This quote comes from Cambourne's theory of learning as it relates to responsibility. I see this "disempowerment" in the secondary math classes that I observe and the college courses that I teach. Students are constantly waiting for someone else, usually the teacher, to tell them what to do. The time when this is most evident is when a student finishes an assigned task and sits back waiting for the teacher to answer the question, "Now what?"
Disempowerment has tremendous consequences. It removes from the student the responsibility to be a self-directed learner. Once a task is complete, they fail to consider what might come next which results in a loss of cognitive momentum - disengagement. Their need to be directed by others to explore beyond the assigned task is unsustainable. What happens when a teacher is not available to tell them what comes next? They sit and wait.
This is why I spend a great deal of time in my classes, especially those populated with teachers-in-training, encouraging them to ask the "Now what?" question to themselves and not wait for me to tell them what comes next. Granted, this is not easy at first since it runs counter to years of training, but with time I have found that I can gradually release the responsibility of identifying extensions to my learners. It usually starts with me explicitly identifying the disempowerment issue and modeling what self-directed learners might do with extra time on their hands. After modeling this behavior multiple times, I share with my learners the responsibility of coming up with ways to maintain our momentum. My goal is that eventually learners will develop their own approach to extending their learning and thus empowering themselves.
An example of sharing this responsibility comes from a probability and statistics course I have taught for preservice K-8 math teachers. The activity is based on an article from Ann Lawrence, "From The Giver to Twenty-One Balloons: Explorations with Probability." I like this article because it models several possible extensions students might consider to further their learning. For example, after working on several probability problems related to The Giver, the middle school students in the article are asked to write their own problems given the story's context. Here are the results of this extension:
Novice teachers are sometimes hesitant to turn over this responsibility of generating problems to students because they feel unprepared to deal with what might be messy stories. Therefore, I ask my preservice teachers to look at Mark's story and consider possible solution methods and then what comes next. With practice, these future teachers can become more adept at dealing with unpredictable situations. Also, I explicitly state that their "Now what?" question can focus on either pedagogy (responding to Mark) or content (exploring the math) - it's up to them. Empowerment!
Before I share the typical results, I want to provide you the opportunity to explore Mark's problem. A chance to ask and answer your own "Now what?" question. I hope you will share your learning in the comments.