable students and their teachers. Two key student-oriented questions immediately come to mind:
1. What various powers and opportunities do we want to make available to students?
2. How should responsibilities change as students realize and accept their growing powers and opportunities?
This document also discusses empowering and enabling teachers, and the same two questions apply. Many K-12 teachers feel that the increasing emphasis on assessment and high-stakes testing is driving curriculum and instruction in a manner that disempowers teachers and decreases their opportunities to make curriculum content, instruction, and assessment decisions best suited for their particular students.
Roles of Empowering and Enabling in Developing Expertise
In terms of how I (David Moursund) think about informal and formal education, “empowering and enabling” people means giving
- permission or encouragement,
- assistance such as instruction,
- appropriate other resources such as tools
so that the person can gain in expertise and can use the increased expertise. Such increasing personal expertise normally leads to increased, valid self-esteem.
Who decides on what areas of expertise are to be developed? In a rigid top-down system, these decisions are made at levels above the teacher. In some sense, many schools are factory-like environments in which teachers are expected to teach a prescribed curriculum and students are expected to learn the prescribed curriculum. The teachers are the machinery and the students are the products.
Permission to gain and use expertise are key issues. As a lifelong student, I find it useful to think in terms of ideas such as:
- I give (or, fail to give) myself permission to develop more expertise in an area. I may withhold this self-permission if I think that this will be in agreement with what my parents or some other adults want. Alternatively, I may give myself permission and be strongly intrinsically motivated to gain expertise in areas that go against the wishes of my parents or other people.
- My parents and/or other caregivers give (or, fail to give) me permission to develop more expertise in an area. Their decisions on giving or withholding permission may not be in tune with my interests and natural abilities.
- The cultural environment that surrounds me gives (or, fails to give) me permission to develop more expertise in an area.
- Our legal system and government give (or, fails to give) me permission to develop more expertise in an area.
In the above list, expertise is a concept applicable to every area of learning ad skill building. An area of expertise can be very narrow, perhaps even a small island of expertise, and is certainly not restricted to standard academic subjects.
Suppose that I have a younger sibling I like to tease. With appropriate practice, feedback from my sibling, and perhaps feedback from others, I’ll probably become much “better” at such teasing. That is, my level of "teasing younger sibling" increases.
Somewhat similarly, many children tend to be self-centered, paying little attention to others’ needs and wants. (All children go through a phase of being egocentric.) Perhaps you have experienced their disruptive behavior. Through practice, such children can gain in expertise in their self-centered disruptive behavior. Good parenting skills that include denial of permission and instruction in more appropriate behavior can channel the child's expertise-building abilities in other directions. Parents can begin to apply these skills as soon as a baby is able to associate cause with effect (consequences).
Permission or its denial is often subtle. Libraries in the elementary and secondary schools seldom contain sexually explicit magazines. Indeed, strong efforts usually are made to ensure that the available library materials are "appropriate" according to "standards" generally agreeable to the community and, often, to any vocal faction thereof.
The Web broadens this "library problem" since it makes a huge library available to anyone who ca connect to the Internet.
For me, what comes out of such examples is that the permission aspect of empowerment needs to be well reasoned, and given with wisdom and foresight. One of the responsibilities of parenthood is to give or withhold permission based on having a greater breadth and depth of experience, knowledge, wisdom, and foresight than does a child. The same responsibilities apply to schoolteachers and our overall formal educational system.
A Great Video Showing Empowerment Through Education
I highly recommend you spend 18 minutes with the video http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/156, a moving story of a person trying to improve the educational system in Ghana. It talks about leadership and empowerment in a way that is powerful, moving, and thought provoking. It presents a picture of education to substantially improve a country and a continent.
The Website has this description:
- Patrick Awuah left a comfortable life in Seattle to return to Ghana and co-found, against the odds, a liberal arts college. Why? Because he believes that Ghana's failures in leadership—and he gives several mind-boggling examples—stem from a university system that fails to train real leaders. In a talk that brought the  TEDGlobal audience enthusiastically to their feet, he explains how a true liberal arts education—steeped in critical thinking, idealism, and public service—can produce the quick-thinking, ethical leaders needed to move his country forward.
Empower and Enable for Now and in the Future
Think about the idea of empowerment and enablement for immediate use and for use in the future. This relates to immediate gratification versus delayed gratification. It relates to the often-stated goal that education should prepare students for gainful employment. It relates to requiring or strongly encouraging students to take courses that prepare them for certain courses they might take in the future, or that prepare them to go to college or vocational institutions.
As very young children gain in cognitive maturity, they begin to understand that there is a tomorrow, and they begin to understand that their actions in the past and today will affect them tomorrow. This also relates to the idea that actions have consequences and to develop a habit of thinking about possible consequences of contemplated actions. Almost all children have some difficulty in learning about such causality and about taking responsibility for their own actions (unless the consequences are immediate); some children have considerable difficulty. Research in cognitive neuroscience is increasing our understanding of impulse control and why some children are naturally much better at it than others.
We try to educate students to consider the possible effects of an action they are considering. We know that often, for the immature, to think is to do (that is, immediate action occurs as soon as one has a thought about doing that action). Couple this with some of the effects of one's actions not being seen until far in the subjective future, and you see the challenge.
- As an aside, consider large issues such as global warming, extinction of various species, and poverty. Dealing maturely with such problems requires very large numbers of people to learn to take responsibility for their collective actions related to the issue. We need leaders who will facilitate this group effort. This type of analysis relates to considering the use ad misuse of the commons.
For me, this line of thinking leads to a need for a strong informal and formal educational track that helps students think in terms of cause and effect, along with short-term and longer-term consequences of currently planned or taken actions. Parents struggle with this with their children, because it is really hard for a young child to think about possible consequences of actions and to make decisions that will lead to desirable longer-term consequences—and this assumes the parents have developed these skills.
- As an aside, it is clear to me that many adults have considerable difficulty in thinking about the longer-term effects of their actions. A good example is making purchases using high interest rate credit cards and building up large credit card debts in the process. Indeed, our national leaders display a similar lack of restraint as they often pass spending bills that lead to increases in the National Debt.
Schools and students in school struggle with this because much of formal education focuses on consequences that, from a student’s point of view, are "far over the horizon." The consequences are so far into the future, that they have little or no meaning to the student. This is true for much of math beyond arithmetic, for history, for much of the sciences, and for almost any subject that a student doesn’t happen to be inherently and immediately interested in.
This struggle is built into the nature of schools. In large part, schools exist to teach people that which they need, or will need, but which they will not learn during the routines of their lives outside of school. That is, school education tends to be future oriented.
Note, however, that schools have a hard time adjusting to a rapidly changing future. We especially see this in areas such as the computer field and other rapidly changing technologies
Immediate and Delayed Feedback
Learning requires feedback. The feedback can come from oneself. I am hungry and as I wander through the woods, doing my “hunter-gatherer” thing, I see some berries that are visually appealing. I cautiously taste and eat one. My taste system immediately rejects the berry. I gag, and I feel ill. In this one trial learning event I learn to never eat this type of berry again.
Suppose, however, the berry tastes good and my stomach does not reject it. I eat quite a few, and then continue with my hunting and gathering. I eat a variety of other roots, fruits, and so on. Later in the day I grow ill, throw up, and nearly pass out. The cause or causes may be quite complex. For example, two of the things that I ate may have chemically reacted with each other and produced a poison.
A person’s brain and body is well equipped to deal with immediate feedback situations. It is not so well equipped to deal with delayed feedback situations. The cause and effect is often not clear.
Moreover, one may well get immediate gratification (that is, positive reinforcement), and only much later be faced with long term consequences. This happens, for example, when one buys using a credit card, has the immediate gratification of owning and using the goods, and only much later faces the consequences of needing to pay for them.
Our informal and formal educational system faces the challenge of students encountering more and more immediate gratification situations. There has been a substantial increase in immediate gratification through computer games, television, cell telephones, and so on. The same situation exists for adults. A great many adults have trouble resisting the immediate gratification of the various forms of entertainment, food, and buying goods.
Thus, our informal and formal educational systems are faced by the challenge of helping students of all ages gain the maturity, knowledge, and skills to effectively deal the issues of immediate gratification and long-term consequences. Gaining in impulse control as a critical component of learning to be a responsible adult.
Applications of Ideas Given Above
This section looks at several educationally-oriented examples based on immediate ad delayed gratification, and empowerment of students and their teachers.
Example: Reading and Math Education
In this example, let's assume that a child is growing up in a setting where the responsible adult caregivers are reasonably proficient in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Thus, the child "sees" the adults making routine use such knowledge and skills. The adults read to the child, and this lap sitting, being read to, and interaction with the adult and the book are pleasurable.
Notice the child's immediate gratification, and that the child has no insight into how this repeated experience contributes to future learning of reading and writing. The adult reader makes a conscious decision that may well include giving up some current gratification (the adult could spent the time doing other things or could be reading the book for the fourteenth time) in order to increase long-term bonding with the child, provide gratification to the child, and contribute to the child's current and future education.
We know that this reading is an important part of a young child's education and that it helps build a foundation for future learning. It may well help the child become intrinsically motivated to want to learn to read.
- This is an aside. This example muddled my thoughts on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. The extrinsic encouragement of the parents may well lead to intrinsic motivation of the child. Reflecting on this, I concluded that almost all intrinsic motivation is latent; that is, one cannot develop intrinsic motivation for something until one has experienced that something. Green Eggs and Ham furnishes an example.
Thus, the child may want to learn do reading-types of things even before getting to school, may thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to learn to read, and may become a proficient reader. All of this can occur with the child having little or no insight into how good reading skills will be useful throughout years to come.
Learning to read has another feature that helps in the learning process. As children learn to read, they are empowered to read self-selected materials on topics and/or in areas they find intrinsically motivating. This is a huge step forward in informal education and in formal education that provides the learner with electives. Learning a sport or a complex game entails a similar process. As expertise grows, learners get feedback from themselves and from others about their behaviors and progress.
Now, think about self-selection regarding arithmetic (math). Children see and hear the adults and older children telling time and acting on the results, dealing with money, reading a calendar, and so on. Children are taught to count (say the number words) and to establish a one to one correspondence between the number words and items in a set of objects. Counting likely is tied in with sitting on an adult's lap, being read to, and receiving direct instruction on counting various objects in pictures. If the adults have good parenting skills, children receive immediate positive feedback for every counting effort.
Thus, I see a strong link between the reading and oral aspects of counting and simple arithmetic that occur in the home environment and children's motivation to continue to learn more about reading and math during the first years of schooling.
However, let's look at telling and understanding time, and calendaring. This is another piece of the math example. Time of day, day of week, day of month, month, and year are complex and challenging ideas, objectively and socially. (If you doubt this, consider the problem of writing a program or spreadsheet formula to display how old one is given the date and time of birth and the current date and time.) Teaching occurs both informally and formally at home and at school. We know that the importance of time, time telling, being punctual, and so on varies considerably among cultures. (For one discussion of this, see http://parkinslot.blogspot.com/2004/02/culture-and-punctuality.html.)
A culture in which most workers punch time clocks will consider it important to teach students about time measurement, paying attention to the time, and taking responsibility for such actions as being on time (or failing to be on time) for work or school. Thus, we can think of helping a student learn about time as empowering the student.
As teachers, we sense the immediate and long-term benefits to our students from what they do under our supervision. However, young students see and understand these benefits—and many do not until they realize that entrance into the world of work is impending. Thus, we have an example of a conflict between adults deciding what will empower students, and students understanding that they are being empowered and having extrinsic motivation to gain increased expertise in the area. By definition, motivation is seldom a problem if there’s intrinsic motivation; there may be a problem with balancing time spent learning in one area with time needed for other activities.
Roughly speaking, children tend to enjoy school math up through the third grade. For many students, there is a significant decline in interest, perceived value, intrinsic motivation, and so on starting at about the fourth grade. It is then when the curriculum moves beyond whole-number and decimal addition and subtraction, identification of fractions, direct measurement, sorting, and recognition of geometric shapes. While adults believe that it is very important to teach this "higher" math (fourth grade and higher) and believe that this empowers students, many students do not agree. They do not see immediate benefits. Indeed, many experience boredom, or failure, or achieve “success” only by following the “recipe” without comprehension. (This lack of foresight is not to be wondered at. In life apart from some technical work, how often does one use math beyond the third-grade level?)
One can analyze any school curriculum content and curriculum strand from the point of view of empowering students. This analysis can examine who is making the decision as to whether the student is being empowered. One can examine possible negative consequences of an adult-set goal of empowering students that results in many students being disempowered.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) adds questions to discussions about empowerment and enabling during education. When we provide ICT tools to students and teach their uses, what is being gained and what is being lost? Is the student being appropriately empowered in both the short and long run?
The digital watch is a commonplace ICT object. A young person can learn to “read” a digital watch, to recognize and say the numbers and words representing time of day, day of the week, day of the month, and so on. However, this data may have no meaning to the student.
Contrast this with a child learning to read an analog watch or clock, and learning to read a calendar. An analog watch is like many other analog measuring instruments in that one can "see" the amount of time remaining before an event (such as lunch) occurs. A physical calendar is an analog-type display device. One can see the days laid out as days of a week and days of a month. One can readily count the number of days before the next Saturday arrives. The analog watch and calendar are more visually in tune with the way most people's minds work, as contrasted with digital equivalents; and they display information in context.
The following was contributed 5/5/2008 by Laura Dunkin (EDT630)
Reading comprehension can be introduced at a very young age. When parents read to their children, it creates a positive bond between them. This bond can be nourished by continuing the routine. Eventually, parents can ask questions about the stories being read. Or, ask the child to tell the story in his or her own words. These routines are the beginning of the wonderful world of reading.
Teachers also have an enormous role to play when it comes to teaching reading comprehension. Comprehension is the ultimate reason for reading. It is an imperative part of the learning process. Unless comprehension is fully achieved, a student’s experience with a text is not complete. It is a meaning-making process that cannot occur unless a student’s individual style of learning is met. The teacher should implement several different comprehension strategies in order to ensure that each student grasps the meaning of the story at hand. The teacher needs to teach and utilize the strategies in such a manner that the students are aware of and constantly monitor their own thinking processes as they read. Teachers need to be aware of the methods they use when instructing students on comprehension. They need to fully understand the strategies that they are presenting and use them in their own reading and learning activities. They need to constantly model, discuss, and participate in the implementation of comprehension strategies.
Many instructors are unaware of the importance of finding different strategies to use when teaching comprehension. It is important that a teacher observe and interact with his or her students in order to research and find the most effective comprehension strategies to use. Each student has an individual learning style, and therefore, each student must be equipped with the knowledge to determine what he or she needs as a reader. A reader should be able to discuss and defend characters and plots to gain full meaning of a text. The simple act of recalling a story does not give a proper example of comprehension.
When students comprehend text, learning has taken place. Then, after they understand what the author is conveying, students might realize that they enjoy learning about a specific topic. When students become interested in something teachers need to encourage them to read more books pertaining to that subject. This helps to create a firm foundation for the love of reading.
Empowering Students to Help Make Classroom Rules
This section is specifically directed at classroom teachers. Soon after first contact with a class, you—like most classroom teachers—probably state and explain the rules that students are to follow. You have developed these rules through years of experience or have perhaps secured a list from a more experienced teacher.
A different approach is to make use of a set of rules and ways of implementing the rules that have been developed by researchers in the field. Many schools located throughout the country have adopted such effective behavioral support tools and methods.
There are other alternatives. An example is provided by the approach used by Kathie Marshall. Quoting from her article in September 2007 Teacher Magazine:
- [I say to my class:] Welcome to a new school year, students. It is my goal that each of you will be happy in our classroom each and every day. In order to make that happen, though, I have to be happy, too. So let’s work together to develop some class rules and routines that work for all of us.
- During nearly three decades as a classroom teacher, I have never had a problem getting students to develop a list of guidelines both they and I could live with. And I never hesitated to throw in rules that mattered to me. I called them my “pet peeves.”
Notice how this approach meets the needs of the teacher and at the same time gives some ownership to the students. In addition, it gives the teacher an opportunity to learn from the students. A Website that discusses this approach is http://www.education.ky.gov/KDE/Instructional+Resources/Career+and+Technical+Education/Establishing+Classroom+Rules.htm.
Empowerment in Math Education
Our society considers math to be such an important discipline of study that formal, required schooling in this discipline begins in kindergarten and s continues year after year after year. Indeed, students may be required to take three years of math during their four years of high school. They may be required to pass certain math tests in order to graduate from high school. They may face additional math course requirements in college.
Through third grade, students are easily convinced that what they are learning is useful. They can think of immediate uses. As students move on to higher grades, the math they are exposed to is more abstract and more separated from their current, everyday lives. It is increasingly separate from (not related to or integrated into) the rest of their everyday school curriculum. Students are told that "you will need this in the future." (They also can be told that the math they’re studying enables them to use spreadsheets to greater effect—that they’ll now how to turn a situation that involves quantities into a well-defined problem, to determine what data is needed, and to set up a spreadsheet to provide answers.)
I have a doctorate in math, and I view the word through "math colored" glasses. That is, I look for math problems and I think mathematically as a routine part of my life. Numbers are my friends, and patterns and relationships related to math intrinsically interest me. I think it would be nice if more people had this love for, appreciation of, interest in, and ability routinely to use math.
Unfortunately, our current math system is not good at achieving these results. A large percentage of adults make statements such as "I hated math when I was in school." and "I can't do math." In essence, our math education system has not mathematically empowered these people. Indeed, it seems to have disempowered them.
Many math education leaders are aware of this situation and have given deep thought as to what might change the situation. My own thoughts center on topics such as:
- Thoroughly integrating use of calculators and computers into curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment. This includes teaching computational thinking as a routine component of the entire math curriculum. Computational thinking is also briefly discussed later in this document.
- A significant increase in use of modern computer-assisted learning and distance learning.
- An emphasis on helping students to gain in their Piagetian math cognitive maturity and in their math maturity. (Read about these ideas in http://iae-pedia.org/Good_Math_Lesson_Plans.)
- An increased emphasis on helping students to learn to learn math, learn to self-assess their math work, and learn to take increased responsibility for their own math learning.
- An increased emphasis on routinely integrating use of math into other curriculum areas. A significant aspect of this would be teaching and using computational thinking as part of every discipline.
Learned Helplessness in Math
Researchers have build up extensive literature on learned helplessness. Some of this research certainly applies to many of the "I can't do math" people. It appears that many such people are sort of bragging that they can't do math.
Here is a brief introduction to the topic of learned helplessness:
- In early 1965, Martin E. P. Seligman and his colleagues, while studying the relationship between fear and learning, accidentally discovered an unexpected phenomenon while doing experiments on dogs using Pavlovian (classical conditioning). As you may observe in yourselves or a dog, when you are presented with food, you have a tendency to salivate. Pavlov discovered that if a ringing bell or tone is repeatedly paired with this presentation of food, the dog salivates. Later, all you have to do is ring the bell and the dog salivates. However, in Seligman's experiment, instead of pairing the tone with food, he paired it with a harmless shock, restraining the dog in a hammock during the learning phase. The idea, then, was that after the dog learned this, the dog would feel fear on the presentation of a tone, and would then run away or do some other behavior.
Next, they put the conditioned dog into a shuttlebox, which consists of a low fence dividing the box into two compartments. The dog can easily see over the fence, and jump over if it wishes. So they rang the bell. Surprisingly, nothing happened! (They were expecting the dog to jump over the fence.)
Learned helplessness in math may well be a fear of failure (a disempowering situation) that comes from the way math is traditionally taught. Quoting from Culture, communication, and mathematics learning:
- Many Americans are convinced that they can never learn mathematics. This persuasive attitude is an example of what psychologists call learned helplessness. McLeod & Ortega (1993) define learned helplessness in the mathematics education context as "a pattern of behavior whereby students attribute failure to lack of ability" (p. 28). These authors contrast learned helplessness with mastery orientation. In mastery orientation students have confidence in their ability to solve challenging problems. Learned helplessness is negatively related with persistence, while mastery orientation is positively connected with persistence.
- McLeod & Ortega (1993) found a student's self-concept could be modified by social context. They describe how classroom conversation, such as a teacher's characterization of a problem as "easy" can profoundly demoralize students. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM] Assessment Standards for School Mathematics (1995) defines mathematical disposition as "interest in, and appreciation for, mathematics; a tendency to think and act in positive ways; includes confidence, curiosity, perseverance, flexibility, inventiveness, and reflectivity in doing mathematics (p. 88). The critics of the Standards dismiss this notion of disposition as nonsense and advocate a back-to-basics approach. In the words of Jennings (1996), "get a math book, make students practice problems, have them do simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication in their heads, give them standardized tests, and drop the group work." This back-to-basics orientation seems more rooted in nostalgia than actual research. McLeod and Ortega (1993) give us reason to hope that if we address the affective components of mathematics education, as suggested in the NCTM Standards, we can improve students' achievements.
Appropriate teaching can overcome or prevent math learned helplessness. Quoting from a Scientific American article titled The Secret to Raising Smart Kids:
- People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.
- In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.
- Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good memory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.
- Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.
One other factor deserves consideration. The student may not be physiologically ready to comprehend a particular math topic. In that case, the student is really helpless (except for carefully following directions by rote). When this student becomes an adult, that earlier, helpless student is still within. In that case, the teacher of the adult will be well advised to explain that the adult is no longer that child who was put in the unfortunate situation, to backtrack to that point in the student’s math career, to teach at that point, and feel good when the adult student’s face lights up.
My personal opinion is that our math education system is doing a poor job of aligning itself with the math cognitive development research findings. The curriculum often teaches at a level that is substantially higher than a student’s math cognitive developmental level.
ICT and Empowerment
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has brought us new tools, new areas to learn, new aids to learning, and new aids to assessment. Even an inexpensive 6-function, solar battery-powered calculator serves to highlight some of the challenges.
Does teaching third graders how to use it and allowing the student to use it at will constitute "appropriate" empowerment? The calculator-equipped students quickly and accurately carry out 8-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and square root in decimal notation. But three obvious difficulties are that students may not:
- Have an adequate understanding of numbers and arithmetic to know when to use a calculator and how to detect errors that come from mistakes in keyboarding and other sources. One of the most important aspects of math education is "sense making." Pushing keys to "get answers" does not contribute to student sense-making any more than memorizing and blindly following computational by-hand algorithms.
- Develop their mental arithmetic abilities—to do exact and estimative computations—very important skills for lifelong success.
- Be gaining foundational knowledge and understanding of algorithmic procedures that will adequately serve them in future studies of arithmetic and other math, not to mention thinking through giving direction in general.
Teachers and parents have wildly varying opinions about providing students with calculators. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (USA) has been actively supporting calculator use in the curriculum since 1980. Commonly, students may use calculator on state and national tests. In spite of the permissions inherent to the NCTM and testing acceptance of calculators, many teachers still insist that students learn paper and pencil arithmetic algorithms and spend a great deal of time developing speed and accuracy in their use. A point in favor of this is that it’s easier to see process. A counter to that is that once students can explain the algorithm in terms of “how” and “why (and memorized the appropriate tables),” they have achieved algorithmic and mathematical understanding (and perhaps should receive Certificates of Mastery). However, teachers who allow calculators should explain why to parents and should explain that time is valuable in education and that time saved from busywork should be invested in learning.
Here is a different type of example. Historically, our educational system has spent a great deal of time and effort having students develop a "good hand"—that is, nice looking cursive handwriting. Now that computers are readily available, an alternative is for students to learn hand printing and keyboarding. This trend is now well established in terms of student behavior, and it is beginning to be supported in some schools. Are we empowering or disempowering students by allowing this trend to continue? Attractive handwriting is an artistic accomplishment; legible handwriting or printing is effective and courteous.
Finally, consider students learning to use a card catalog and browsing the shelves as they learn to retrieve information from a physical library. Card catalogs have gone away, and physical libraries have been supplemented and supplanted by virtual libraries. Students now learn to use a search engine and a browser. Still, just as it’s pleasant to sit (or lie on a living-room rug) with a newspaper, feet up and beverage within easy reach, there is pleasure in handling a book that catches one’s eye and in “panning for gold” on library shelves.
In my opinion, the information retrieval example gets to the heart of the empowerment issue. Advances in technology provide us with powerful new aids to problem solving. Problems of information collection, information storage, information manipulation and processing, information retrieval, and information use have existed on earth for hundreds of millions of years and for thousands of years in consciously symbolic forms. ICT provides us with a number of powerful aids to such endeavors. We now live in a world where both the "traditional" aids and the ICT-based aids are commonly used, and where there is now a strong trend to make more use of and become more dependent on ICT-based aids. For example, when you’re at a computer and you want to know the meaning of words or find the words you want, do you use ICT or paper dictionaries and thesauruses?
Almost always, there is gain and loss when we embrace new technologies and emphasize instruction related to them. Teachers, schools parents, testing agencies, and governments are struggling to find the balance. I find it interesting to watch the struggles. Students are now allowed to use a word processor in some assessment situations. I wonder, how long it will be before "open computer with full connectivity" will be mandated in state and national tests? I think maybe there is a guideline for this general issue: Use the new technology if it offers (or soon will offer) more effectiveness, efficiency, or pleasure. Use an older technology if doing so is necessary or even more effective, efficient, or pleasurable. (Consider love letters, lecture visuals, giving somebody directions to your residence, shopping lists, chess, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl.)
The "open computer, open connectivity" includes full use of artificially intelligent aids to information retrieval and problem solving. Computer systems are getting smarter and smarter.
If that concerns you or is even frightening, consider adding in brain-enhancing drugs, along with genetic engineering to make people physically and mentally more capable. Parents, our educational system, and our whole society face major challenges in learning how to deal with these current and developing situations. I find it interesting to compare this developing situation with the existing problems of drugs used by some athletes to enhance their performance. Incidentally, are we going to have routine testing of students for possible use of cognitive enhancement drugs? (Caffeine is an example of such a drug.)
Computational Thinking Empowers
ICT provides or helps provide an easily attainable level or type of in-practice expertise in many different disciplines. For example, people can investigate a multitude of scenarios using a spreadsheet while knowing little of the underlying math. It is evident that with appropriate ICT aids, one can relatively quickly obtain a personally useful level of expertise over a wide range of areas.
In every academic discipline, computer technology is increasingly used to represent and solve (or help solve) a range of problems. Many of these problems are ones people find useful to be able to solve. For a simple set of examples, think about using digital cameras. The problems of developing one's film and printing pictures from the developed film have gone away—as well as the expense of buying film. Editing by use of a computer is much easier than analog editing techniques. Adding sound effects, music, text, and so on is much easier to do in a computer environment. The YouTube Website provides good evidence that many thousands of people have been empowered by digital photography.
Thus, we have a situation in which a student can learn to make use of computers in a particular discipline or subdiscipline, and thereby gain the ability to solve a variety of problems within the discipline. The ratio of "power" a student gains compared to the amount of time and effort required might be quite high relative to that of a traditional approach. In brief summary, student is empowered by:
- Gaining knowledge and skill in learning to make use of ICT hardware and software. This learning serves a person well across disciplines and into the future as new ICT hardware and software are developed, and as the person encounters new areas where ICT is useful in representing and solving problems.
- Learning to think about problems to be solved and tasks to be accomplished in terms of the capabilities and limitations of ICT. This computational thinking is useful in all disciplines and serves a student well as ICT continues its rapid pace of improvement.
A word of philosophical caution: Intrinsic purposes should be reserved for natural entities, and non-controllable purposes should never be built into artificial entities.
As noted in the quote at the beginning of this document, "with great power comes great responsibility." Teachers, parents, and others who help empower students must help the students learn to make responsible use of their increasing power. A example of the this is provided by the process of helping a student learn to drive a car and get a drivers license, versus helping a student to become a responsible, considerate driver.
A good teacher has an impressive synergistic array of people skills, content knowledge, and pedagogical knowledge. It takes natural ability, a willingness “to gladly learn and gladly teach,” a great deal of informal and formal education, and considerable experience to become a good teacher.
Now, throw into the teaching milieu the pace of change in the totality of pedagogical and content knowledge, and the development of ICT-based aids to teaching, learning, and assessment. Add in other changes, such as those in our students and in our overall culture and society. It is no wonder that many teachers feel overworked and underappreciated. Historically, teaching has been a type of "cottage industry" with each teacher being able to do her or his thing behind a closed classroom door. In many cases, the teacher had no competition, as there was only one teacher in the school, or one teacher per grade level, or only one science teacher in the high school, and so on.
This situation has been greatly changed by consolidation of schools and school districts, increasing population, and a variety of approaches to accountability. It is also being changed by the rapid change in communication systems and in access to information. The teacher and the small library in a schoolroom or school now face strong competition from the Web.” Think about how a teacher's level of empowerment is changed as students gain access to information and students learn to participate in and make use of "tools" such as social networking via computer.
In addition, the field of computer-assisted learning (CAL) continues to make significant progress. Think about whether a teacher feels increased empowerment when a school decides to put in CAL labs and require their use. Teachers are told that research evidence indicates that use of the computers will increase test scores; they may also be told that CAL greatly reduces the drudgery of correcting routine work.
Hmmm. Hmmm. (That is, double hmmm.) It is no wonder that so many teachers feel a drop in their levels of empowerment. It may well be that Information and Communication Technology, increased emphasis on accountability, and increased emphasis on state and national testing, is disempowering teachers. A philosophical word: A wise society will test for diagnoses and progress, will relate accountability to situation, and will use ICT (and all tools) to enable themselves to be more fully human.
Improve Education via Getting Better Teachers
TEDS-M (April 2010). International Study on Preparation of Teachers of Mathematics. Retrieved 5/10/2010 from See http://hub.mspnet.org/index.cfm/20671. Quoting from the Website:
- "The Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M) examined teacher preparation in 16 countries looking at how primary level and middle school level teachers of mathematics were trained. The study examined the course taking and practical experiences provided by teacher preparation programs at colleges, universities and normal schools. The study reveals that middle school mathematics teacher preparation is not up to the task. U.S. future teachers find themselves, straddling the divide between the successful and the unsuccessful, leaving the U.S. with a national choice of which way to go. The findings of TEDS-M additionally revealed that the preparation of elementary teachers to teach mathematics was comparatively somewhat better as the U.S. found itself in the middle of the international distribution.
- U.S. future teachers are getting weak training mathematically, and are just not prepared to teach the demanding mathematics curriculum we need especially for middle schools if we hope to compete internationally. It is important for us as a nation to understand that teacher preparation programs are critical, not only for future teachers, but also for the children they will be teaching. It is quite striking that the performance of the future teachers in terms of their mathematics content knowledge at both levels parallels so closely that of the students they teach."
I highly recommend the New York Times article:
Dillon, Sir Michael Barber (8/15/07). “Imported from Britain: Ideas to Improve Schools.” Retrieved 2/17/08: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/15/education/15face.html.
Quoting from the article:
- “What have all the great school systems of the world got in common?” he said, ticking off four systems that he said deserved to be called great, in Finland, Singapore, South Korea, and Alberta, Canada. “Four systems, three continents—what do they have in common?
- “They all select their teachers from the top third of their college graduates, whereas the U.S. selects its teachers from the bottom third of graduates. This is one of the big challenges for the U.S. education system: What are you going to do over the next 15 to 20 years to recruit ever better people into teaching?”
- South Korea pays its teachers much more than England and America, and has accepted larger class sizes as a trade-off, he said.
- Finland, by contrast, draws top-tier college graduates to the profession not with huge paychecks, but by fostering exceptionally high public respect for teachers, he said.
Here is a way to think about this situation in terms of empowerment:
- Being smarter than average in a particular area or activity and being selected because of this qualification. A different way of looking at this is that if a teacher isn't relatively smart, the teacher is "one down" relatively to the demands of the job.
- Receiving a good rate of pay. A different way of looking at this is that there can easily be a feeling of disempowerment that comes from a low rate of pay and other poor working conditions.
- Being highly respected. Being highly respected helps one to feel good about her- or him self. That in turn gives a feeling of being empowered.
Summary: What Shall Be the Resolution?
The issues of empowering students and their teachers are complex. The fast pace of technological change adds to the complexity of the issues.
Here are a couple of goals to keep in mind:
- All humans should have power within limits and should experience just accountability.
- All humans should have the resources they need to fulfill, within time constraints, their non-destructive potentials.
We shall never meet these goals. Nevertheless, both can guide us as we live our lives and as we affect the lives of others.
This article is strongly slanted toward math education and roles of computers in math education. However, many of the ideas are applicable in other disciplines that are standard in the school curriculum.
For example, you may have heard people say, "I can't do art." or "I can't do music." Such comments are indications of learned helplessness and poor education in these areas. Computer technology now provides powerful aids to doing art and music. This "doing" in a computer environment is often perceived by the doer to be quite successful and becomes intrinsically motivating.
BNET (n.d.). Successful intelligence in the classroom. BNET Business Network. Retrieved 5/4/08: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NQM/is_4_43/ai_n8686065. The unifying these of this article is that students can learn to make use of their intelligence in a manner that helps them to succeed in school and other endeavors. Quoting from the article:
- … successful intelligence is the use of an integrated set of abilities needed to attain success in life, however an individual defines it, within his or her sociocultural context. Thus, there is no one definition of intelligence. People are successfully intelligent by virtue of recognizing their strengths and making the most of them at the same time they recognize their weaknesses and find ways to correct or compensate for them. Both are important. On one hand, students need to learn to correct aspects of their performance in which they are underperforming. On the other hand, they have to recognize that they probably will never be superb at all kinds of performance. It helps to find ways around weaknesses, such as seeking help from others and giving it in return. In other words, people find their own unique path to being intelligent. Successfully intelligent people adapt to, shape, and select environments. In adaptation, they change themselves to fit the environment. For example, a teacher may adapt to the expectations of her principal by teaching in a way she believes the principal will endorse. In shaping, people change the environment to fit them. The teacher may try to persuade the principal to support a new way of teaching different from what the principal has been accustomed to in the past. And in selection, they find a new environment. For example, the teacher may decide to seek a placement in another school if she is unable to convince the principal that her way of teaching is valid and will result in benefits for the students. They accomplish these ends by finding a balance in their use of analytical, creative, and practical abilities (Sternberg, 1997a, 1999).
Dillon, Sir Michael Barber (8/15/07). Imported from Britain: Ideas to improve schools. Retrieved 2/17/08: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/15/education/15face.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin.
Dweck, Carol S. (11/28/07). The Secret to Raising Smart Kid. Scientific American Mind. Retrieved 2/17/08: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-secret-to-raising-smart-kids&print=true.
Fisher, D. and Frey, N. (2008). Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility. ASCD. Part of the book is available free at http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/menuitem.b71d101a2f7c208cdeb3ffdb62108a0c/template.book?bookMgmtId=1b446048f2a18110VgnVCM1000003d01a8c0RCRD
Quoting from the ASCD Smart Brief:
- All teachers want their students to become independent learners, but even motivated students are sometimes reluctant to take responsibility for their own learning. The authors of ASCD's new book, "Better Learning Through Structured Teaching," provide a proven method for gradually enabling students to take on more of the "work" of classroom learning. The book includes a lot of practical strategies that help teachers use this approach, plus tips on how to differentiate instruction, make effective use of class time, and plan backwards from learning objectives.
Hureaux, Michael and Femiano, Robert (2/12/08). Teachers key to school reform. settlepi.com. Retrieved 2/17/08: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinion/351030_schoolreform13.html. This newspaper "opinion" piece presents arguments against school reform efforts that fail to adequately empower teachers. Quoting the first paragraph of the article:
- But the feds are not alone in placing the blame on teachers. Educational consultants argue similarly, including the company recently hired by the Gates Foundation for Seattle Public Schools, McKinsey and Co. In their 2006 Report to Ohio Board of Education, (also funded by Gates) the consultants focused their proposals to "address the single-most important factor affecting student achievement: teacher quality." The teachers' union, the Seattle Education Association, recently voted against participating in the audit.
Marchall, Kathie (9/18/07). Teaching secrets: How to smile before Christmas. Teacher Magazine. Retrieved 2/17/08: http://www.teachermagazine.org/tm/articles/2007/09/18/04tln_marshall_web.h18.html.
Moursund, David (n.d.) Two brains are better than one. Retrieved 5/7/08: http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.
Moursund, D.G. (2008). Education for increasing expertise. The book in PDF and Microsoft Word formats can be accessed at: http://iae-pedia.org/Education_for_Increasing_Expertise. This is a book for middle school and junior high school students. The underlying message is summarized by:
- This document focuses on two major ideas for improving our educational system:
- Facilitating students to take steadily increasing responsibility for their own education.
- Emphasizing student learning for building expertise—the knowledge and skills to solve problems and accomplish tasks using their own physical and mental capabilities in conjunction with: A) contemporary tools designed to aid physical and mental capabilities; B) the physical and mental capabilities of other people; and C) the accumulated knowledge of the human race.
Stansbury, Meris (3/3/08). U.S. educators seek lessons from Scandinavia. eSchoolNews. Retrieved 3/5/08: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/?i=52770;_hbguid=31475690-290f-4e70-8ce4-2742f7b52b83&d=top-news.
Quoting from the article:
- A delegation led by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently toured Scandinavia in search of answers for how students in that region of the world were able to score so high on a recent international test of math and science skills. They found that educators in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark all cited autonomy, project-based learning, and nationwide broadband internet access as keys to their success.
- What the CoSN delegation didn’t find in those nations were competitive grading, standardized testing, and top-down accountability—all staples of the American education system.
- In all three countries, students start formal schooling at age seven after participating in extensive early-childhood and preschool programs focused on self-reflection and social behavior, rather than academic content. By focusing on self-reflection, students learn to become responsible for their own education, delegates said.
Note the last paragraph in the quoted material. In essence, the education systems in those three countries believe that students are empowered and will succeed at higher levels if they are given increased responsibility for their own education and taught how to make use of this empowerment. Here is another quote from the article:
- Therefore, teachers are extremely autonomous in their work. So are students. For example, internet-content filtering in the three countries is based largely on a philosophy of student responsibility. Internet filters rarely exist on school computers, other than for protection from viruses or spam. As a school librarian in Copenhagen said, “The students understand that the computers are here for learning.”
Links to Other IAE Resources
This is a collection of IAE publications related to the IAE document you are currently reading. It is not updated very often, so important recent IAE documents may be missing from the list.
This component of the IAE-pedia documents is a work in progress. If there are few entries in the next four subsections, that is because the links have not yet been added.
IAE-pedia (IAE's Wiki)
I-A-E Books and Miscellaneous Other
This initial version of this page was developed by David Moursund.
His work on this page has been inspired and prompted by a sequence of email exchanges with David Burrowes. David Burrowes is a regular contributor to a page of video recommendations in the IAE-pedia.
Dick Ricketts provided a careful edit of both the contents and the writing in this document. This included making substantial contributions to the content.