Student empowerment is any attitudinal, structural, and cultural activity, process or outcome where students of any age gain the ability, authority and agency to make decisions and implement changes in their own schools, learning and education, and in the education of other people, including fellow students of any age and adults throughout education. There are countless ways this can happen as well as many potential outcomes, all of which feature learning, teaching and leadership. Student empowerment happens in schools; child empowerment and youth empowerment happen outside of schools.
How It Happens
Throughout our society, adults act as the apex (top) power holders, using adultism to enforce their power. This is true within schools, too, where adults are ultimately responsible for all activities, outcomes and processes. Student empowerment happens when adults share any amount of that power with students.
There are times when students can attempt to grasp the power of adults without adults sharing it willingly, too. However, these are fleeting because of adults ultimate grasp on power.
Student empowerment generally happens through student authorization and student action. Student authorization, which is part of the Cycle of Engagement, happens when students acquire the knowledge and positions they need in order to affect schools.
What Stops Empowerment
As reflected elsewhere on this site, there are many barriers to school transformation reflecting student empowerment. They include the culture of schools; structures within education; adults throughout the system; and students themselves. There are also many ways to overcome these barriers.
However, one of the barriers to student empowerment is the concept itself: By dispensing their power without discretion or well-informed intentions, well-meaning educators can actually do a moderate-to-severe disservice to students themselves. Placing students on a pedestal, the behind these actions is often that any power is better than no power, and that students are devoid of power within schools right now. However, that’s simply not the case, and learning about student empowerment before taking action can do a lot to improve students’ experiences with this approach.
What many educators are actually striving for is not student empowerment at all, but Meaningful Student Involvement.
Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits
When student empowerment activities are most effective, they reflect Meaningful Student Involvement. Students’ ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences in schools and regarding education are actively sought and substantiated by educators, administrators, and other adults within the educational system. Adults’ acknowledgment of students’ ability to improve schools is validated and authorized through deliberate teaching focused on learning about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.