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4 Ideas for Empowering Students During Remote Learning

In my newly released, self-paced course, “Developing the Innovator’s Mindset Through Remote, Face-to-Face, and Blended Learning,” I discuss the importance of empowering learners in any environment, online or offline. In the last post, I discussed ideas for building relationships in a remote learning environment and why it is so important. In today’s post, I want to share some thoughts and ideas on how to empower learners in a remote learning environment.  Although the post shares ideas for remote learning, these ideas can be adapted to any learning space.

Check out the full course to learn more about these ideas, and much more!


As many prepare for a 2020-2021 school year, one thing that I believe is more imperative than ever is focusing on truly empowering our students in their learning. No matter the learning environment, whether it is remote, face-to-face, or a hybrid of the two, I truly believe that empowering learners is not only beneficial to students but educators as well. Empowering learners (adults included) is always beneficial in the long-term.

I have shared the following before:

But it is not an “either/or” scenario. For me, the easiest way to explain this is that a learner can be engaged but not empowered, but if they are empowered, they are definitely engaged.

Bill Ferriter created this image and reminds us how empowerment starts with being centered not necessarily on “student-learning” as much as it is about being focused on “students.” There is a difference between the two.

3 Myths About “Empowering” Students in Schools Today – George Couros

But one of the challenges is teaching the curriculum while still trying to tap into student passions and interests.  This is why I have discussed the importance of asking students questions to learn their interests, passions, strengths, and goals, and then embedding that into learning as much as possible.  As shared in my last post, asking these five questions (or a variation) can help you in that process.

Understanding, designing, and connecting curriculum are essential to learning, and why relationships are so crucial to the work we do in education, at all levels, including with adults.

As I shared in “The Innovator’s Mindset,” the idea of empowering our students while teaching the curriculum is attainable in education:

“I believe it’s possible to have kids who are deep thinkers, creators, and innovators, and still do well on their exams, but I do not want to forsake those critical elements for the latter. Twenty-first century education is not about the test; it’s about something bigger. My focus is not on whether kids can knock it out of the park on some science test in grade three. What I care about is that kids are inspired to be better people because of their experiences in my school.”

If we start with our focus on the “stuff,” we can often lose the learner. But if we start with a focus on the “learner,” the “stuff” will be fine.

But if you are in a remote learning situation, do we have the same opportunity to empower our students as we do in a face-to-face situation?  I believe that this is important in any case, but a remote learning situation has some added complexities. As I shared in my last post, accessibility, flexibility, and privacy, always need to be considered:

This image from Torrey Trust, Ph.D., provides excellent guidance and things to consider as we consider teaching in virtual learning environments (for adults and kids).

Connect students’ video use and eye contact time to participation points, grading, or school attendance. Remove students from the meeting if their videos are not on. Trick students into turning on their videos (e.g., for a class dance party). Give extra credit to students who have their video on. Do this: Give choices; conduct real-time check-ins; use digital assessment tools. Why does it matter? PRIVACY. Students might be uncomfortable displaying their living space to their peers. SAFETY. Students (and their family members) may not want their image captured, recorded, or shared. Students could be cyberbullied if a classmate takes a screenshot of their video. EQUITY. Students might have unreliable Internet access, low bandwidth, devices without video capabilities, or limited access to a device. PERSONAL. Students might feel shy or anxious to be on camera.

So with these complexities in a remote learning environment, how do we genuinely empower students?

I think it is more necessary than ever, but we have to consider what we mean when we discuss “engagement” and “empowerment.” I used to see “empowerment as a word that entailed more “creative verbs” like “writing” and “creating,” but if you are writing about something you have no interest in at all, that is not even engagement, instead, it is a form of compliance. For example, if I have the opportunity to read books that I am interested in and can make connections with, I will be empowered through reading.

According to the article, “Thinking Outside the Bin: Why labeling books by reading level disempowers young readers” by  Kierra Parrot, “Most educators and researchers agree that student choice is a huge part of reading motivation” and students are more likely to develop as lifelong readers, if they are empowered to choose books based on their interests, as opposed to being limited to only books at “their level.” The “empowerment” in reading has a lot to do with voice and choice.

I know that sometimes compliance is part of our world (you have to file taxes a certain way, right? You can’t hand in a cool PowerPoint to the IRS!). Still, the more opportunities we have to empower learners in school, the easier it is to deal with the things that we “have to do” for a myriad of reasons.


With all of this taken into consideration, what can empowerment look like in a remote learning situation?

Below I share four ideas that you are more than welcome to use and modify to meet the needs of your learners best.  I believe that all I can do is share some ideas, but those closest to the learners are the ones that ultimately create the solutions.


1. The One-Minute Meeting

If you want to empower learners truly, the best way to do that is by having a conversation with them on how to best achieve that goal.

Dr. Mary Hemphill wrote an incredible book titled “The One-Minute Meeting” that provided three questions she would ask every single student in her school as principal to learn how to serve them best:

In reading her book, it was imperative that Dr. Hemphill had built relationships with her community and that the “One-Minute Meeting” was an indispensable part of the process for her as a principal in improving learning and building school culture (with students and staff). The same conversations started to happen in classrooms with teachers and students.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to chat with Dr. Hemphill recently, and here is a snippet of our conversation:

In a remote learning situation, I have watched many educators around the world schedule times to have these types of one-on-one conversations with students through Zoom. If that is not possible due to constraints (technology, number of students), perhaps creating a Google Form with these questions (please feel free to use this template) that Mary created might be an option.

As Mary reminded me in our conversation, to truly empower students in their learning, they have to not only be in on the conversation, but we have to act upon what we learn.


2. Virtual Identity Day

Identity Day is one of the best days I have ever been a part of as an educator.  This was started by my Assistant Principal at the time, Cheryl Johnson, and it was a way for students to share their passions with others so we could all learn more each other in our community.

Below, I made a video on how to start a “Virtual Identity Day” using Flipgrid.

As always, feel free to modify this idea to meet the needs of your students and adjust to your current situation.

(As an aside, I am enjoying using Flipgrid! It is free, and this article from Edutopia on “9 New Ways to Use Flipgrid in the Classroom” might give you some ideas for the school year.)


3. Student-Led Tutorials

One of my favorite quotes in education is from Joseph Joubert, who says, “to teach, is to learn twice.” My friend, AJ Juliani, also shared this quote recently from James Clear:

So what does that look like in the classroom?

One of my favorite examples of this is this video made on why zero-calorie sweeteners don’t truly do what we want them to do:

When I share this video, I often remind people that if you know you have a student who loves making videos, but you have to teach specific concepts in the science curriculum, why not have the student explain the idea in a video?

It is not either “innovation” or the “curriculum”‘; how you teach the curriculum is the innovation.

But if you (or your students) aren’t comfortable being on camera, there are other ways that you can have them teach a concept without showing their faces. Below is an excellent example of a student teaching “Pitch, Roll and Yaw” using paper slides.

Having students teach parts of the curriculum ensures that we go beyond memorization to deep understanding.

As an aside, as I was watching the above video, I was wondering if this counts as “screen time” or would it be seen as something done away from the screen as you are recording in front of a camera?  For example, think of all the planning, creating, and conversation that happens during the creation of this video. Other than the editing, how much time is actually in front of a computer screen? For example, when I was a kid, would recording a commercial and all the planning that went into it such as the acting, preparation, and all of the other things we had to do before editing it with the VCR technology (I am totally dating myself) we had at the time, be considered as “screen-time?”  Just something to think about, and as I have shared, “Quality” is more important than “Quantity” when considering screen time.

(P.S. The Instagram algorithm must have known I was writing this post, and the video below popped up that would be great for students doing something similar to the “Pitch, Roll, and Yaw” video above in real-time or is helpful for teachers if you have the tools shared. – How to Make Your iPhone a Document Camera on Zoom!)


4. Student-Led Personal Development

In “Innovate Inside the Box,” I shared Dr. Erin Lawson’s idea for “Student Personal Development Day.” Here is what she shared with me:

“In March 2016, we had the first Student Personal Development day for high school students. How to change a tire, cook simple meals, create YouTube videos, buy a car, prepare for college, etc., were a few of the many sessions that our students voiced they needed. They even got to register for sessions so the entire Student PD day was personalized for their wants and needs.”

I believe this process could be adapted easily to an online environment and could be done in either a synchronous or asynchronous manner. Could we have students lead sessions on different topics that we could partake in as educators? You could do this synchronously or asynchronously, but I would love to see students teach skills to their peers. Asking the questions, “What would you like to learn?” or “What would you like to teach?” would be a great place to start.

The Joseph Joubert quote, “To teach is to learn twice,” again resonates here.  When students have the opportunity to teach a skill or concept, not only will they learn it in a much deeper way, but it allows them to have their contributions truly valued in any learning environment.  The teacher is always the “expert” in the classroom, but we also need to recognize and tap into the wisdom and experience of every one of our students.


In closing, I always think of this question from AJ Juliani and John Spencer when considering student learning:

“What are you doing for students that they can be doing themselves?”

When we focus on meaningful ways to empower our students, in any environment, not only do I believe it can be better learning for our students, but less onus on the teachers to “engage” the people they serve. A great teacher I know once shared with me, “I noticed that the more innovative I have become, the less work I had to do.”

As my conversation with Dr. Hemphill reminded me this week, focusing on empowering students, no matter the space we are in, is not only better for learning, but for the culture of our classrooms.


If you want to learn more about these ideas and many, many more, check out the “Developing the Innovator’s Mindset Through Remote, Face-to-Face, and Blended Learning” course that is now available!

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