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Empowered Learning, Empowered Teaching

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

Art Education Pedagogy

I've been thinking about how empowered learning can help bring about many meaningful changes we need to see in our world. What does it look like if everyone’s voice is heard? What does it feel like to have choices? How do we shift power? And, how can relational pedagogy help empower learners?

Power is tricky. The power and/or authority a teacher holds in the educative space doesn’t just evaporate because you want it to, or because you are working to create an educative space that prioritizes relations. There are so many factors in our lives that support or even promote the power of others. So how do we dismantle authority in the educational context? I would suggest that empowered learning and empowered teaching is a way to dismantle authority and shift to share power within this space.

One way relational practices can foster empowered learning and teaching is by creating interdependence between student -- teacher and student –student. This creates a shared responsibility to teach and learn. It is possible this shared responsibility can be carried into other contexts outside the educational space. In creating a space where I too am a learner, where I am open to different possibilities and invite voices and opinions from others I am creating the opportunity for others to become teacher. This allows our roles to shift and evolve in the educative space. I become learner, others become teachers. I believe that in fostering this fluidity of roles I am allowing for a more egalitarian and a more empowering experience. bell hooks writes of this exchange of power or roles in the classroom, stating

"When I enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester the weight is on me to establish that our purpose is to be, for however brief a time, a community of learners together. It positions me as a learner. But I’m also not suggesting that I don’t have more power. And I’m not trying to say we’re all equal here. I’m trying to say that we are all equal here to the extent that we are equally committed to creating a learning context.” (hooks, p. 153)

hooks argues that we should all be carrying power in different ways in the learning context and through this exchange the teacher and student will both feel empowered through the sharing the relational experience.

In my work I’ve observed how roles shift and evolve when relations are the priority and how this lead to what I perceive as empowered learning and teaching. During my thesis research (2015) I witnessed how adopting a relational pedagogy allowed my role of teacher and the participants’ role of student to organically change. As I gave space for student input, I noticed that over time they became more independent and looked to one another for guidance and feedback. Here I reflect on what I was witnessing,

"This exchange demonstrated to me that they were looking to one another more than they were looking to me and leads me to believe that we were in fact sharing leadership in the class. Additionally, I consider this to be example of a desire to lead. This desire was evident to me when Val, the director, entered the room while we were printmaking. She asked what we were doing and Brenda and Butterfly eagerly explained to her what we were doing and showed her their work. This led to them showing Val the steps in the process, almost teaching her the process they had just learned.” (Alton, p. 67)

I believe this shows the growing confidence and empowerment of the learner to as they adopt the role of teacher. Additionally, it shows a deep level of understanding of and engagement with the material (the subject). I connect this to Rachel Jones’ assertion that the educative process is inherently relational. Jones states,

"the multiple relations that constitute the educative process (including relations to previous educative encounters) do not rely on fixed or pre-existing roles, but simultaneously constitute its participants as ‘learners’ and ‘teachers’ – or perhaps better, as ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’, understood as always relational (and never mutually exclusive) activities.” (Jones, p. 185)

This is all great, but how do I do this in practice?

I know, I know. The meeting of theory and practice is where we often get stumped. A significant portion of my thesis looked at this intersection. How do I embody this pedagogy of relation? This is something that will look and feel different for everyone so I’m not about to layout a step by step how-to, but I can outline some things that helped me get started. As you can imagine there is a deep and meaningful and sometimes challenging convergence of personal mindset and practical actions.

  • Engage students in the pedagogy. Talk to them about lesson plans, and why you are doing certain things. I set aside time at the end of each class to reflect on the lesson as a group. Individual journaling prior to group discussion allows each person to communicate their thoughts without the pressure of thinking on the spot, which can be stressful. After a lesson, we would all journal about what went well, what we would change and what we would like to do next time. We would then discuss and synthesize the information together.

  • Create opportunities for collaboration. Engaging students in your pedagogy is a way to collaborate with students. Sidorkin (2002) would describe as shifting “the center of gravity from the student-teacher relationship to the student-student relationship” (p. 146)

  • Give options. Having a choice makes you feel empowered, and for some students they don’t get to make choices in their lives. Whenever you can give options, whether that’s setting up different workstations or creating different media for communication (visual journaling, expressing through song, written responses, etc.) allows students to engage in the way that is more comfortable and/or authentic. It also shows that you recognize that we all have different ways of interpreting information and communicating our ideas.

  • Be as transparent as possible, this helps break down the walls and bring together teacher, student, subject and context for everyone. Being transparent also opens us up to being vulnerable. In my experience I would argue that being vulnerable is one of the most human elements of teaching and learning. I have become open to letting students know when I’ve made a mistake, or when things aren’t going as I thought and it’s not a big deal. It breaks this illusion that I am ‘all knowing’ and it allows for openings into different possibilities.

  • Evaluate and adapt. Don’t be afraid to change course. If something isn’t working or it just don’t feel right, evaluate what happened, how you are feeling and consider the feedback (both verbal and non-verbal) from your students.

  • Finally, do what feels right for your context. I found that becoming an observer of my own practice through self-evaluating allowed me to have a better understanding of myself as both a teacher and learner. This practice also creates a sense of empowerment in my own practice and solidifies my connection to the pedagogy. I am not teaching the way I think I am meant to, rather I am embodied and reflexive as a teacher.

For more reading check out the reading list that I am curating. This list is a living document and will be added to so keep checking in :)

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