Last Thursday (December 28, 2017), I was invited to join #ONedMentors to chat about #OneWordOnt. I had given my word lots of thought…
- I re-read my 2017 post
- I re-read another take on my 2017 word, “Choices”, and how it connects to the idea of hope (an approach similar to Jen Aston’s)
- I asked my students for feedback on my 2017 word
- I drafted a reflection post–now published.
But at the time of the invitation, I had not definitively chosen my word. I was leaning towards “empower” because the students’ feedback shone a light on their fears and showed me where I need to focus my efforts. I need to work at building their confidence and empowering them.
So far so good, right?
What I hadn’t yet done though was complete the process of vetting the word. I think I know what the word means, but I am keen to discover how others ‘see’ the word. Like Jen Aston, I want to consider to what contexts my word connects. Like Derek Rhodenizer and his guests (on his weekly voicED podcast, “A Word in Progress with Derek”), I want to ‘poke and prod’ the word to see what it will give up. Like Stephen Hurley, etymologist extraordinaire, I want to dig a little deeper into the word because my knowledge of the word may only reflect current usage and not its historical meanings or connotations.
While “empower” means
I kept digging.
I find John Wenger’s article on empowerment revealing. His audience is the workplace leader or manager, but I don’t think that matters because as a therapist he comes at the challenge of motivating and engaging others with much the same perspective as do educators. Here he unpacks his thinking about the word and why you can’t empower anyone.
I bring my understanding of the word “empower” from my days as a therapist when I was working with clients whose lives were characterised by a deeply felt lack of power, or potency, in their lives. They were not the star of their own life stories, in other words. They were subject to decisions made by child protection authorities or social service authorities or parental authority or some other kind of powerful person or statutory body which held sway over important aspects of their day-to-day lives. While it is true that so many people in their lives were the agents of disempowerment, it seemed to me that to presume that I could empower them was just the opposite side of the same coin … Empower, to me, presumes that the one who empowers has the power to begin with and grants it to the other; it reinforces a paradigm of power and control to which the other person is subject. If I am the granter of power, there is still a power imbalance. This relationship presumes that I hold some kind of hierarchical authority over you and that, only by my good grace, are you exercising any authority. While I am in the position of granting power, I remain in the position of taking it back.
“Empower” is not the right word for me. I want to provide the means by which my students can develop the courage to take on their fears. I want to equip my students with the tools that can support their courageous decisions and actions. I want to encourage them to set goals, prioritize their studies and focus on personal progress. I do not want to leave any doubt as to where the power lies.
Wenger argues for the use of “enable” over “empower”, teasing out the subtle differences between the words to make his case. And although this word can have some negative connotations, I am compelled by Wenger’s thinking. To “enable” is to emphasize “capability development and a worldview that, when fully able, people can put their abilities to good use.” And to enable,
encompasses what someone does to ensure that others have the requisite capabilities and skills to carry out a job well, to take up their own power (potency) and when necessary, showing them the door to gaining new capabilities and skills. It seems to be more akin to equipping and supplying than conferring power. Once equipped, the enabler can then get out of the way and let the person access their own power to get on with it.
Enable—>faciliate, make possible, provide the means. This is a good place to start.
Last year, I believed that providing opportunities for students to make choices in their learning would help them become persistent and productive learners. I was wrong. As one student clearly stated in her feedback to me,
Choices revolve around one of the worst phrases anyone could ever be told, ‘It’s up to you.’
This year I hope to enable my students to develop the courage to take on the academic challenges that they need to face to reach their goals and to make decisions about their learning.
Stay tuned for what courage in English class might look like, and thanks for stopping by!