Dimensions of Powerful Learning

The Ecology of Powerful Learning

We conceptualize powerful learning as an ecology of interdependent principles and practices that operate harmoniously to yield an environment that encourages students to love learning and to become responsible agents of change in their own lives and the world.  To help understand this ecology, we have organized these principles and practices into four dimensions.  We urge you not to view these dimensions as separate entities. You will note as you read that principles and practices appear in multiple categories. This is intentional.

Empowerment &  Engagement

“Middle school students learn a whole lot better when they are not being lectured to, being directed, forced, or ordered, but when choice is given and learning is interactive.”  – 8th grade student

  • Transitioning from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning
  • Incorporating student voice in decision-making
  • Scaffolding skill development for independent learning

The need for empowerment rests on the premise that human beings are innately driven to learn and create.  So, recognizing and engaging young peoples’ natural curiosities and interests constitutes the initial level of empowerment. From this requisite starting point, when teachers shift the cognitive load to students, students are afforded far richer opportunities to develop the skills and capacities most needed to live well in our ever-changing world.

In other words, powerful learning best occurs when students have a say in what and how they learn. In powerful learning communities, students and teachers collaborate in making a variety of decisions. Optimally, comprehensive empowerment that involves students in every phase of the design, implementation and assessment of their curriculum should be the aim.

While there are numerous ways students might be empowered and engaged, powerful learning demands these conditions:

  • everyone respects the inherent dignity of each individual
  • each individual is committed to the welfare of the community
  • learning and decision-making are collaborative,
  • collaboration is ongoing and continuous
  • individual learning needs and preferences are honored,
  • students are active participants in the learning process.

Assessment for Reflection & Growth

“I like having self-assessments because I don’t get compared to other students’ best; I get compared to my best.” – Eighth Grade Student

  • Developing students’ ability to honestly self-assess and take action to improve learning and or behavior
  • Giving feedback that helps students and parents take steps necessary in meeting a standard or demonstrating mastery
  • Crafting varied, formative, and continuous assessment tools that provide pertinent information

The primary purpose of assessment is to inform and improve learning and enhance student self-awareness and readiness to grow. We believe that traditional assessment often fails to honor this primary purpose and the needed iterative process that contributes to growth. When learning is really worth doing, there is a great deal of knowledge to be shared and reflected upon; and many conventional, quantitative assessments are simply not adequate to capture powerful learning.

Optimal assessment on the other hand, is comprehensive including a wide array of tools and means to allow students to demonstrate what they understand and can do. Assessment that is integral to powerful learning leans heavily on authentic performances and demonstrations that are developed, practiced, critiqued, edited, and refined over time. This allows students to show their growth and reveal deep understanding, as opposed to merely superficial content knowledge.

Finally, we believe that traditional letter grade systems do not adequately reflect this definition of the assessment process, nor do they adequately describe student growth. In fact, grading systems often discourage learning progress. There are far richer ways to describe how well students are progressing. Written comments, checklists, student-led conferences, portfolios, products, student self-assessments, and so on, are more appropriate and necessary for powerful learning, and we encourage educators to develop such means to the greatest possible extent. Such assessments take place both while units are underway and when they are near an end.

Community & Collaboration

 “If you don’t feel safe, you can’t learn much.” -7th grader   

  • Building a safe, nurturing, and respectful environment
  • Learning through successful collaboration
  • Taking responsibility for one’s own effort and action
  • Valuing and modeling democracy in the classroom
We believe that powerful learning is transformative learning: learning that leads to significant changes in how young people see themselves, others, and their role in the world. With this end in mind, classroom life ought to allow students to pursue curricular goals in ways that also help them learn how to care for others, work with varying personalities, take risks to advance their learning, and collaborate to extend their own learning and the learning of their fellow students. To provide for such learning, classrooms must be far more than friendly and civil collections of seated strangers.
We propose that classrooms ought to be characterized by high levels of social trust, shared commitment, shared decision-making, mutual respect, and steady collaboration. In such settings, teachers and students:
  • value the social curriculum associated with learning to live in community
  • develop plans for how they will live and learn together
  • continuously assess the growth and development of the community
  • see classroom diversity as an asset; not a problem
  • collaborate in learning and in sharing that learning, and
  • spend time in reflection and careful deliberation about learning and community life.

This is not the ‘soft stuff’ of education, nor is it the other side of the report card to be conducted outside the boundaries of academic learning. It is at the heart of what makes powerful learning possible, and at the center of education’s capacity to have enduring value to our learners.

Content with Meaningful Context

“What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his soul.” – John Dewey, 1938, p.49.
  • Exploring socially significant content in an integrated manner
  • Helping students learn to ask questions that take them deeper into understanding content
  • Recognizing the power and importance of student generated questions in the learning process
  • Connecting local, national, and global concerns with required standards such as the Common Core 
  • Helping students apply knowledge responsibly to affect positive changes in their world

Amassing large amounts of disparate content knowledge is not the aim of powerful learning. Rather, the aim of powerful  learning is to insure that young people see knowledge as vital to living well in our world. The way we present and deliver our content standards ultimately defines powerful learning. Powerful learning is not a game of trivial pursuit in which students gather an array of information and skills. Instead it is concerned with big ideas and compelling questions that are significant in the lives of young adolescents and the larger world. What is known and valued within traditional disciplines of knowledge is extremely important, but it is not all of what is known or valued. Powerful leaning takes seriously what young adolescents bring to school in terms of their own experiences, their social cultures, and popular culture. To ignore these not only narrows the field of knowledge, but devalues the lives of students.

Powerful learning best occurs when the curriculum taught:

  • has a meaningful context; a context drawn from the lives of students and the living world. leads young adolescents to investigate significant social issues, to confront contradictions in the larger society, and raise questions about fairness and justice.
  • is organized to facilitate interdisciplinary perspectives.
  • leans on significant questions rather than a known set of answers.