Empowering Pedagogy

by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

This orientation is a practical guide for how to implement this toolkit in your classroom. It is a starting place to help you think about how to use toolkit materials and apply specific activities and resources in the classroom, and an introduction to empowering teaching methods that enable educators to reflect on how their teaching methods can further embody social justice principles.

Learning Objectives

After completing self-study with this orientation, the learner will be able to:

  • Describe their own pedagogical perspectives and priorities and how those influence their instructional design and delivery choices.
  • Design active learning activities and more extensive student learning experiences.

What is Empowering Pedagogy?

Empowering pedagogy is the collective term for pedagogical approaches and practices that educators use to design learning experiences that are active, engaging, and encourage learner inquisitiveness, choice, and self-direction. These would range from short-term active learning activities that are relatively teacher directed but include self-reflection by learners to critical, social justice, and decolonizing pedagogies.

An inherent tension in writing about empowering pedagogy is it inherently starts from the position that the teacher has power and somehow transfers that power or enables power in the learners. In reality, the structures in which teaching and learning occurs typically creates a situation in which this is the case, even if individual teachers and learners believe this should not be the case. Likewise, teachers may find it difficult to “let go of control” for a variety of reasons, including lack of skills and preparation to manage classroom conversations about topics that challenge learner beliefs, assumptions, political perspectives, etc.

What is Your Teaching Perspective?

A teacher’s pedagogical journey is personal and lifelong. Being authentic as a teacher requires being true to who we are while at the same time challenging ourselves about who we are becoming or wish to become (Parker Palmer, Courage to Teach). Our perspectives on teaching and learning may change in various ways over time – based on our experiences, feedback from learning, insights from colleagues, and reading the literature (Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Practitioner).

One resource for gaining insights into our own pedagogical practices and approaches is the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), an instrument available online (http://www.teachingperspectives.com/tpi/) that probes into perceptions of goals of education, learning, motivation, learner characteristics, and how context affects teaching and assesses orientation to teaching based upon an one’s beliefs, intentions, and actions as a teacher. After taking the TPI, an individual receives a personal report that includes scores revealing dominant and recessive teaching perspectives. The five teaching perspectives are (1) transmission, (2) apprenticeship, (3) developmental, (4) nurturing, and (5) social reform. Along with a personal report, descriptions of each perspective are provided.

Activity 1 – Reflective Practice through the Teaching Perspectives Inventory

  1. Go to http://www.teachingperspectives.com/tpi/ and either choose “Take the TPI” (English default) or choose another language.
  2. Review your profile in consultation with the summaries for each perspective (the summaries are available via http://www.teachingperspectives.com/tpi/ by choosing “What Are the 5 Perspectives?” Take particular note of your dominant, back-up, and recessive perspectives.
  3. Review the consistencies and/or inconsistencies in your belief, intention, and action sub-scores, which are indicators of how much agreement exists among your actions (what you do), intentions (what you want to accomplish), and beliefs (why you feel that is important or justified). If you find discrepancies, ponder what might explain the differences – e.g. philosophical views, employment constraints, lack of clarity about responsibilities, etc.?
  4. Reflect on how aligned the results of the TPI are with your perceptions of yourself. Do you find resonance between these two sources of insight about your teaching perspectives?
  5. Consider asking a trusted colleague to discuss the TPI with you, particularly someone who will also take the TPI themselves.
  6. Write a reflective summary of what you learned from the TPI and how it connects with the concept of empowering pedagogy.

Are Active Learning Activities Part of Empowering Pedagogy?

At times it can be difficult to take on a complete re-design of a curriculum. You may lack the time or authority to do so. In some cases, students may resist taking greater ownership of their learning. Or, you may not feel that you are familiar or comfortable enough to succeed in such a comprehensive re-thinking without experimenting in small ways.

Active learning activities can be incorporated into existing curriculum as a mechanism for moving toward greater alignment with empowering pedagogy. These can be more self-contained and short-term components of longer instructional units. These can build teacher and learner confidence as well as offer opportunities for experimentation.

At its essence, an active learning activity has two components: learners doing something and learners reflecting on what they did. A common mistake that limits the effectiveness of active learning is planning the doing but assuming students will reflect on their own. The role of the instructor is to plan and support both the doing and the reflecting.

The companion website (http://www.liberatingstructures.com/) for the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation offers a range of active learning activities, presented in the workplace context, but relatively easy to re-work for a classroom setting. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Barkley also presents specific activities.

Activity 2 – Develop an Active Learning Activity

  1. Think of a scenario in which you are the instructor. Write a 1-3 sentence description of that scenario.
  2. Brainstorm a list of at least 5-6 activities you might consider adding to the student experience. (You may benefit from browsing the books mentioned above or searching the web for “active learning activities” or “active learning techniques.”)
  3. Choose one of the activities to develop. Detail the activity by describing step-by-step what students will do.
  4. Create a set of reflective questions. You may wish to sequence the questions as well. For example: What did you do? How well did you do it? Did you enjoy the activity? What did you learn from the activity? What would have made the activity more effective for you?
  5. Consider asking students to answer the questions individually and then discuss their responses with each other.
  6. Write a reflective summary of what you learned from developing an active learning activity and how it connects with the concept of empowering pedagogy.

How Can Instructional Design Help Enact Empowering Pedagogy?

The process of developing learning experiences is known as instructional design. The literature offers many instructional design models, each of which makes assumptions about learning, learners, teaching, etc. and prioritizes certain approaches to pedagogy. A model that is particularly amenable to empowering pedagogy is the “Backwards Design” process articulated in Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design (UbD).

Understanding by Design starts by unpacking the notion of what it means to “understand.” We use the word “understand” in a variety of ways and, ironically, those different ways can create misunderstandings. Wiggins and McTigue posit Six Facets of Understanding. Specifically, when we understand we:

  • Can explain
  • Can interpret
  • Can apply
  • Have perspective
  • Can empathize
  • Have self-knowledge

This is a taxonomy not a hierarchy. The expert in a given field is able to engage all six facets; however, they cannot just transfer this to the learner. The learner must come to one or more facet of understanding themselves, hopefully through learning experiences designed by the instructor.

The Backwards Design process has three stages:

Stage 1: Identify desired results.
Stage 2: Determine acceptable evidence.
Stage 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction.

The “backwards” refers to the fact that this approach to instructional designs starts with the intended “end” of instruction and works backwards in time. Only in the second component of the final step does the instruction consider their role and it is in service of the learning experiences that have been identified. The pedagogy is derived from the learning goals. This is in contrast with models that start by identifying content and teaching methods first and then only later identifying outcomes.

Each stage of design asks for engagement with Key Questions:

Stage 1: Identify desired results.

  • What should students know, understand, and be able to do?
  • What is the ultimate transfer we seek as a result of this unit?
  • What enduring understandings are desired?
  • What essential questions will be explored in-depth and provide focus to all learning?

Stage 2: Determine acceptable evidence.

  • How will we know if students have achieved the desired results?
  • What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and their ability to use (transfer) their learning in new situations?
  • How will we evaluate student performance in fair and consistent ways?

Stage 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction.

  • How will we support learners as they come to understand important ideas and processes?
  • How will we prepare them to autonomously transfer their learning?
  • What enabling knowledge and skills will students need to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  • What activities, sequence, and resources are best suited to accomplish our goals?

It is important to note that, though the Backwards Design process is presented in a linear model here, in practice the process is iterative and often messy. But, the order of the questions gives us insight into the priority of learning outcomes and being able to determine achievement over teaching methodology. This priority is the connection to empowering pedagogy.

This quote makes this connection:

“An important point in the UbD framework is to recognize that factual knowledge and skills are not taught for their own sake, but as a means to larger ends. Acquisition of content is a means, in the service of meaning making and transfer. Ultimately, teaching should equip learners to be able to use or transfer their learning (i.e., meaningful performance with content).” –ASCD Website

Empowering pedagogies acknowledge that the teacher can transmit information — but cannot transfer understanding — to students. Teachers can, however, design learning experiences in which students explore, question and make sense of information in order to create meaning and transfer for themselves.

Activity 3 – Explore Backwards Design

Read at least one of the three introductions to Understanding by Design listed below. You can choose the approach that appeals to you because they each give the same information but present it in slightly different ways.

  1. Think of a scenario in which you are the instructor. Write a 1-3 sentence description of that scenario.
  2. Do a quick response reaction to each of the Key Questions starting with Stage 1 and going thru Stage 3. A quick response reaction means writing down the first ideas that come to mind without consideration of whether they are the “right” answers.
  3. Review quick response reaction. How does it align with empowering pedagogy? Are there changes you would make to iterate towards greater alignment with empowering pedagogy?
  4. Consider asking a trusted colleague to discuss your quick response reaction with you.
  5. Write a reflective summary of what you learned from the Backwards Design process and how it connects with the concept of empowering pedagogy.

Activity 4 – In-Depth Instructional Design Using the Backwards Design Template

Read at least one of the three introductions to Understanding by Design listed below. You can choose the approach that appeals to you because they each give the same information but present it in slightly different ways.


  1. Think of a scenario in which you are the instructor. Write a 1-3 sentence description of that scenario to capture its parameters for yourself.
    Access the blank template (p. 13) and the template with prompting questions (p.14) available in https://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/books/mctighe2004_intro.pdf. (You may be able to find other file type versions of the template online through a web search for “UbD Template” – there are 1, 2, and 6 page versions of the template. Choose the version that resonates with you.)
  2. Complete the template. (Note: This step is easy to describe but likely represents at least 1-3 hours of time — if not more — in order to complete all of the components and ensure alignment across the design elements.)
    Consider asking a trusted colleague to discuss your completed template with you.
  3. Write a reflective summary of what you learned from the template process and how it connects with the concept of empowering pedagogy.

This document, Orientation: Empowering Pedagogy, has provided an introduction to empowering pedagogy and its connection to teaching perspectives and instructional design. The literature on these topics is vast and so it may be helpful to ground further explanations in a more detailed understanding of the models discussed above through the following books:

  • Barkley, E. (2009). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Pratt, D.D. and Associates. (1998). Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.
  • Wiggins, G., & Jay McTighe. (2015). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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