Empowerment in the educational field

Originating from sociology as a discipline and the social work targeting the underprivileged social groups, the concept of empowerment had recently taken new directions of retrieving the voice of socially-situated individuals facing various political, social, educational, and institutional obstacles. Generally, the concept of empowerment implies the existence of powerless individuals or social groups who seek alternative paths to social recognition. They want to free themselves from the shackles of hegemonic and uncompromising systems.

The concept of empowerment has been controversial with no clear-cut delimiting of its meanings as it attributes different things to different actors (Robinson 1994).[1] Empowerment can be roughly defined as a systematic construct that brings together individual strengths and competencies, natural systems, and proactive behaviours to social change and social policy (Rappaport, 1981, 1984). [2] In fact, the term originated from educational and social psychology as a “strategy for individuals to retain control of key aspects of their lives” (Cunningham et al, 1996).[3] In other words, empowerment is considered as “a belief in the power of people to be both the masters of their own fate and involved in the life of their several communities” (Rappaport, 1987).[4]

In this regard, Zimmerman holds that empowerment remains a process that equips people with the necessary tools and opportunities to control their own destiny and take over their life-affecting decisions (1995).[5] In this sense, empowerment is not strictly limited to learning new practical skills, but rather, it necessitates providing new chances and opening new horizons for the individual in social systems (Kieffer, 2014).[6] Lightfoot makes a similar remark by pointing out the role empowerment plays in providing opportunities for people towards autonomy, choice, authority, and responsibility (1986).[7]

Within an educational context, empowerment does not take place just because we wish it to; instead it occurs when we make great effort  in this increasingly changing world where we need to demonstrate trust in teachers to build their own professional communities inside schools and arm them with opportunities for “professional development and growth that reinforce teachers’ self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy” (Connor 2004).[8] In fact, fostering student-teacher empowerment is extremely important in implementing transformational change, thereby nurturing moral commitment towards a collective educational purpose.

Empowerment can be broadly understood in the field of education as “a process through which people and/or communities increase their control or mastery of their own lives and the decisions that affect their lives” (Kriesburg 1992).  The stand of the teachers remains

of an overriding paramountcy in the hierarchy of the empowerment process; simply because there are other participants in the process (including government, education officials, students and parents) who usually threaten the autonomy of teachers in decision making.

That is why twining teachers’ empowerment with their ability to control their own work life, and to effectively participate in practical decision-making on schooling in the educational community would pose a contradiction in the heart of the idea of empowerment (Lawson 2011).  Lawson adds that these two central factors of empowerment as the freedom to make decisions must be “unfettered by the view of other interested groups (government, managers, parents and students) who might also participate in those decision-making processes” (2001, 90).

Our understanding of empowerment is directly aligned with Johnson and Short (1998) who contend that teachers who can ‘design and control their educational services free from a subordinating school administration are more effective than teachers who feel alienated and powerless’. In fact, we think that teachers cannot be creative and ground-breaking unless they are empowered and are involved in educational decision making (Blase & Kirby, 2009). In other words, empowerment involves helping teachers design instructions, become autonomous, and even make work-related decisions. It also entails helping them improve their teaching and develop high-level skills in and outside the workplace (Pellicer and Anderson, 1995).

Teacher training programmes are the cornerstone in the development of future teachers’ intellectual and professional development (strong pedagogical and subject knowledge, collaboration with other teachers, reflection on their own teaching, and empowerment of themselves and others).  As we see it, educational empowerment is usually related to management skills with a high emphasis on the construction of personal motivation and self-esteem. Lichtenstein, McLaughlin, and Knudsen (1991, 5) define this notion in the educational context by stressing that empowered teachers must be endowed with three fundamental types of knowledge: knowledge of professional community, knowledge of education policy, and knowledge of subject area.[9]

In other words, empowered teachers are those leaders who maintain high-level competencies in the taught subject matter, a collaborative team-work spirit and finally a readiness to empower themselves and their entourage. Blase & Blase (2001) summarize this theoretically ideal situation as follows: Teaching is fundamentally a moral (or value-based) activity and, as such, it requires that teachers have the expertise to engage in thoughtful deliberations and professional authority to participate meaningfully in decisions about their schools and classrooms.

Principals who embrace these concepts rather than merely expecting teachers to implement other people’s visions for schools will accord teachers respect and dignity and will help them to be more fully responsible for work-related decisions. This combination of respect and dignity is the essence of empowerment. (3)[10]

During the past few years, education policy-makers and practitioners have centered their interest on a quality teacher education that can guarantee the aforementioned mandatory prerequisites. This attention has been instigated by professional needs, and so teacher educators have become more aware that the relevance and quality of professional training remain essential, can be improved and finally necessitate the adoption of new approaches (Benton, 1990; Ashton, 1983).[11]

Most countries, according to Calderhead & Shorrock (2005), are witnessing a shift towards school-based teacher education where the involvement of teacher mentors in the teacher-training is more significant than ever before and they play a decisive role in providing quality education. “For some student teachers, the mentor can be the main source of information about teaching, the main source of advice and feedback about their own practice, and the main confidant and counsellor when things go wrong. The many ways in which mentors go about their work has only recently come to be studied, and their role and potential effects are still being explored” (Blase & Blase).[12] Teacher training is of paramount importance in enhancing student-teachers’ pedagogical capacities and facilitating their professional development in the long run.

In this regard, Carnegie (2001) offered a sufficient reason to make improving teacher training a central endeavor; to quote him at length: “New and convincing evidence that teaching is more important for schoolchildren than any other condition has been stunning in its clarity and exciting in its implications . . . Now, recent research based upon thousands of pupil records in many different cities and states establishes beyond doubt that the quality of the teacher is the most important cause of pupil achievement. Excellent teachers can bring about remarkable increases in pupil learning even in the face of severe economic or social disadvantage. Such new knowledge puts teacher education squarely at the focus of efforts to improve the intellectual capacity of schoolchildren in the United States. More than ever, the nation needs assurance that colleges and universities are educating prospective teachers of the highest quality possible” (cited in Hoban, 2005).[13]

The main purpose of teacher training, then, must be both professional and ambitious.  Training centers must be seen as good-quality institutions with strong possibilities for student-teachers development, guaranteeing an easy integration in the job market as beginning professional teachers who are “competent, caring, and qualified, will be actively sought by school districts and schools, and will be known for the learning gains made by their pupils” (Hoban, 2005).