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Empowered Learning

By and on February 21, 2018

When we’re all teachers, everyone learns.

Accelerating health equity, addressing social determinants of health, and advancing community-led action are built on individual and organizational exchanges that require two-way interaction. These exchanges can happen anywhere—in council chambers, institutions, businesses, and even in the streets.

But too often, local forums, meetings, and engineered “community engagement” (however that is defined, as mentioned in Joanne Lee’s post last week) charrettes are one-sided with limited viewpoints in an effort to keep things controlled. While monologues are sometimes an efficient way to convey information, efficient solutions are not always the best solutions. And the most effective solutions don’t necessarily have to be inefficient. Moreover, merely conveying information isn’t a solution in and of itself. We need to expand our toolbox.

Enter empowered learning, sometimes referred to as empowerment education or adult learning. We all have different ways of sharing and receiving information, and empowered learning offers everyone a chance to participate. The approach is grounded in social justice and ideas from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Empowered learning is the belief that all of us are simultaneously learner-teachers and teacher-learners. As Freire describes, we are used to the “bank deposit model,” wherein teachers deposit knowledge into learners’ heads. Empowered learning, on the other hand, features two-way communication, not just one-way information transfer.  In other words, empowered learning happens when both learner and teacher are responsible for the learning process, allowing each to grow.

Power can be shared by learning and teaching, regardless of title, formal education, or where we’re positioned socially, economically, educationally, or politically. With power comes access to information (and vice versa). We enter all conversations as abundance thinkers, believing that when people work together, their collective efforts catalyze more than the sum of their parts.

Here are a few examples of how empowered learning could improve partnership and community engagement settings:

  • Request a round-robin sharing of participants’ personal and professional stories and what brought them to the gathering.
  • Hold small group discussions in which people talk about their personal experiences with the topic at hand.
  • Ask participants how they want to use their time, what objectives to set, and the key action steps to which they can hold one another accountable.
  • Do a “think/pair/share” activity where individuals think about a given prompt, pair up to discuss, and share out a summary of the discussion with the larger group. This highlights unspoken concerns or ideas and engages hesitant – yet knowledgeable – participants, allowing themes to emerge.
  • Conduct a “gallery walk” where participants have a chance to add their ideas to flip charts labeled with various questions and/or topics. This creates the opportunity to build on other participants’ written responses, ponder new perspectives, and move around the room to actively share ideas.

Empowered learning recognizes that “learners” are allies, not pupils.

If we are truly committed to authentically engaging our communities, we need to be willing to use unconventional or nontraditional approaches. If we are truly committed to health equity, then everyone must have opportunities to teach others and share their experiences and lessons. If we are truly committed to having the most impact, we have to be open to, and sometimes uncomfortable with, unexpected outcomes. Empowered learning techniques can help all participants create the best setting for multi-directional learning, engagement, and input among everyone in the group. And if there are unspoken tensions in the room, using these alternative approaches could help everyone see and address them sooner.

Creating lasting policy and systems change in local communities is messy. It requires a strategic approach that integrates culture, data, equity, history, justice, motivation, planning, politics, power, and resources, and motivation, just to name a few. And the community voice is not singular. Empowered learning can take more time and planning, yes, but it reveals and honors these diverse voices in a way that leads to solutions and actions that are truly community-driven.

Before your next group process —whether you are leading a training or attending a strategic planning meeting—think about how you can incorporate empowered learning. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • How can I create an inviting space for all participants to bring their histories and expertise to the dialogue?
  • How many activities and types of interaction are possible? Consider a variety of opportunities that accommodate visual, auditory, literacy, and cultural learning differences, and for activities involving individuals, pairs, and small and large groups.
  • What can I do to encourage the group to take an active role in the learning and conversation?

To get started, check out these resources:

  1. National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development: Innovation Abstracts
  2. Northwest Center for Public Health Practice: Effective Adult Learning
  3. Corenet Global: Adult Learning Techniques
  4. Interaction Institute for Social Change: Facilitative Leadership for Social Change


Tim Schwantes

Tim Schwantes |

Project Officer

Life-long learner, connector, listener, privilege checker, and triathlete.

Abby Lowe-Wilson |

Manager and Owner, Lowe-Wilson Consulting

Abby was an Active Living By Design team member from 2010-11 and is a consultant supporting health-focused organizations meet their goals.

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