Empowerment: The Key to the Future


WholeChildBannerBy Kevin Parr

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

ParrEmpowermentJohn F. Kennedy issued this call at Rice University to encourage Americans to support the first manned mission to the moon in 1962. His powerful words ushered in a new era of space exploration that stretched Americans’ thinking and capacity to innovate. Since then, the U.S. manned space program has been constantly evolving. From the Apollo program to the Space Shuttle program to the International Space Station, NASA has been pushing the impossible further and further from Earth. Unless NASA changes its thinking and way of doing things, however, these manned missions may have reached their limit.

Interestingly, throughout this time of increased space exploration, U.S. schools have remained largely unchanged. Despite radical advancements in technology and brain research and an understanding of the skills that are necessary for success in today’s world, the school experience for most kids closely resembles that of the kids who watched Walter Cronkite broadcast Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind. Perhaps, then, our schools can learn from NASA what it means to constantly evolve and meet the challenges of the day.

What NASA Has Learned

A recent article in The Atlantic describes NASA’s historic change as a result of increasingly longer space missions and its goal to take mankind to Mars by 2030. Throughout the history of the manned space program, every aspect of an astronaut’s life and work was managed from Mission Control in Houston. With its sights on Mars, however, NASA realizes that astronaut empowerment is key. The article explains, “On a trip to Mars, the distances are so great that a single voice or e-mail exchange would involve a 30-minute round-trip. That one change, among the thousand others that going to Mars would require, would alter the whole dynamic of life in space. The astronauts would have to handle things themselves.”

Empowering astronauts does not come natural for NASA’s Mission Control and will be an uncomfortable but necessary change. As Charles Fishman, author of the article, explains, “Learning to let astronauts manage their own lives in space is going to be as hard as any engineering challenge NASA has faced—and it’s an element of space travel neither Houston nor American astronauts have any experience with.” He continues, “The real question is what autonomy for space travelers would look like—and how Houston can best support it.” No doubt, NASA will overcome this obstacle as they have time and time again throughout history.

What Our Schools Can Learn from Mission Control

In 2030, the same year NASA hopes to send an astronaut to Mars, our current preschoolers will be graduating high school. The difference between the world these graduates will encounter and the one we encountered as graduates will be akin to the magnitude of Mars compared to the magnitude of the moon. Unlike NASA, however, our schools have largely remained the same over time. Even though the world is demanding more creativity, innovation, and collaboration, our schools are still based on memorization, conformity, and isolation.

Our schools can learn a lesson from NASA about empowerment. Just as NASA realized that going to Mars requires astronaut autonomy, our schools need to realize that meeting the needs and challenges of the day lies with and within the students they serve. Simply mandating more creativity, innovation, and collaboration will always fall short because the very foundation of our schools is based on control. In order for these ideals to truly flourish, teachers need to make a bold first move to empower students. We must remember that our students are innately creative, innovative, and collaborative and that we suppress these things with our control. Empowerment is the key that will unlock them.

Every teacher can find ways to empower students that involve a comfortable level of risk for both them and their students. Here are some examples, from low risk to high risk, of ways teachers can empower students:

  • Self-Selection: Empowering students can be as simple as letting them choose their own books or writing topics. For example, instead of instructing students to write a narrative about their summer vacation, teachers can broaden the topic to allow students to write about any enjoyable time they have had. This helps students’ develop decision-making autonomy. The same is true for students’ book choices: let them choose what to read, or at least give them options from which to choose.
  • WIN Time: What I Need time is time set aside for students to focus on an area, skill, or standard in need of improvement. WIN time can take many forms, but it is most powerful when students are able to set goals, direct their own learning paths, and assess their progress along the way. With WIN time, students are empowered to learn and grow.
  • Project-Based Learning: Project-based learning poses a real-world problem and invites students to generate the questions they will need to answer to solve the problem and determine how they might find the answers to these questions. As students work toward presenting their project to an authentic audience, they are empowered to ask questions, challenge each other’s thinking, consult experts, and direct their course of inquiry. At its core, project-based learning plans for and encourages student voice and choice.
  • Genius Hour: Genius hour stems from Google’s wildly successful “20% time” in which company employees are allowed 20 percent of their time to work on any project of their interest. Thus, genius hour is time set aside for students to pursue a passion. They make a plan, research a topic, monitor their progress, and, ultimately, create a product to be shared. The focus of genius hour is on autonomy and creativity.

Granting students more control over their learning may seem like a leap of faith, but once initiated, it will become infectious. Teachers will begin to realize the full potential of their students and how much they had previously underestimated them. Furthermore, once students are empowered—and only when students are empowered—teachers will truly understand who their students are and what they really need. Teachers will realize that what their students need most is not related to a technical skill but rather to emotional and physical safety and well-being and a purpose for their work. That is one of NASA’s key to success. And it will be one of our schools’ keys to success. And together we will send mankind to Mars.

In this light, it is fitting that ASCD is going to Houston for its 2015 annual conference this month. In the shadows of the Johnson Space Center and Mission Control, thousands of educators, scholars, and education thought leaders will explore the conference theme: Challenging Convention: Leading Disruptive Innovation. It is certain that students will be at the center of each discussion, and, after having their own beliefs challenged, attendees will be a little more prepared to empower students and find ways to give them the support they need.


Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington, and a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master’s degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on ASCD EDge®, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr.



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