This blog post is written by Gaston Bacquet, a second-year doctoral student at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education working under the supervision of Prof. Carol Fuller and Dr. Anna Tsakalaki. Here, he reflects on his latest findings regarding how teachers can empower learners in order to encourage self-agency and foster greater inclusion. Gaston’s research interests include learner identity, investment and empowerment in language learning, multiculturalism and inclusive education. His PhD research will attempt to investigate how languages can be used to achieve further social inclusion.
Empowerment in language learning
“… empowerment is a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power (that is, the capacity to implement) in people, for use in their own lives, their communities, and in their society, by acting on issues that they define as important.”
(Page & Czuba, 1999, p.1)
To understand what empowerment really means as far as language learners are concerned and why it is important, it is first necessary to go back to 1981, when Julian Rappaport proposed his empowerment model while examining what he called ‘’the paradoxical nature of social and community problems’’ (1981, p. 2). He exemplifies this by situating freedom and equality: the more freedom you give people in a group, he claims, the more power the stronger will be able to accrue and exert, to the detriment of the seemingly weaker members. Hence, freedom is annihilated.
Here we come to a key term, what Pierre Bourdieu (1986) labeled as “linguistic capital”; this can be explained as the accumulation of a person’s language resources and the role these resources play in navigating preexisting social power dynamics.
Language learners are faced with very particular challenges, in that the lack of linguistic capital has a direct impact in the degree of social belonging and freedom they experience; this lack of resources creates social inequality in the way of access to jobs, education and attainment, which is why it becomes important to find ways to empower learners in the unequal world they find themselves in.
The operating word here is power; in a succinct paper that attempted to define both power and empowerment, Czuba and Page claim that power ‘’does not exist in isolation but within the context of a relationship’ (1999, p. 1). This is the crux of the matter: these relationships, naturally though not always intentionally unequal, are also changeable and then it follows that so is the power that pervades them. Empowerment then is the process by which these relationships change once people are equipped, both socially and motivationally, to take affirmative action in regard to the existing balance of power.
State of research
There has been work done in this area: Norton (1995) who proposed her Classroom-Based Social Research, in which learners become researchers of sorts under the encouragement of teachers; they record their own experiences in regard to their social interactions and differences, as well as their habits and customs. Brunton and Jeffrey (2014) examined some of the factors that might lead to empowerment with foreign students in New Zealand, and more recently Diaz, Cochran and Karlin (2016) conducted a study in American classrooms to investigate the impact of teachers’ behaviour and communication strategies on students’ achievement and feeling of empowerment.
Though enlightening in some ways, these studies are not without their limitations in perspective. Empowerment, in the context of language learning in the classroom (such as what my PhD research is trying to investigate), has a number of other dimensions. Following up on an earlier paper by Shulman, McCormack and Luechauer (1993), Frymier, Shulman and Houser (1996) established three of them: that being empowered means to feel motivated, competent about what one is doing and that our actions have an impact. We can see how each of these dimensions has a prevalent presence in language learning and easily be related to the process of communicating in another language.
There are two things these studies have in common: one, is that empowerment of language learners is consistently linked to teachers’ attitudes and behaviour as well as situational factors both in and out of the classroom; the other is that because of that very reason, the teacher’s role is key in helping these learners become more empowered by developing and using strategies that can help build self-confidence, and thus self-esteem.
Brunton and Jeffrey (2014), for example, described the different types of power a teacher can exert (ranging from coercive and using threats to rewarding and using reinforcement), as well as the attitudes and behaviors that in the eyes of the students make a good or bad teacher.
In addition to the above and drawing from John Dewey’s ideas from the late 19th / early 20th century, Luff and Webster (2014) found an idea that, in this researcher’s opinion, lies the foundation for the pedagogical interventions teachers should choose as guiding principles, and that is participation. Dewey argued that “…absence of participation tends to produce lack of interest and concern…(sic) resulting in lack of responsibility” (1937, p. 314); in thinking about what this participation looks like, Luff and Webster described it as the learners’ active engagement once positive relationships and partnerships have been developed.
What language teachers can do
We can see then, in light of all the aforementioned studies, how important teachers’ attitudes and behaviour are in the development of more empowered learners. Extrapolating from these studies, below are some of the actions teachers can engage in:
- Developing positive relationships with language learners, based on collaboration rather than imposition, so as to help offset the existing power structure of the classroom in which teachers are seen as hierarchically superior due to their greater linguistic capital.
- Exhorting learners to become active participants in learning activities by shifting the power flow towards them: this includes the learners themselves making choices regarding their own educational input when applicable, and having an equal voice in the classroom. Examples of this can be negotiated grading, having focus groups, and collaborative language learning projects in which the teacher is just another participant, such as shared research, posters, digital storytelling and group writing.
- Encouraging and support language learners’ efforts to engage in learning activities outside the classroom as well, in order to help them become more autonomous and agents of their own learning process, such as finding opportunities to socialize with others, recording their personal experiences, gaining exposure to the language they are learning through music, videos, films and books, and keeping journal entries with the outcomes of these for personal reflection, written in their second language.
Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood.
Brunton, M., & Jeffrey, L. (2014). Identifying factors that influence the learner empowerment of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 43(B), 321–334.
Dewey, J. (1937). Democracy and educational administration. School and Society, 45, 457–67.
Diaz, A., Cochran, K. & Karlin, N. (2016). The Influence of teacher power on English language learners’ self-perceptions of learner empowerment. College Teaching, 64(4), 158-167.
Frymier, A. B., Shulman, G. M., & Houser, M. L. (1996). The development of a learner empowerment measure. Communication Education, 45, 181–199.
Luff, P. & Webster, R. (2014). Democratic and participatory approaches: Exemplars from early childhood education. Management in Education, 28(4), 138-143.
Page, N., & Czuba, C. E. (1999). Empowerment: What is it? Journal of Extension, 37(5), 24–32.
Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 9-31.
Rappaport, J. (1981). In praise of paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention. American Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 1-25.
Shulman, G., McCormack, A., Luechauer, D., & Shulman, C. (1993). Using the journal assignment to create empowered learners: An application of writing across the curriculum. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 4, 89-104.