The Three “E’s”

In a recent post I laid out a host of strategies that have been put forth by educators in an attempt to ‘fix’ whatever is ailing our schools. I asked, “What would you do?“. I understand that we need to do more than one thing at a time; but one key area I’d change is our orientation to the three “E’s” of public education

The first E is “Entertainment”.

In this scenario the teacher is entertaining and fun and therefore the kids enjoy the class. The teacher is labeled ‘cool”. Everyone’s happy. We’ve all had “cool” teachers like this.

The second E is “Engagement”.

The teacher is still entertaining; but now he/she has stepped to the side a bit more and lets the kids get more involved and more active. There are more projects, more discoveries, more creativity, and more construction on the part of students. The teacher is still “cool” and entertaining; but the kids are doing more of the work. Many educators feel this is where we need to be…ed tech folks see that technology can play a big role in creating this environment…and it is a huge step from the traditional classroom.


The problem that I see with both of these strategies…is that the teacher “Owns” the learning. The kids attend, and they may be entertained and engaged; but it’s still the teacher’s gig. When I look at videos of classrooms in turmoil (see Dangerously Irrelevant), I clearly see students who do not “Own” their own learning. They could care less. They have decided not to “play school” with us anymore, and that is frustrating for everyone…especially the teacher.

They might not be aware of it on a conscious level but their unconscious dialogue go something like this,

“You educators set up this stupid school, decided what you were going to teach without asking me, chose to put me in this class, and then told me to shut up and take notes. I may not have much power; but I can shut you and your dumb system out. You can’t force me to learn. The stuff you’re teaching me doesn’t have any relevance to my life. As a matter of fact, acting out in school is the one place in my life where I can exert some power, even if I’m the one who loses out in the end.”

A sad comment; but understandable for a disenfranchised and dis-empowered student.

That brings me to the third E, “Empowerment”.

In this approach students are part of the system itself. They participate in decisions about what is taught, what they would like to learn, and what strategies and tools they would like to use in the learning process. Some may decide to work more independently, some in groups; but they are part of the process of deciding what goes on in their own learning.

This is a radical step forward from “Engagement” which seems to be the ed tech mantra right now…”Engage me or Enrage me.” But the students need more than engagement. They need to be empowered. They need to feel like they are not the just “bricks in the wall”. They need to feel they are the architects, masons, (and yes) the laborers that are building the wall.

Educators don’t need to feel threatened by this because we still maintain our own ownership and accountability; but to educate the disaffected, angry, and powerless students in many of our traditional classrooms, we must open the circle of power to include the learners themselves.

John Taylor Gatto says,

We have turned our students into parasites. It’s an ugly word but absolutely true. By reserving them in school rooms and having them think that they have nothing to give back to the world for 18 years….We need to give them real responsibility. Doing your homework is a fake responsibility.”

Empowering students is not a magic bullet. We will still need qualified teachers who know how to build trusting relationships with students and handle the many challenges that kids will present. We will need parents that are part of the empowerment circle and are involved with their children’s education. We will need the best technology tools; and school facilities that show society’s commitment to our children’s futures. We need all these things….

But without taking steps to empower learners to “own” their own learning, we will continue to see classroom dynamics that doom us to failure and to continued classroom turmoil…

…and that serves no one.


5 thoughts on “The Three “E’s”

  1. Hi Pete,
    Thanks – this post is timely for me.

    As I have young children, I tend to think of students by what they are capable of, developmentally. Although they have a voice in our family and I work hard to include them in decisions and to hear their needs & wants, I still feel a responsibility for the “big” stuff. Like what to teach them, what is safe, what is healthy eating, etc…

    I can easily see how we can empower students more by valuing their individual learning styles and passions – but do you see that it will include decisions around what curriculum they should learn? Don’t you think that there’s a foundation that adults need to define? Or at what point are children developmentally ready to define that for themselves, understanding what impact that will have in the future?

    I look forward to further discussion!

  2. Heidi,
    Remember, we are not ceding total control to students, we are giving them a voice, a stake in developing the curriculum. Letting them take part in the discussions and the decisions…and the responsibility is all part of including them in the ‘circle of power’. It does not mean giving them ALL the power.

    Perhaps we can outline what we think they ought to learn and they can assert more power over how they go about learning it.


  3. That makes sense to me.
    Not having experience with older kids made me wonder how that would work.

    I agree that it’s incredibly powerful for kids to at least be asked what’s working/not working from their perspective – and as they’re capable, to actually be at the table for decision making.

    When given more freedom over HOW they deliver an end result, I’m always impressed with what they produce – it almost always exceeds my expectations!

    Thanks for the feedback!

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