Two people in a library, learning from each other

How power dynamics can undermine effective learning

Instructors need to try to give students agency in the classroom

By definition, there is a finite amount of power over any given set of human interactions. How those relationships are structured can have significant impacts on the ability of students to think for themselves. The industrial mode of teaching with the teacher as the font of wisdom standing in front of the class imposes severe power disparities within the classroom. Students are basically playing a zero-sum game. They can either submit to the power relationship that the professor establishes within the classroom or drop/fail the class. Most students accept this without question, but it severely impacts their capacity to grow and thrive as learners.

Getting students to own their learning

As a teacher, I have always looked for more effective strategies to get my students to think for themselves. I have looked particularly at Empowered Learning as a mechanism to make the students in my American and Texas Government courses engage in material for a class almost none of them want to be in.

I have come to believe that it is only through empowering our students that they can hope to enter a flow state of high concentration and focus. Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to describe a state between overly challenging and boring. It is in this zone that individuals are most effective in pushing their creative and intellectual boundaries when “instruction was perceived as challenging and relevant.” “Doing what the professor wants” interferes with my students’ ability or even willingness to engage in activities designed to achieve Flow.

In a classroom, the teacher is viewed as a god. That god can be benevolent or malevolent, but the teacher judges their fitness for learning, controls discussion, sets the agenda, and therefore has all of the ideas. At the end of the day, the grades are all that matters and Zeus hands those down from on high.

Students resist thinking for themselves in the presence of a god. Instead, they want us to think for them, to provide all of the answers. Patrick Rothfuss perhaps said it best when he wrote in The Wise Man’s Fear, “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.” Open questioning requires a power dynamic that allows for it and a dollop of courage. Instructors almost never ask students to think deeply about their own learning experiences.

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