<span class='p-name'>What is “empowerment” in education?</span>

What is “empowerment” in education?

The term empowerment, or an indication of a focus on empowering students or teachers, pops up again and again in my research and publications. One of the first instances is in my dissertation proposal and final materials.

When I started writing about this, I received a lot of negative feedback from advisors in my program as they indicated that empowerment means very specific things for different groups and fields. They also cautioned me that empowerment has a very specific context in education…and it’s easy to get that wrong.

Despite these early cautions, I’ve continued to fold this framing of empowering learners into almost all of my work. The reason for this is that I believe that the Internet and other communication technologies provide incredible opportunities to read, write, and communicate with others. There is also a great deal of power always associated with literacy, and there is no exception in dealing with these new and digital literacies. it should be our goal to ensure that all individuals have the right to utilize and practice these literacies regardless of categories, descriptors, or demographics.

So, what is meant by empowerment? This post will share the literature that you need to take a deep dive into this area. Empowerment can sometimes be a challenge to understand and contextualize. I view most things from my background in literacy, and as such I find comparison points in reading. This makes it easier for me to think through complicated areas. You can use this as a point of reference, and substitute your own field or expertise.

Empowerment Theory

Researchers make use of empowerment theory to explore relationships between individuals within specific social, organizational, educational, and political environments (Conger & Kanungo, 1988; Cummins, 2001; Freire, 1972/1986; Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995; Rappaport, 1995; Shor, 1992; Speer, Jackson & Peterson, 2001). Empowerment theory focuses on participation and collaboration of individuals within an organizing structure to focus their efforts on an identified outcome or common goal.

Empowerment is the “process by which individuals and groups gain power, access to resources and control over their own lives. In doing so, they gain the ability to achieve their highest personal and collective aspirations and goals” (Robbins, Chatterjee, & Canda, 1998, p. 91).

Social scientists often draw upon empowerment theory as a means to counteract feelings of powerlessness among particular groups of individuals including women, certain ethnic populations, and individuals with disabilities (Conger & Kanungo, 1988). In the field of education, empowerment theory is often associated with the classic work by Paulo Freire (1972/1986), in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this seminal text, Freire expresses the need to empower individuals who are disenfranchised by taking control over their own learning and developing a deeper understanding of one’s own position within a community through active participation and engagement.

A process and outcome

Empowerment is both process and outcome based (Swift & Levin, 1987). Processes, such as an individual’s actions and activities of engagement within a particular social context, can result in an outcome of either empowerment or disempowerment. When an individual feels empowered, he/she has a greater sense of intrinsic motivation and self-confidence; alternatively a feeling of disempowerment can result in decreased levels of motivation and self-confidence.

As is often the case with struggling readers, continuous failures during reading activities can result in outcomes of disempowerment, a lack of motivation to read, and decreased self-confidence as a learner (Rosow, 1989; Seifert, 2004).

Control, power, and motivation

Empowerment theory also emphasizes the importance of issues related to control. For instance, it draws attention to power structures, such as who has control in a given situation, the teacher or the student, and how an imbalance in control might impact individuals. Conger and Kanungo (1988) discuss the implications of “primary/secondary control…internal/external locus of control…and learned helplessness” (p. 473; see also Abramson, Garber, & Seligman, 1980; Rothbaum, Weisz, & Snyder, 1982; Rotter, 1966).

When working with struggling readers, it seems that these issues are at the heart of the disempowerment or powerlessness that is often experienced by the individual. In this sense, power often resides in an individual’s motivation to learn, his/her self-determination (Deci, 1975), or self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986) within a particular context.

By finding an instructional technique that positively impacts self-determination and self-efficacy, a struggling reader is likely to feel an increased sense of power and ultimately an increased level of motivation to learn. Thus, Conger and Kanungo (1988) “propose that empowerment be viewed as a motivational construct” (p. 474). They argue for empowerment as an enabling process.

Similar to Bandura’s notion of developing self-efficacy (1986), empowerment is achieved through an experience in which the outcome results in an increase to the individual’s self-efficacy and motivation. Viewing empowerment as an enabling process has shown important results as it targets self-determination, self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation, and engagement (Anderson & Sandman, 2009; Spreitzer, 1995) and may help transform struggling readers into striving readers in the classroom.

Perceptions of strengths and deficiencies

Another important premise of empowerment theory is the emphasis on an individual’s strengths or competencies as opposed to his or her deficits (Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995). In much of the research that seeks to address the needs of struggling readers, too often the reader’s deficits are emphasized as teachers look for “fix-up” strategies to help increase reading competency.

Kuhn and Stahl (2003) reviewed several such studies that focused on deficits in fluency, sight-word development, automaticity, and prosody by employing remediation to address these deficits. Instead, empowerment theory focuses on the identification of an individual’s capabilities and seeks to “provide opportunities for participants to develop knowledge and skills, and engage professionals as collaborators” (Zimmerman, 1995, p. 570).

Some researchers look to empowerment theory to help develop successful collaborative teams as roles and responsibilities among group members are built and maintained within an organizational community (Beckhard, 1969; Nielsen, 1986). Similarly, the research on interventions for struggling readers illustrates the power of collaboration with instructional models that focus on collaborative reading partners as previously described; hence, one could argue that as a struggling reader further develops his/her knowledge about a topic and reading skills through a collaborative interaction, a feeling of empowerment may follow.


Hopefully this post is of value to you as you consider empowerment in your own life or field. To stay on top of other content like this…subscribe to my weekly newsletter.


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Abramson, L. Y., Garber, J., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1980). Learned helplessness in humans: An attributional analysis. In J. Garber & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Human helplessness: Theory and applications (pp. 3-34). New York: Academic Press.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive view. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1989). Intentional learning as a goal of instruction. In L.B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 361-392). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brown, A. L., Ash, D., Rutherford, M., Nakagawa, K., Gordon, A., & Campione, J. C. (1993). Distributed expertise in the classroom. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 188-229). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1996). Psychological theory and the design of innovative learning environments on procedures, principles and systems. In L. Schanble and R. Glaser (Eds.), Innovations in learning: New environments for education (pp. 289-325). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brown, A. L., & Palincsar, A. S. (1989). Guided cooperative learning and individual knowledge acquisition. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Cognition and instruction: Issues and agendas (pp. 393-451). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Carver, R. P., & Hoffman, J. V. (1981). The effect of practice through repeated reading on gain
in reading ability using a computer-based instructional system. Reading Research
Quarterly, 16, 374–390.

Conger, J. A., & Kanungo, R. N. (1988). The empowerment process: Integrating theory and practice. Academy of Management Review, 13(3), 471-482.

Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identifies: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Ontario, CA: California Association of Bilingual Education.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Freire, P. (1986). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lowyck, J., & Pöysä, J. (2001). Design of collaborative learning environments. Computers in Human Behavior, 17(5-6), 507-516.

Nastasi, B. K., & Clements, D. H. (1991). Research on cooperative learning: Implications for practice. School Psychology Review, 30, 110-131.

Nielsen, E. (1986). Empowerment strategies: Balancing authority and responsibility. In S. Srivastra (Ed.), Executive power (pp. 78-110). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perkins, D. D., & Zimmerman, M. A. (1995). Empowerment theory, research, and application. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23(5), 569-578.

Rappaport, J. (1995). Empowerment meets narrative: Listening to stories and creating settings. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23(5), 795-807.

Rothbaum, F. M., Weisz, J. R., & Snyder, S. S. (1982). Changing the world and changing self: A two process model of perceived control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 5-37.

Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80(1), 609.

Seifert, T. L. (2004). Understanding student motivation. Educational Research, 46(2), 137-149.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Slavin, R. (1990). Cooperative learning: Theory, research and practice. Hillsdale, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Slavin, R. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21(1), 43-69.

Speer, P. W., Jackson, C. B., & Peterson, N. A. (2001). The relationship between social cohesion and empowerment: Support and new implications for theory. Health Education & Behavior, 28, 716-732.

Swift, C., & Levin G. (1987). Empowerment: An emerging mental health technology. Journal of Primary Prevention, 8, 71-94.

Topping, K. (1987). Paired reading: A powerful technique for parent use. The Reading Teacher, 40, 608–614.

Zimmerman, M. A. (1995). Psychological empowerment: Issues and illustrations. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23, 581-599.


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17 Comments What is “empowerment” in education?

  1. George Station

    Interesting, especially the cautionary note a la Christmas Story—you’ll poke your eye out! So in its way, the term is as tough to corral as voice (e.g. “student voice”) or governance (e.g. “shared governance”).

  2. Tristan

    Hi Ian,

    thank you so much for the information! Would you mind if I use your work on an academic assignment I am working on? I will reference you obviously!

  3. Jon Orech


    I want to thank you so much for your concise, clear piece on Student Empowerment. The term “Empowerment” seems to be bandied about with little thought of its meaning or implications to education. Your explanation is both scholarly, and approachable… and is spot on.

    I have recently retired an instructional technology coordinator at a suburban high school near Chicago, and am currently co-writing micro-credentials for teachers in our area. We have decided upon “Student Empowerment” as our “stack” of micro-credentials, and are looking at a variety of specific topics under this umbrella. My plan is to have participants start by reading this post to get a handle on the meaning of “Student Empowerment.” (I like how you have included two of John Spencer’s videos to support this visually!) Your bibliography is extensive and relevant, and I can’t wait to start digging in to learn more.

    Thank you so much for this post. It will be a great starting point for our participants.

    I have signed up for your newsletter. I hope you don’t mind if I contact you later if I have some questions in my research.

  4. Vera

    Hi. Wonderful piece!
    Would it be possible to get full reference for the following sources:

    (Anderson & Sandman, 2009; Spreitzer, 1995)

    Thank you!

    1. wiobyrne

      Absolutely! Here you go:

      Anderson, K. S., & Sandmann, L. (2009). Toward a model of empowering practices in youth-adult partnerships.Journal of Extension,47(2), [Article No 2FEA5].Retrieved from http://www.joe.org/joe/2009/april/a5.php

      Spreitzer, G. M. (1995). Psychological empowerment in the workplace: Dimensions,measurement, and validation.The Academy of Management Journal,38,1442–1465.


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