Empowered Students vs Engaged Students (What’s the difference?)

When I was in high school I spent most of my time playing sports (football and basketball) and worrying about my so-called social life. In school, I rarely was allowed to explore my interests, and thus set up a mental block against “caring” about anything academic. Even when we would do something fun or exciting in class, I would never fully allow myself to embrace the activity or follow-up on my own time.

In this pre-Google world, if I wanted to explore an interest it would require finding (and reading) a book/article, and then possibly continue this search online. This seemed like a lot of work to the 16-17 yr old me…(a bit lazy), so my wall stayed up and I went through the motions in school as so many students do.

Mr. Flynn was one of my favorite teachers, who just happened to teach one of my least favorite subjects: Math. Math had never come easily to me the way many English and Social Studies classes had, and so I often retreated from trying and just did enough to get by. By all accounts, Mr. Flynn should never have taken an interest in my learning journey. I spent most of his Pre-Calculus class passing notes or laughing at others goofing around.

Then one day we came into class and Mr. Flynn was lying down on the back table. It seemed like a joke, but eventually, we found out he had seriously hurt his back. He taught the rest of that class period lying on the back table, pointing to the chalkboard and using a yard stick to make changes.

Everyone thought he would be gone the next day, resting up at home, but sure enough, when we walked into class, Mr. Flynn was lying on the table again, ready to teach. There are certain moments in life where your mindset switches. I still didn’t “like” Pre-calculus class, but I wasn’t going to goof around anymore while this teacher in obvious pain was coming in every day to teach, instead of staying at home like so many of us would have done.

This lasted for over a month before Mr. Flynn was back up again teaching us from a standing position. One day he came over and asked me if I’d like to take computer programming next year. He had been teaching it for a few years, but enrollment was low and wasn’t sure the class would run again. I didn’t know what to say. I was shocked that he thought I would like this class but told him I’d think about it. A few days later I signed up, thinking I’d at least have a great teacher even if I didn’t like the class.

I took computer programming class during my junior year. It was so different. I’ve never been a math or numbers person, but this gave numbers and formulas power. Instead of getting a “right answer” on a test for getting a formula correct, this set things in motion. We learned Pascal and Basic programming languages. It wasn’t that hard, but it was challenging enough that I had to focus and pay attention during class, and could spend some extra time at night or during study hall to get better.

As a semester course, time was also limited so we had to hurry through the beginning curriculum in order to create our own projects. This (in my mind) is always a plus. It calls for urgency in the learning process, which makes learners and teachers more effective if they are on the same page. My final project was using this programming language to build a “football” game that looked and functioned similarly to the famous Nintendo Tecmo Bowl. I spent a lot of time on this (so much that I did not realize how much time I spent). In the end, my football game was not fully functional (there was no end of the game, let alone a halftime or quarter), but had many of the same features and abilities as Tecmo Bowl. My classmates and I were able to play it. It was awesome.

I went through the rest of high school still worrying about the same things; but, my outlook on learning was changed forever. When I got to college I spent more time on “side-projects” than ever before, and it lead me to become the type of learner and teacher I am today.

I tell this story because too often we fail to let students or employees “scratch an itch.” I would never have learned the math or formulas needed unless I had to program that game. It was the interest and final product that had me learning on my own time at a rapid pace.

Mr. Flynn never worked to “engage” me during programming class. Instead, he let the creative process fuel my work and empowered me to solve my own problems by making my own solutions, instead of only a learner.

Bill Ferriter sums up the difference perfectly in this blog post with a visual:

Empower vs Engage by Bill Ferriter

Engaging My Students

I’ve always remembered how Mr. Flynn’s actions of going “above and beyond” engaged me as a student in his math class. It built our teacher-student relationships in ways a conversation never could. I had the ultimate respect for that man and what he brought to class every day.

In my first year of teaching at Wissahickon Middle School, I had the opportunity to work with an amazing veteran teacher (Jen Smith), who literally took me under her wing. One of the best things about working with Jen was her consistent goal of making the learning engaging in our classrooms. We both taught English Language Arts on the same 8th-grade team, and when we would meet to plan Jen would often say: “So this is how we did it last year, but I want to make it better. Any way we can use technology or some other idea to make it more engaging?”

This was design thinking and the LAUNCH Cycle in action. Jen would ask for us to Look, Listen, and Learn (Phase 1) before we started to Ask Questions (Phase 2). In one particular situation, we were struggling with Literary Devices. We began to empathize with our students before asking questions like:

  • Why would our students care about literary devices?
  • What would be the best way to learn the devices?
  • What would be the best way to assess their learning without regurgitation?
  • How can we engage the students in understanding their purpose and use in the real world?

As we answered these questions and looked at the work from previous years, we began to Understand the Problem (Phase 3). Literary devices had always been seen as boring. They were never presented as something exciting, but just something to check off the list of having learned in 8th grade (and needed on the State standardized tests). We started to brainstorm and Navigate Ideas (Phase 4) on how we could teach the devices in engaging ways. One of our co-teachers offered a piece of advice. She noticed that popular songs always had lit devices in their lyrics. With that we started to Create (Phase 5) our very own rap song called, “Welcome to Your Lit Device Education.” We had so much fun. As a team of teachers (most well into their careers) we created “Rapper names”, wrote a song script with lit devices, and I used a few beats from Garage Band. Then we worked for hours fixing the lyrics and song (Phase 6). We recorded it and then put it online.

Finally, we shared it with our students (Phase 7 – the LAUNCH) and watched as they not only laughed hysterically as us as teachers, but also began to put the song on their iPods and listen to it at home. Here’s the song, and even though I’m really embarrassed, it’s fun to look back on this experience of solving a problem by collaborating and creating with colleagues:

Empowering Makers in My Classroom

Our students were engaged, they were focused on literary devices, but Jen wouldn’t let us stop there. Our students now wanted to use programs like Garage Band, YouTube, Audacity, and others to make their own podcasts, songs, and videos.

This is the shift.

For a while, my only focus was on engaging students. We did this as teachers by making the learning meaningful, relevant, social, and human. We made connections with our students and challenged them at the right levels to see high attention and high commitment.

But, when we allowed our students to make their own podcasts and songs, made time for them to create and fail along the way, supported their work as a guide, and then praised the effort and process…it empowered them as makers.

Engaged Environments Empowered Environments
Attentive and committed to our curriculum Attentive and committed to their interestes
“preparing for jobs” “preparing themselves for anything”
Teachers working to “making it interesting” Teachers working on “tapping into their interests”
You must learn _____ What do you want to learn?
Giving choice Inspired possibilities
Following the beaten path Making your own path
Taking an assessment Assessing your own learning
Consuming Creating
Differentiated instruction Personalized learning

When our students went through the creative process themselves, they were not only engaged in what they were learning but enthusiastic about what they were making for a real audience.

Are You Willing to Make the Shift?

Mr. Flynn had already won me over as a student when he taught for a month with a bad back on the table. But it was the lessons and activities and projects we did in computer programming class that really made me appreciate him as a teacher and guide.

Similarly, our students thought we were hilarious and appreciated the time and effort we put into making that song about literary devices. But when we empowered them to make, create, and build their own podcasts and songs, the learning transformed.

My hope is that we can all have moments like Mr. Flynn where we empower our students on top of engaging them, and ultimately that we can impact our students’ lives the way he impacted mine…often without even knowing it happened.

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Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Wendy Lyons says:

    I’m so excited about your book, and I can’t wait to get it! I have been teaching in the engaged realm far too long, and I am entering into a new educational state of enlightenment: empowering. My focus is work smarter not harder, and that includes me as well. I want student accountability, and I think your book will help me finalize my ideal educational process for my students. Thank you!

  • Annmarie says:

    I love this. I have to admit that engagement has always been a focus for me. I have even taught staff development on it. How do you ensure that standards are hit when students are going in different directions? Is it providing direction and instruction for the standard and then having them create something to teach it to others?

  • Jenny Eckman says:

    I love this very important distinction. In primary, there are some foundation skills that kids must learn BUT there is no reason they can’t learn them through topics and projects of interest. Today we are having “Choose your own theme” day in 1st grade. Rather than stick with my original plan of voting on a theme, we are going with multiple ideas from the kids. There will be Shark Day, Star Wars Day, Catapult Day, Lego Day, Dance Day, Sports Day and who knows what else. I took their supply lists and projects and kids will be either teaching others about their interest or trying someone else’s projects all day long.
    Now thinking about how to make this a regular routine rather than an end of the year “special”…

  • […] Source: Empowered Students vs Engaged Students (What’s the difference?) – A.J. JULIANI  […]

  • Kris says:

    We worked toward empowering our 4th graders at the end of the year in writing by letting them choose what they wanted to write about. It was scary and wonderful! They’d had all the lessons we had to teach, and were really able to apply that knowledge. This coming year, we want to BEGIN the year that way, mini lessoning as we go, but empowering our kids to write things they care about. Their writing was much better, and they did more revising than they had the rest of the year. My teammate and I just scratched our heads and wondered why we hadn’t done this before! I can’t wait for more ideas in the upcoming book!

  • One way my 5th grade teammates empower students is to help them identify audience. This was especially true at our recent Knox Gifted Academy School Maker Faire (sponsored by Make). Students choose enumerable ways to showcase their learning from the year (content, skills, craft, knowledge, etc.). But the real test of empowerment was for them to figure out how to engage a wide range of people in their audience. Students, K-6, would visit their booths. Teachers would visit their booths. Administrators, community members, parents, grandparents, siblings would all visit their booths. They had to design the process and the product knowing that people with varying skills levels and abilities and knowledge would interact with them. The day after Maker Faire, students wrote about their experiences, what worked well, what didn’t, quotes from visitors, things they noticed when visiting other booths, and ultimately their sense of how the audience interacted with their product.

  • Tanyal Chitwood says:

    I still consider myself a “newbie.” I taught third grade for one year before obtaining the position as a gifted teacher for 3rd-5th grade gifted and talented students. I can’t wait to read the book and learn new ways to empower my gifted and talented students.

  • Silvia Larrauri says:

    AJ, this article speaks clearly to the difference on engagement versus empowerment. Often, we think of them separately or in isolation, but in reality when you do both at the same time, I believe we’ve created an optimal learning space for our students. Thank you, as always, for sharing your experiences with us! Wow, I didn’t know you were a “rapper” as well as an educator, author and renowned speaker! Keep sharing your talents.

  • Tiffany says:

    Thank you for bringing this up again! I teach design thinking using real world design challenges. I’ve noticed the power of moving from engagement to empowerment in my class. This information helps to plan for more empowerment! And as a parent, this is great advice to guide my high schooler to take his passion to the next level: use tech tools to document his creations, reflections, and creative problem solving into visual artifacts to deepen his learning skills! Can’t wait to read the book and learn to do more!

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