5 Key Elements for Youth Empowerment

Million Dollar Question: Why do we have schools?!

We believe schools are meant to fully prepare students for future success

That's a really broad vision and leads to some major quagmires that educators (and everyone else) continue to debate, and will likely never stop debating. It leads to some more thought-provoking questions to examine:

  • How do we define success?
  • Success at what? Being happy? Living healthy lives? Being financial independent or engaged citizens that solve messy problems?
  • What does success include? Should we focus on content knowledge, specific skills, a mindset?
  • How do we know what success looks like?
  • And on, and on, and on

These are really important questions to ask and explore. We believe education should be all of things and more. 

We see it as, "Yes, and..."

One of the most important skills we can equip students with is a sense of self-empowerment. Empowerment is the ability, and courage, to dive into any challenge without waiting for permission from someone else. It’s the drive to take a project, initiative, or crazy idea even when we lack information or resource. It is the willingness to try, to learn from our mistakes, and to be persistent.

We encourage students to be doers. In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi, we push students to be the change they want to see in the world. We call this empowerment, but it can go by many names including agency, action, leadership, or grit (and plenty more).

How do we create opportunities for student empowerment?

Through our work with students, we believe there are 5 key elements for creating empowering learning experiences:

2-day Epiic Solutions Entrepreneurship Workshop with teens from Subiré High School. Mexico

2-day Epiic Solutions Entrepreneurship Workshop with teens from Subiré High School. Mexico

  1. Student-Driven:
    There’s nothing quite like the motivation that comes from digging into a topic or problem you’re truly curious and/or passionate about. This internal motivation is the driving force to continue down meandering paths and fully immerse ourselves in the work. Help students figure out what lights them up by giving them opportunities to ask lots of questions, discuss ideas with others, and explore many different interests before deciding on a juicy project/topic.
    Learn more about motivation from one of our favorite authors, Daniel Pink.
  2. Opportunity to Stretch Knowledge and Skills:
    We all love a challenge – it’s why our culture (and many education tools) are all about gamification. The key to a game is that it’s just a little bit beyond what we’re capable of doing. We die over and over again, but rather than get discouraged, we keep trying until we finally learn enough to achieve our goal. Empower students to stretch themselves in the same way. There’s no way teachers can possibly provide ALL the information or skills students need to dig into meaty topics in advance, especially if it’s a student-driven topic. A great way to empower students is to hand over the responsibility of finding the information and building the skills they need as they encounter roadblocks.
    A little secret - it turns out that not needing to be the keeper of information is really empowering for educators too. Embrace Elsa’s wise words and “Let it Go.”
  3. Practice, Practice, Practice:
    Unfortunately, this does not happen overnight. As in any skill, students need ample opportunities to practice being empowered. Start small and find ways to build in more student choice and self-directed learning opportunities. Help students strengthen their empowerment muscle by providing authentic ways to apply skills and seek new knowledge, where the student gradually takes on more and more of the responsibility.
  4. Support from Experienced Mentors (Adults and Peers):
    Even as students take on more of a role in their learning, they still need help and guidance. One of the best ways you can empower students is to become a resource and sounding board. Bring in mentors from outside the school that can help fill in some of the student knowledge and/or skill gaps and be a devil’s advocate. Best of all, encourage students to seek support from their peers! After all, the best way to demonstrate you know something is to teach it to others.
  5. Share in an Authentic Way:
    Give students an opportunity to share what they’ve accomplished with an authentic population outside of their classroom. This could include community presentations, a blog or website that documents what they’ve learned, presenting work to local a company and more! Showcase and celebrate what students have accomplished, and focus more on the process and learning than just the final product. Student confidence blossoms when they believe their voice and work matters.

Two Prime Examples of Youth Empowerment in Action:

MetroHacks: 
Last weekend Epiic Solutions was invited to participate in MetroHack’s high school hackathon. This completely student-organized event attracted over 250 teens from New England and beyond (some even flew in from Europe). It was an extremely impressive learning experience that reinforced the value and impact of youth empowerment, both for the leadership team and the participants. Students formed their own teams, picked an interesting and engaging problem to tackle, and developed an innovative tech solution – all within 24 hours! The leadership team organized the sponsorship, engaged local mentors and judges, and provided tech support for beginning hackers. From first-time hackers to returning veterans, everyone was all-in.

Over 250+ teens participated in MetroHack's 2nd Annual Hackathon in Boston

Over 250+ teens participated in MetroHack's 2nd Annual Hackathon in Boston

IMPACT Philly Project:
We also recently spoke with two teachers from Mercy Vocational High School, Lori and Mary,  to learn more their Business track and 10th/11th grade program, IMPACT Philly Project. Over the two years, students are exposed to the design thinking process and given more and more independence as they explore a community issue they are passionate about. Through partnerships with various community organizations, students dig deeper into the problem and challenges with current solutions; work together to build prototypes of innovative solutions, and collaborate with other teachers and peers to bring these ideas to life. While Lori and Mary provide some constraints and parameters, students are given flexible project milestones that empower them take projects in any direction.
Learn more on the Mercy CTE Business blog