Should We Be Engaging or Empowering Students?

One of the themes that I’ve spent the past few days wrestling with is the difference between engaging and empowering our students. It’s a theme that Scott Glass and David Jakes touched on early in their Saturday Morning #educon session and it’s caught legs in Twitter — starting more conversations than pretty much every strand dropped in the stream over the weekend.

Here’s my initial thinking, expressed in note form:

(click to view/download #agencymatters on Flickr here)

(click to view/download Engaging or Empowering on Flickr here)

So what do YOU think?  Are engaging students and empowering students fundamentally different and yet equally important?  Does one naturally precede the other?  Can you be empowered without being engaged?  Is engaging learners a short term goal and empowering students a long term goal?

Do phrases like ” we need to engage our students” and “the first step towards motivating kids is building buy in” hint at dysfunctional power relationship between students and teachers?  Are they just further evidence of our reluctance to give students the chance to own their own learning?  When we see engaging students as our ultimate goal, are we somehow suggesting that teachers are the only ones that can determine topics worth exploring?

I guess the reason this conversation is rumbling through my head is that I’ve always used “engaging” and “empowering” interchangeably in my head — but I’m starting to think that they aren’t as synonymous as I thought they were.

#agencymatters #wordsdotoo


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  • Patrick Larkin

    Great question Bill! In

    Great question Bill! In Burlington, we are always talking about engagment and the most important part of this, as with many things, is definining what we are talking about.  In this case, how do people define engagement? 

    We use Phil Schlechty’s Qualities of Engaging Student Work as a framework:

    In looking at them, I think intellectual and emotional safety touches upon creating an environment where our student will feel empowered. But to your point, I do think that we need to be much more deliberate with our intentions. While I think Schlechty’s framework clearly articulates the fact that teachers are not the ultimate authority on what is or is not engaging work, I don’t think that it clearly identifies the final outcomes that you are talking about.

  • BillIvey


    Wow, Patrick. I’d never heard of Phil Schlechty’s framework, and I can quickly see its usefulness. That’s in part because, and trying hard to be honest and objective, I think my school genuinely does relatively well in all eight of those areas.

    I think engaging vs. empowering, if I’m reading this right, is a matter in part of comparing how learning looks on the surface to what’s happening beneath. When you’re engaging students, the motivation – at least initially – is external. When youre empowering kids, the motivation – for the most part – is internal. I think that’s the source of the power of empowerment (sorry for the phrasing).

    As to whether they are equally important – I would certainly argue empowering students is the ultimate goal. Many people have told me repeatedly that some kids’ internal motivation is so low that they need external motivation, they need to be engaged, if there’s to be any hope of hooking them. If that is true – and some people I respect deeply have told me this – then engaging students may be a necessary step along the way to empowerment for some kids.

    Honestly, though, I would rather leave a vacuum that student voice has no choice but to fill. Maybe that’s in part a function of who I am – kind of quiet, not particularly charismatic, not all that (how do I put this?) engaging. But honestly, it seems to work.

  • Jane Kise

    Engagement And Empowerment

    I have a feeling this is a polarity. Both hold part of the truth, are interdependent, and need each other over time. I’d you over focus on engagement, classrooms become entertainment centers. I’d you over focus on empowerment, you can lose some of the benefits of allowing teacher passions to shine through. We can identify warning signs that we have too much going for one or the other and action steps to maximize both.

    • billferriter

      Jane wrote:

      Jane wrote:

      I have a feeling this is a polarity. Both hold part of the truth, are interdependent, and need each other over time.


      This is brilliant, Jane — and probably best represents my final stance on the issue. 

      What I worry about, though, is that struggling teachers are wrapped up in the “I need to engage them” conversation, using “engage” as code for “teach them boring crap that they have no choice about learning in an exciting way.” 

      That’s what worries me the most about the term “engagement.”  It shouldn’t be just another thing we do TO students.  Instead, it’s got to be something that we do FOR students.

      Any of this make sense?


      • Nancy Doda

        Empowerment and Engagement

        This is an important discussion and thanks to all for the great thinking. My collegue, Mark Springer and I are writing about this very issue in our new work on Powerful Learning in which we identified, Empowerment and Engagement as twin pillars of learning that is ultimately “powerful” for students. We see empowerment as placing students in the driver’s seat, and making it possible for them to assume an active role as co-planners in a democratic classroom. For us, engagement refers largley to how we facilitate, coach and arrange for empowered learning, and how we struture the experiences in ways that engage all kinds of learners. 

        We believe that without empowerment, engagement can be at times be superficial and even trite. We see cute and entertianing methods often used to engage studnets but when students remain disempowered, authentic engagment remains elusive.

        Nancy Doda


  • billferriter

    Patrick wrote:

    Patrick wrote:

    While I think Schlechty’s framework clearly articulates the fact that teachers are not the ultimate authority on what is or is not engaging work

    And Bill wrote:

    Honestly, though, I would rather leave a vacuum that student voice has no choice but to fill. 


    These points are perfect reflections of my thinking, guys….

    Thanks for sharing them!

    Rock on,


  • Aimee

    No Answers

    Wow! What a thought provoking post! I agree that empowerment and engament are different.

    In our current culture of mandated standards and standarized testing, it’s going to be harder and harder to empower studetns. Many of them will not be empowered in the current system because their passions are not reflected in tthe standards.  

    I believe it will take a major shift to personalized learning to empower many students.  As is, engagement is an excellent but not an ultimate goal.   

  • Heather Dooley

    My initial thoughts are that

    My initial thoughts are that engagement with the prescribed curriculum should come as a result of students being empowered to own their educations. For instance, they know they need to learn a variety of sentence structures, not because they want to be a good student or have their teacher think they’re smart, but because they’ve identified their own goals and dreams and they’ve identified the need to write well as something they will need in order to reach them. Students should be empowered to get what they need from the education menu while the resources of school are available. School should be a place they come to to get tools to use in the pursuit of their awesome lives and their most awesome selves.

  • KrisGiere

    Engagement et al.

    A friend and colleague of mine once mentioned to me in a professional development seminar that “engagement without purpose has little value.”  What I like about your article, Bill is that the core of it (stated or inferred) is about purpose and focus.  I believe something similiar is true in regards to Empowerment, Ownership, and Buy-in.  Your examples are awesome and seem to accept that purpose or focus must be a part of Empowerment and Ownership.  Let’s not forget that any of these words, ideas, concepts must have purpose for them to have impact.

  • John Wink

    Interchangeable No More



    This piece was spot on and actually transformed my own perceptions about instructional leadership.  What are we doing to create true conditions for student to own learning.  Your graphics are exactly what every educator needs to see.  I would love to hear how you recommend we change our planning mindset to move beyond engaging lessons to empowering lessons.



  • Jesse McLean

    Never thought about the difference


    Thanks for sharing this, to be honest, I never took the time to think of the difference. I think many times I defended a lesson or activity with engagement as the goal when in fact we were talking about empowering our students. I think this would be a good discussion to have with our staff, I look forward to hearing their thoughts too. Thanks again,



    • billferriter

      Hey Jesse,

      Hey Jesse,

      I’d never thought about the difference before David and Scott’s Educon session either — but I’m becoming more and more convinced that when we see empowerment as our ultimate goal INSTEAD of engagement, we are far more likely to create student-centered learning spaces.

      Language drives who we are and what we think — so as subtle as the difference seems, I’m going to try to replace “engaging” with “empowering” whenever I can. 

      Rock on,