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.

Could you teach without notes?

The teacher has to be willing to question as well. It’s easy and comforting to hide behind your thunderbolts and routine if you are perceived as a god. Power can be used to hide insecurities in front of a crowd. One of the scariest things about the way I teach my class now is that I cannot work from notes. I have to be prepared at all times to meet my students where they are and not to be afraid of saying, “I don’t know; let’s figure it out together.”

The most important thing we bring into the classroom is not our knowledge (although being well-versed in your subject matter is critical), but our modeling of the skills and traits of effective learning. We should both model and be humble about the journey of learning and that involves walking the path with our students. By disempowering ourselves, we empower our students relative to us. By showing our humanity, we model what it means to be a human learner.

The students have to do a certain amount of work, show up to class, and preserve order in the class. This is the teacher’s responsibility. Furthermore, there is no way around the fact that you are the person with the hand on the assessment lever (although this can be mitigated) and that, in and of itself, is the ultimate power in any classroom. Having to deal with students who seem incapable of showing up to class regularly, follow simple directions, or do their work in a responsible manner requires you to exercise power and, at the end of the day, this can eclipse all of the other good work you have put in to level the classroom.

I have spent a lot of time and effort trying to give my students purpose and agency in the classroom. There are many levels to this, and every time I feel like I’ve come to some sort of stopping point I find another layer. These efforts have all been directed toward one goal: the empowerment of my students. I have had to un-deify myself at every turn and, like Zeus disguising himself as a mortal, I have often failed to convince my students that we are on this journey together. That doesn’t stop me from trying, but it has made me keenly aware of the invisible lines of power that travel through every learning environment (some from the teacher, some from the school) and to be sensitive to the arbitrary strikes of lightning that demotivate and disempower them.

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