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  • Writer's picturearniebieber

Empowered Students, Empowered Teachers

ISP Senior “skip day” protest

Earth club students lobby the school administration to remove all non-reusable bottles from the cafeteria. Elementary students design systems to improve the cafeteria. Spectrum club students raise school wide awareness to LGBTQ+ rights. Seniors use their “skip day” to join world wide student protests against climate change. These are just a few of the ways in which students at ISP are making a difference.

ISP Seniors “strike for climate”

Over the years ISP has been on a mission-driven journey to Inspire, Engage and Empower learners to lead healthy, fulfilling and purposeful lives, preparing them to adapt and contribute responsibly to our changing world.

ISP Mission at the schools entrance

Now with our strategy, ISP2020, the school community is ready to take the next step in our exciting learning journey of unleashing our collective potential. As we approach the year 2020 our focus is firmly on student empowerment.

During faculty orientation this year, we explored how we can empower our students so that they truly have a “seat at the table” of their own learning and the life of the school. After all, how will they develop the skills and competencies they need if they don’t have the opportunity to try, fail, learn and succeed. It has been an exciting process as teachers learned from and with each other about what an empowered student looks like. While we see many examples of student agency, we are now ready to take the next step towards empowered students or what Seymour Papert called “child power.”

What is an empowered student? While there are many answers and as many questions, school leaders must be willing to take a hard look at our structures and systems. Where are the authentic opportunities for students to co-design their own learning? When we create rules and guidelines, where is the student involvement and impact? When we make decisions affecting student experiences, in an out of school, do they have a seat at the table? How can students possibly learn how to take a stand, have a responsible impact and think for themselves, if their lives at school are primarily about compliance; grades, schedules, homework, dress code etc.?

If not now, then when? The lesson of Greta Thunberg.

When, if not when they are in school, can students learn in a safe environment about their own capacities to make a difference as global citizens? During one of our orientation meetings, we listened to 16 year old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, speaking to the EU Parliament. After which we asked the simple question: In what ways is Greta Thunberg an empowered learner?

After watching the above video, I encourage you to consider the same question: In what ways is Greta Thunberg an empowered learner? What are the qualities that make her an empowered learner and how can we support our own students to develop some of these qualities for themselves?

Empowered Teachers

Last but not least, in order for students to be empowered, we need empowered teachers. Empowered teachers have the latitude to make professional decisions based on the mission and philosophy of the school. If teachers feel that they too are limited by the system, they will always feel they need to ask permission to try out new ideas in support of student learning. They will wait for someone else to tell them what to do. They will not have the opportunity to act as empowered and trusted professionals who can truly make a difference. Schools need empowered teachers!


A useful filter for what an empowered student, teacher, staff member or parent looks like, is the S.C.A.R.F. model developed by neuroscientist David Rock. SCARF is shorthand for:

  1. Status: Our relative importance to others

  2. Certainty: Our being able to predict the future

  3. Autonomy: Our sense of control over events

  4. Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others

  5. Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

The SCARF model, based on Rock’s brain research, reflects our primordial biological need as human beings for interconnectedness AND autonomy. Both students and teachers in schools need these characteristics in order to thrive and make a difference.

David Rock’s SCARF Model


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