Stephen D. Brookfield writes about power in the classroom in his 2015 book The Skillful Teacher (chapter 18). He started his teaching career living in what he calls “Powertopia”, a world where the teacher blends in with the class so much that they are seen as part of the group and only a participant in discovering and learning about the topic. This would be the ultimate learner-centred instruction and certainly desirable.
While Brookfield doesn’t want to give up on this notion altogether, he learned that as instructors, we have power by the pure fact that we have the power to evaluate performance, discipline, and set rules.
Most of us are teachers and instructors because we want to pass on our knowledge to others to help them. Brookfield says:
Ultimately we often exercise our power because we believe that the learning we are promoting is inherently valuable or socially beneficial.Stephen D. Brookfield
But power structures in a college classroom are more complex. The text points out that, if we assert too much power, the students might decide to stop participating. While this is a worst-case scenario, learners do have the power to take a lesson in a very different direction than we have planned. Without living in Powertopia we should embrace this as long as the lesson doesn’t stray too far from the topic. It will be very helpful to explore the aspect that the class pointed out and make sure the students feel heard. Lessons learned that way might end up being more memorable than anything we planned for the lesson.
I love adult education partly because teaching adults gives us the opportunity to have adult conversations in our classrooms. In most cases, students and teachers want to be in the classroom or the workshop. The goals, especially in trades classes, are clearly defined. In our classes, we are often also obligated to prepare our students for formal exams.
Because we are dealing with adults, we need to recognize that our students demand a different kind of relationship than high school students. Our learners may challenge our power and question our decisions, and we need to react in ways that satisfy adults. While we have to exercise a certain amount of power to realize the learning objective, we have to be prepared to explain our decisions. We need to be transparent in our decisions and our evaluations. Adults rightfully demand to know what they are measured against and if we want to earn our students’ respect we need to be prepared to answer challenges honestly and transparently.
In my case, it took the courses I take to become a certified instructor to learn about rubrics and defined learning outcomes to understand how empowering it is to know from the beginning what I can expect and what is expected of me. This transparency frees me up to explore the topic and focus my learning on the most important points.
Safety and Civility
At the end of chapter 18 Brookfield goes back to the power dynamics of the classroom. While we want to strive to have open and honest discussions we also have an obligation to use our power to keep our classroom a safe space.
In her 2010 paper, Betty J. Barrett explains that there are limits to the idea of a “safe classroom”. If we create a space where our students can freely express their opinions on any topic, we could open the floor to abusive behaviour. We have to use our power to prevent things like racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia from entering our classroom. A “safe space” means to me that while students can express themselves freely, everyone has the right to feel safe from abuse by others. Barrett calls this principle “civility” and explains that while it can be desirable to add an element of “danger” to our learning, civility is more important than the freedom to express whatever a member of the group wants.
As members of the collective space of the classroom, educators must ensure that we are appropriately socializing students to engage in civility, both inside and outside of the classroom. Indeed, we must be the change we wish to see in the classroom.Betty J. Barrett
University of Windsor