With Great Power…
Comes the chance to unleash every child’s potential
If parents and educators want to maximize children’s school experiences this fall, they must understand the connection between power and responsibility. This is true regardless the school approach being used — in-person, virtual, hybrid, pandemic pod, home school, or something else.
You probably know how my title quote is supposed to end. Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker (AKA Spider Man): “With great power comes great responsibility.” But there is a crucial hidden message in those words that holds unbelievable promise for our increasingly chaotic world. Understanding this hidden message is critical if children are to truly learn, grow, and develop this coming school year and into the future.
The hidden message? With no power comes no responsibility.
None of us — not adults, not children, not anyone — can be responsible for something over which we don’t have power. Let that sink in. Without power, there can be no responsibility.
We may be held accountable for things over which we don’t have power.
We may be told to take responsibility for things over which we don’t have power.
We may even feel a sense of responsibility for things over which we don’t have power.
But we can’t actually be responsible for things over which we don’t have power.
This is at the heart of society’s greatest challenges because, in the absence of power and subsequent responsibility, everything comes down to negotiations. In the absence of power and responsibility, consequences (rewards and punishments or benefits and costs) must drive action.
To get someone to do something over which they don’t have power requires determining the incentive level necessary to drive the desired behavior — that is, how big a reward or how dire a punishment. This is the foundation of law and order, much parenting, some relationships, many jobs, and of course, school.
When the factory model of school was created, it was soon apparent children wouldn’t attend by choice. Literally, school was and is compulsory.
Consequently, keeping groups of rambunctious children under control so teachers could deliver curriculum (which, unfortunately, was and is the primary purpose of nearly all schools) required systems of compliance. Rewards and punishments were established and reinforced by parents to keep children in school and well behaved.
That approach seemed to work well for many decades until we began to check actual student learning. We then found this approach wasn’t really effective for learning. So began decades of efforts to improve learning but without changing the underlying approach.
We told children to “take responsibility” for learning. We added countless interventions to help children learn and created numerous new rewards and punishments to incentive learning. We tried to make parents more “responsible” for their children’s learning (as well as attendance and conduct). Through it all we failed to understand this was impossible.
Neither the children nor the parents had any power over the education process, so they could not be responsible for learning. And nothing has changed in the 125 years since the factory model was developed. For the record, giving children and parents choices — such as a choice of projects or books, a few (or even many) class choices, or even school choice when all the schools use some variation of the factory model — is not giving them power.
If we want children to take responsibility for their learning — that is, if we want them to make a commitment to their learning — they must have power over all aspects of that learning. The more real power they have, the greater their responsibility and commitment.
That does not mean cutting children loose and saying, “Decide what you want to do and do it.” Rather, it means a collaborative partnership between children, their families, educators, and — ideally — their communities. All those people have a stake in the progress and success of the children, and they all have something to offer in that journey.
The “secret sauce” of making this work is something nearly every parent already knows: Give children the space necessary to take risks while providing enough oversight to keep serious harm from occurring. Consider when children learn to talk, walk, ride a bike, or pursue any skill they want to pursue.
They first need space. For talking, there need to be gaps in conversations and people around to respond — provide reinforcement — as they start forming words and sentences. If they are encouraged to keep trying, even though they initially make no sense, they will progress and eventually succeed. Imagine if we told children what their first words had to be and then scolded them when they made nonsense sounds or said other words.
The same goes for walking. There need to be places they can try to walk without getting seriously injured as well as people encouraging them, giving them verbal rewards for trying, even as they continuously fail and fall. Again, imagine if we scolded them every time they tried to walk and fell.
There are two other essential ingredients. The first is having examples to follow and mimic. The more children hear people speaking, the better prepared they will be to learn language and the greater will be there appreciation for learning language, even if that appreciation is not conscious to the children.
The more children see others walking and running and going where they want, the more they will see the value of walking and the mechanics of it, even if not consciously.
The final ingredient is autonomy. To effectively develop a skill, children must want to develop that skill and be developmentally ready. Parents today are taught not to push their children to talk and walk or develop other basic skills.
Pediatricians tell parents children do these things when ready. Pushing them to learn anything they don’t want to learn or for which they are not ready will lead to frustration and stress which actually impedes learning.
Yet, our entire school model does just that. It delivers curriculum and tells children what they will learn, when they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate that learning. Is it any wonder our children are not flourishing in schools? And even those doing well are not approaching their potential.
To give power to children so they will take responsibility for their learning, they need an environment where they: want to learn; observe others constantly learning; see the value of learning; and feel confident and safe so are willing to take risks.
That environment must include mutual respect and trust so children will listen to and engage with the counsel of the educators, parents, and community members as well as their fellow students.
Those supporting the children can then guide and mentor them toward knowledge and skills needed to thrive in our world but without dictating the specifics or setting the time line.
Creating this secret sauce is extremely challenging only because we are trapped in a mindset of delivering curriculum to students grouped together based on age. Once we accept this approach is counterproductive, we can move toward building an environment that gives children the power over their learning so they will accept responsibility for it.
While that may be too big a lift for many right now, considering the power-responsibility connection can help maximize learning in any environment. Wherever possible, seek ways to give power to children and move away from negotiating as a means to have them engage.
And at all costs, avoid giving students false choices or manipulating them by trying to convince them they have power they don’t actually have. They’ll see right through it and lose trust in and respect for those involved. It’s better to be honest and discuss their lack of power and what that means for their current choices. That is one way to begin prepping them and others to actually move toward that secret sauce when the time is right.
A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.