Home Good Teaching Student Engagement vs. Empowerment

Student Engagement vs. Empowerment

by Lori Gracey

As educators, we are all aware about the movement in recent years toward the teacher being the “guide on the side.” We were told to stop being the “sage on the stage,” the person doing all of the work in the classroom while students passively received all of the amazing knowledge that we had accumulated. We were to work on engaging students instead, one of the promises that technology brought in to the classroom. But it’s time to take that movement a step further and actively empower the learners.

Teaching in the Past

When I first began teaching, the emphasis of all of my professional development training was on what the teacher needed to do to or for the students. It was the work and knowledge of the teacher that was important in whether the student learned or not, met achievement goals or not. The old teacher appraisal system was all about checking off the boxes of what the instructor did, which was supposed to ensure that students mastered critical content.

And while that resulted in teachers doing a lot of amazing “dog and pony shows” as we demonstrated our mastery of a variety of instructional strategies, it didn’t raise achievement. It didn’t enhance learning. And it didn’t make the students want to learn any more than they had before. It just made us as teachers exhausted.

What Is Needed Now

I absolutely love the George Couros quote about learning shown below where he clearly spells out the difference between engagement and empowerment. While both are necessary, the ultimate goal is to empower students, who will have to develop the skills for life-long learning in order to manage the five different careers they will have over their lifetimes (yes, careers, not jobs). After all, they are the learners. They know themselves better than we ever can. They are the ones who most desperately need to gain the new knowledge and skills we are trying to give them.


Couros goes on to further define engagement as getting students excited about “our content, our interests, and our curricula.” (italics mine) Empowerment means we have helped them develop the skills they need to pursue their “passions, interests, and future.”

What Empowerment Looks Like in Action

Let’s be clear. Empowerment can be messy. It can be loud as students collaborate and get excited about learning. It can include multiple failures (isn’t that the way we learn best?). It may mean that, while each student is mastering critical content, they are each doing it in their own way, pursuing their own individual passions and based on their own personal strengths and weaknesses. It makes for more work in planning for the teacher, but less “talking time” in the classroom. And, instead of just “covering” the material and then moving on whether all students are ready or not, it means that some students may need to spend more time on a particular concept than others. But what it really means is that the important learning lasts, that students develop their own self-teaching skills, and that they can move forward in the future on their own and without us by their side. Isn’t that what we want, after all?

Making the Shift to Empowerment

So how do we ramp up from engaging them to empowering them? Again, Couros offers some good advice in the table below.


Empowerment means that teachers are using high-effect size instructional strategies and the strategic integration of technology. It means that we are doing significantly less talking at students and more individual and small group talking with them. It means that we have embraced student-centric coaching and our professional learning is focused on how we help them learn better on their own. It means that we understand the fact that sometimes, they will fail, but we will not let them be failures.

It also means that we turn the power over to the students. Not that we have a free for all in the classroom or that we abandon all classroom management or that we let them decide not to learn. But the choices about how far they want to go are theirs, as is the responsibility for those choices. Our job is to provide the content and the resources and the help they may need; we offer the encouragement when the going gets tough and the prodding and gentle nagging when they want to quit. We help them discover possible solutions to problems, but don’t just give them all the answers. We put them in charge of their own learning within certain very broad boundaries.

What will you do to empower your students today? How will you prepare them for a time when they will not have a teacher at their side to feed them information and solve their problems? How will you help them know that they can achieve all that they want if they develop the skills to do so?

Did you know that TCEA offers a year-long professional learning program to help educators develop the skills to empower their students? Join us as we employ high-effect instructional strategies, strategic technology integration, and student-centric coaching for higher, long-lasting achievement and empowered students.

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