To enable is to "supply with the means, knowledge, or opportunity" to achieve a goal. We enable others by minimizing barriers, helping them and possibly even by creating extrinsic rewards or consequences to "encourage" them to move in the direction of the goal. When we enable someone we may end up setting too low of standards, doing too much for them, over-focusing on the rote what and how, stepping in and rescuing or directing when things are not getting done. We give people structures because "they like structure". Enabling a person often leaves the power in the hands of someone outside of the person who is being enabled. At the end of the day, that person is able to do the task but doesn't necessarily have control over the choice to do it. Is that person independent? Is that person autonomous? What is learned helplessness in reference to the idea of independence and autonomy?
Empowering, on the other hand, involves turning over control to another person and then trusting that they have the ability to reach a goal. When we empower we start from a place of faith in another person. We don't judge. We focus on our own behaviour rather than the behaviour of the other person. We provide information and engage in collaborative problem solving. We have discussions about "why" rather than about "how". We are patient through what is sometimes an incredibly messy process because of the potential for it to lead to authentic learning, understanding and intrinsic motivation.
Enabling is clean and simple. The path from point A to point B is generally linear. That path is predefined and the steps are predefined and if one missteps off the path, someone will step in to make sure that person gets back on the path. You can make a series of check marks. It looks good. It looks like something is being done. It can usually be measured quantitatively. It is associated with what we have traditionally defined as "success".
The empowering process can be confusing, messy and complex. It leads to "mistakes" and "failure" and possibly even to hard feelings and negative emotional responses. Getting from point A to point B takes longer and the path is not direct and sometimes it is not even clear which direction one is heading in. It may seem chaotic and out of control. In the middle of it, we may long to fall back on something simpler - something already known - to generate some relief.
We have traditionally focused education through the enabling lens and our focus has been on achievement and performance. As we shift over to an empowering lens, our focus moves to growth and learning. Students (people in general) will avoid things they still need to learn if we put too much of an emphasis on achievement and performance. Nobody wants to put themselves in the vulnerable position of looking like a "failure" and if we focus only on the final product when you don't get there because you are still exploring and learning, others might interpret it that you have failed. We don't want that... so we step in and enable. But is that the right way? Couldn't we just recognize that we all need different amounts of times and ways to explore and learn? If it is about learning and you can state what you have learned despite what product you produced at any given step, learning and success take on a different meaning.
In reality, successful learning seems to be a product of reflecting on and responding to what we have traditionally labeled as "mistakes". If we keep trying to figure out another way we have not failed. It's when we begin to see "mistakes" as "the process of learning" that we can begin to redefine "success". It allows us to develop the "grit" that Angela Lee Duckworth talks about in her TED Talk.
Towards the end of this talk, Angela Lee Duckworth states that we know very little about building grit. Yet the other day I talked with a group of grade 5 students about things they have learned "without teachers" and each of them explained a process that involved a lot grit. Perhaps what we don't know much about is grit in the formal learning setting where the student is going be given a "grade" for what they are learning.