Empowerment in Action

Empowerment is one of those concepts that can take on a spectrum of meaning and, as a result, end up meaning very little. It can be a very over-used term and freely sprouted in any narrative about outcomes, as if those most in need will suddenly be able to do something about their disadvantage. So, in a school context what does empowerment end up looking like in action?
The new Strategic Plan is done and soon to be launched, partly deferred because of my absence from school. Driving the new direction of the plan are those core values that we all want front, centre and visible.

One of those values is empowerment.

Empowerment is one of those concepts that can take on a spectrum of meaning and, as a result, end up meaning very little. It can be a very over-used term and freely sprouted in any narrative about outcomes, as if those most in need will suddenly be able to do something about their disadvantage. So, in a school context what does empowerment end up looking like in action?

With my Mathematics teacher hat on I have resorted to a formula that best explains it.
Agency + Motivation + Understanding = Empowerment

When a young person develops a rich understanding of an issue, concern or problem such as climate change, it can initiate a willingness to do something about it. Most often that action simply remains a goodwill thought or the action is very short lived or shallow. Our students at St John’s engage everyday in a curriculum of relevance and authenticity. We bring the issues and problems to the classroom and twist and weave the foundational knowledge of subjects like Maths, Science, English and Humanities into almost thematic approaches at times. It’s really impressive stuff and such a quantum leap from the past eras of textbook and exam-driven programming.

When the same students then live a school life where they are constantly prompted to take responsibility for change, to hear further about issues from the very people that have been impacted upon, you create a personal motivation for much more conviction. St John’s Grammar sets a mission that we want our kids to be aware and understand what’s happening around them but also accept that they are well placed and should do something about making change happen. We unashamedly saturate the airways with these stories and portrayals of need and help with intent of having young people be moved and motivated through the heart. They feel compassion and empathy, they understand this concept called love and practise it, they sense what a connected and compassionate community is all about.

This all sounds well and good but if you want true, purposeful and sustained action that penetrates to where it needs to have impact, you need the tools and skills that enable change.

And that is where equipping agency as a learning outcome for young people is just so pivotal. Agency is not student voice. It is the ability for young people to develop critical insights into the problem or issue that is important to them and dive into how to resolve it or change things for the better. Students best exercise agency in a collaborative way so working in teams and partnerships is fundamental to success here. At St John’s we have been talking up the agency concept for the past three years, particularly in the enterprise-learning domain but true agency in and out of the curriculum is happening in every year level and on a regular basis.

Put simply if you have a good understanding of the problem, you are moved and motivated to do something about the problem and have key insights and tools into how to solve and change things for the better. In particular, when you are surrounded by a chorus of support you can be more powerful in making things happen.

One thing for me that has emerged from my own illness is how immune to action I have been in the past to advocating or supporting the cancer research and care campaign.

So many people I know, friends, parents, students have been impacted but I have not been active or prudent enough to really understand this impact and, as a consequence, have not been able to forward the best type of support I could provide. How that’s changed now with a big dose of empathy that has been pumped through my system along with the myriad of painkillers! And as I read and learn more about the amazing, brilliant advances being made and the importance of further funding to keep the momentum rolling with cancer treatment, the more I am motivated to join the campaign. One of Adelaide’s most successful businessmen Gordon Pickard gets it. His own successful battle with cancer prompted the generous philanthropic action on his part of donating DeVinci machines in our hospitals and millions more for further research. His quest was to make world-leading treatment available for everyone in Adelaide.

Each year we send out into the world a cohort of graduates who have skills and talents that could make the world a better place. For St John’s that’s simply not enough. We want those graduates to be filled with a motivation and responsibility to use those talents and that expertise for the benefit of others and to have the political and social savviness to know how to make change happen where it is needed most.

That’s empowerment!

Take care.

Richard Anderson
Principal

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