Swimming Against the Tide: Systemic Challenges to Empowered Learning

Concurrent Session 6

Brief Abstract

Empowered learning implies that students have power over their learning. However, we create a range of structures, from grades to degree programs to rigid scheduling, that fundamentally disempower students within the walls of the classroom. The presenter will analyze his attempts to create an empowered learning environment within a required liberal arts class at a community college.


Tom Haymes brings with him a unique combination of experience. From over 30 years in technology (going back to his Apple ][+ in 1981) to over 30 years in photography (Haymes Images Website) to over 15 years as an educator to 25 years as a political scientist. For the last 12+ years he has been a technologist, which combines all of these experiences in a unique way. IdeaSpaces is an outgrowth of Tom's interest in design and the visual aspects of environment combined with his social scientist’s interest in organizational change and growth. Tom is also a keen historian who has published articles on military history, particularly as it relates to innovation, and uses his extensive research in that area to inform him of the history of successes and failures that led us to today. Tom is the proud father of five ambassadors to the future (Nikki, Tessa, Carter, Rob, and Lexy) and married to a wonderful woman who keeps it all together for him. His LinkedIn Profile can be found at: www.linkedin.com/in/tomhaymes He Tweets at: @ideaspacesnet His Email is: tom@ideaspaces.net His Photography Email is: tom@haymesimages.com His full CV can be found at: http://www.ideaspaces.net/about

Extended Abstract

We like to think we are creating environments that stimulate empowered learning and many have developed creative and groundbreaking strategies in this area.This often comes to a screeching halt when extrinsic motivators such as grades, transcripts, and required courses come into play. For instance, in Texas every student is legislatively required to take 6 credit hours of history and 6 credit hours of government. I have taught government for over 15 years and have constantly sought to iterate against the reality that 98% of my students were there unwillingly. While every student needs to have some understanding of his or her cultural and political context going into life, most of them don’t truly appreciate that no matter how many times you repeat it to them.

This setting, however, provides an ideal laboratory for experiments in empowered learning. If anything, it’s a real acid test trying to get students to engage with the material with any sort of depth. While it may be easy to teach the class as a collection of facts, I have never been satisfied with this kind of approach. College is about deeper learning and the development of the facilities associated with critical thinking. These days the development of additional skills associated with “Four Cs” (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) coupled with an easy facility with technology are even more critical to a student’s post-college success than ever before.

In this kind of environment turning the concept of empowered learning into practical action to create these kinds of learning opportunities is not an insignificant challenge. I looked at the psychological literature on Flow to provide me with some logical guidance in structuring the activities of my classes. Shernoff and Csikszentmihalyi argue that “concentration, attentiveness, and student engagement were significantly higher when instruction was perceived as challenging and relevant.” (Shernoff and Csikszentmihalyi, 2008).


Over the past year, teaching at an innovation campus, I made a significant effort to craft and teach a basic American government course using principles of Flow-inspired empowered learning. To create an atmosphere of relevance, I stole a page from College Unbound and asked each student to write down three areas of interest on an index card. I then used these interest areas to group the students into different groups based on interest area. Each student worked independently on a subset of collaboratively-developed questions that were particularly relevant to him or her and relating them back to the government curriculum.

The basic structure of the course was that each group helped each other during the course of the week to design blog entries on a public, class-wide WordPress blog that related their particular questions to the areas of government we were discussing that week. The groups were designed to modulate challenge by creating opportunities for peer learning while giving me the opportunity to work the classroom to assist students individually and in small groups in mastering the difficult challenges of critical and associative thinking and writing. Furthermore, students were expected to comment on each other’s work and the entire blogging site was designed to iterative design-thinking change around the students’ work as they repeated the blogging exercise several times throughout the semester. The entire effort was designed to build toward the creation of a web-based portfolio assignment at the end of the semester.

Within about two weeks the systemic limitations of my strategy, however, started to become apparent. As I began to assign points to various student activities, all of which were clearly linked to the larger challenge of them being able to create better blog entries and ultimately to create the portfolio, the students quickly became obsessed with gaming their point totals. Grades became a proxy for learning and replaced the intended mastery goal orientation with a counterproductive performance goal orientation. This effect compromised the efficacy of the exercise (Shernoff and Csikszcentmihalyi, 2014, p. 13) by limiting engagement and the growth of learning.

These systemic barriers get in the way of getting students to apply relevance and challenge in a productive way. No matter how well designed, opportunities for Flow compete within structures that are inherently compromised by an overweening focus on grades, transcripts, and credit hours. Relevance quickly narrows to the impact the class will have on students’ transcripts and challenge becomes all about gaming the class to achieve that relevance.

This session will present outcomes and assessments of my attempts to create a Flow-based empowered learning scenario through 10+ sections taught at two different campuses at a community college in an urban/suburban setting. While outcomes are anecdotal in nature, they do point to significant challenges facing the Empowered Learning paradigm presented by traditional systems of higher education and point to the impact these have on the student culture of learning. At the end of the session, I will challenge participants think about strategies that work to minimize negative, extrinsic motivators in favor of the intrinsic motivators that we know stimulate true learning and understanding.

(I would be happy to consider turning this into a workshop if the committee feels that that is a better format for this presentation. I intend to keep the talk under 30 minutes as I set up the problem and framework for the audience.)