Ensuring Students’ Freedom with Parameters

Student empowerment doesn’t mean throwing out the rule book and saying, "Okay, you run the place". Putting parameters into a building together—that is a thing that the adults have to do and stay true to: always modeling that decision making is collaborative. The thing kids focus on and are sensitive to is a sense of injustice. So when kids don’t like the rules, we need to say, "Well, tell me about that". modeling that we live in a collaborative culture here.

– High school teacher

In this module, we have explored the paramount importance of the right to be free (along with the right to be safe and strong) in facilitating youth empowerment; however, no one’s right to freedom is absolute.

In any grouping of human beings and all institutions, people live within certain parameters. In schools, students’ freedom to learn in accordance with their interests is limited by curriculum requirements. While the curriculum does impose a certain direction, in many instances it also contains opportunities. For example, the acquisition of many character attributes is now a curriculum expectation.

We can be ever alert to those windows that enable us to creatively weave in students’ interests and passions, and to connect the curriculum to students’ lives. Doing so increases students’ engagement in their learning.

Student freedom is also limited by rules related to safety and various board policies. Parameters may be necessary to ensure the inclusion of all students, imposing limits on the freedom of some. For example, we may require that a December concert include a range of cultural celebrations (not only Christian) or that the prom dance take place in a wheelchair accessible location.

Establishing parameters respectfully, without undermining student agency and sense of empowerment, can be complicated; competing needs and even rights can come into play, making solutions elusive.

In many cases, we can find some leeway in determining when and where to set parameters, enabling us to negotiate in order to arrive at a consensus with students. Through this process, we can continuously strive to assess what really matters, what is less important, and what is fair, always consulting students to establish a reference point.

In other cases, however, we have no room to manoeuvre and are required to impose a measure. Either way, transparency enables us to respect the dignity of our students, when we can explain the context of our decision.

When they have ownership of what they are learning, I get incredible things. I tell them, "Okay, we have to do a unit on this subject. Let’s think of a cool way we could explore this". Often there are 4 or 5 different projects going on. The problem is they can’t stop and I can’t wrap things up. They are so invested when they design their own project. They’re learning in a style that works for them.

– Elementary teacher