Student empowerment leads to better learning
By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli
We’ve all been in a situation where we’re trying to learn something new – maybe a new sport, a new skill or even a new language. And we all know that if the first thing we tell ourselves is, “I can’t possibly succeed at this,” then we probably won’t.
At the Portland Public Schools we take the opposite approach with students, using positive motivation versus a concept of failure. We teach not by focusing on what students don’t know, but by encouraging them to focus on the skills and abilities they already have as they strive to master something new and then build up from there.
We do this because we believe students can learn better when they are empowered and feel capable. In fact, that belief is the fourth of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning. https://www.portlandschools.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_1094153/File/Academics/Beliefs%20and%20Core%20Teaching%20Practices.pdf
Joined by Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, I’m writing a series of columns about our Learning Beliefs. This month, we’re writing about how the Portland Public Schools helps our students feel empowered and capable so that they can learn better.
We’ve found that when we affirm what students are good at doing rather than focus on what they’re doing wrong, students are more likely to feel empowered and capable and do their best work.
One way to help students feel capable when they encounter new material that is challenging or potentially overwhelming is to provide what we call "scaffolds.”
Scaffolds are strategies to help students access a learning task in different ways depending on the skills they already have. An example is when we teach students to understand where the formula for finding the area of a rectangle comes from. Some students may need more than an explanation to grasp the concept. A scaffold to help those students could be to provide grid paper so that students can count squares to get to the area of a shape. Like the scaffolding of a building, those scaffolds eventually come down and students learn to develop the formula on their own.
Another example of empowering students is through clear expectations and choice. This can be seen in the TEDMoore (TED Talks) that our Lyman Moore Middle School seventh-graders have been involved with for the past two years. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design and TED Talks cover a broad range of topics.
Through the seventh-grade project, each student studies what makes TED Talks powerful, works to understand how to articulate their own voice through writing and presenting, and then chooses a topic that they are passionate about to research and present to classmates. Topics have ranged from “Why Dog Ownership Brings Positivity to a Family” to “What it's like to be Muslim in Portland” to “Why Accepting Transgender Students is Important” to “Women's Rights.” Teachers have found that by empowering students to study their own passion on a topic they identify with, they were able to create “buy in” from students across the academic spectrum.
Another example can be seen at Presumpscot Elementary School, which seeks to empower students by making them leaders of their own learning – and potential future community leaders, said Principal Cynthia Loring. Presumpscot is a Credentialed School within the EL Education network (formerly Expeditionary Learning).
For instance, the school’s third graders study the impact of global warming on the lobstering industry in Portland. They research, analyze data and collaborate with experts to build their understanding of this complex issue. At the Atlantic Cup Kids Day this past June, Presumpscot students were empowered to present their learning and field questions regarding the importance of global warming and steps everyone can take to protect the environment and working waterfront.
Through such project-based learning, Presumpscot students realize that they are capable of impacting their community by using their own voices, which empowers them and deepens their learning.
At the Portland Public Schools, our goal is to provide our students with not only the knowledge and skills they need but also the supports necessary to empower them to succeed in college and career.