Using Technology to Empower Students

There remains very little debate about whether students should use technology in learning. If there remains a doubt, let the adult without a computer on their desk—or in their pocket or laptop bag—cast the first stone. Technology is ubiquitous, and schools should be no exception.

A massive question remains, however, about how kids should use that technology. Sadly, some schools leverage new tools to streamline the same old methods of learning. And not surprisingly, these schools are seeing little effect on their students’ achievement. To make the most of our investment, we need to use technology to empower students to lead their own learning. We need to acknowledge that educators are no longer the receptacle of knowledge, but serve as guides in the learning process. And we have to recognize that students bring their own bodies of deep knowledge and expertise as starting points in their own learning.

From left, 2016 Digital Principal Award winners Winston Sakurai, Bobby Dodd, and Glenn Robbins.

During their NASSP Ignite ‘16 experience, the 2016 NASSP Digital Principal Award winners shared their thoughts on how technology is empowering students and changing the face of education.

Bobby Dodd, Principal, Gahanna Lincoln High School, Gahanna, OH

When it comes to empowering students, I believe a large part of it consists of letting kids be kids. Allow our students to inquire, ask questions, and try things that may lead to failure. As a leader, that consists of a lot of times of saying “Yes!” to ideas and proposals that may be out of the ordinary. I try not to say “No!” when it comes to ideas and proposals. My goal is that staff and students feel comfortable knowing they can try new ways of teaching and learning without the fear of the principal watching over them for mistakes. Empowering students, whether it is with the use of technology or not, happens when leaders focus on growth and learning and ignore the unknown of the end results.

For years in education the focus has been on providing students with information and concentrating on covering standards. Instead of letting educators and students “push the envelope,” we have looked to maintain the status quo and not change as educators. To empower students, we need to create a culture of experimenting and asking questions. We need to try different methods and share with others. Spreading the word throughout the building and community that students and staff can take chances will transform a culture. Sharing the stories of new methods and practices that are successful will only strengthen the belief in students that they are leaders and key pieces in the positive climate of the school culture.

Everyone likes to be recognized. People take notice. Students and staff are no different. Celebrating student and staff success is another major part of empowering students. I especially enjoy seeing students and staff succeed in personalized learning environments. You can feel the sense of accomplishment from students and staff when they succeed knowing it was in their hands and at their pace. Letting others know about those success stories builds confidence in others. Finding ways such as recognizing staff during meetings, highlighting students in newsletters, and congratulating students and staff in the hallways will help spread empowerment through a building.

Glenn Robbins, Principal, Northfield Community Middle School, Northfield, NJ

“Nothing.” Yes, that simple, yet, truthful, one-word answer that every parent, and/or family member receives when they ask a student, “What did you do today at school?” Yes, “nothing” is the very powerful word that students bring home when they aren’t engaged or empowered. In a day and age where advanced technology is available for all ages and can fit in the palms of any hand, there are so many educators that continue to ignore, banish it, or restrict it. We have the opportunity to be connected to infinite resources, worldwide communication, and tools beyond our wildest childhood imaginations, yet we embrace fear when it comes to allowing students to use it in schools. Ultimately, as educators, we must overcome our fears, become more transparent, and establish trust, respect, and student voice. When students feel valued, empowered, and can engage in honest conversations, that’s when “sparks” begin to fly.

Take a moment and think of a time in your life when something or someone caused your mind to reach a state of rapture, which prompted you to share it with everyone. As Jason Silva states, “these moments are what make final cut” and create memories of a lifetime. These moments occur in school when students are empowered by educators to take risks outside their comfort zones, and utilize design thinking and/or personalized learning without the sense of failure, as learning is the main focus—not grades. Student empowerment reawakens curiosity, wonder, and moments of awe, and that is sadly missing in secondary school systems.

“Most creative, successful business leaders have tended to be expert questioners. They’re known to question the conventional wisdom of their industry, the fundamental practices of their company, even the validity of their own assumptions.” (Berger, 2014). We need to continue to question the traditional silos that have been in place for years, because “it’s always been done that way,” and realize that authentic learning can only happen if students and staff are given a chance/voice to create their own beautiful questions.

Winston Sakurai, Principal, Hanalani Upper School, Mililani, HI

It starts with the concept that any student who will contribute to the betterment of their school community can be a leader, regardless of their status or background. If students are equipped to be experts in the process of being collaborative leaders they will harness the resources available, including technology, to pursue the purpose and goals outlined in your school’s mission. It is important for adults to gently nudge students into appropriate group roles to set them up for success. Encouragement and belief in a student’s abilities can go a very long way.

Giving students a voice and acknowledging their contribution can make a real impact on that young person’s life. Even more so when they see their ideas turns into reality. Conversations that take place by throwing out a question on social media can generate hundreds of ideas, some that we may not have even thought of. Even a simple online poll can help with decision making for school enhancement. The ability to communicate with and between students has never been easier. And it pays to be connected to their thoughts and ideas for mutual learning and understanding.

It is imperative for educational leaders to allow students to harness technology to prepare them for a rapidly changing world. Most importantly, we create a growth mindset culture to stimulate their love of learning with the outcome being their ability to grow and persevere through any challenge. By creating authentic opportunities for students to showcase their talents, they will grow in boundless ways that we would never think would be possible. Student empowerment will prepare them for their future with the larger outcome of improving our nation and world.

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