BY AMY L. EVA | FEBRUARY 22, 201
Recently, a high school teacher and friend of mine started thinking more carefully about the power dynamics in her classroom. With the current political situation in mind, she was worried that she was exerting too much control over what students were learning and when. Instead, her vision was to empower them to take charge of their own educational experience, better preparing them for school and beyond.
“How can you get students to identify what theyneed and want to discuss rather than summarizing it for them?” a colleague had asked her.
Power is defined as the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others. In the classroom, educators exert power through the class materials they select, the learning activities they design, and the ways in which they include students in classroom discussions.
In The Power Paradox, GGSC founding director Dacher Keltner reminds us that when we abuse our power, those around us can experience stress, anxiety, shame, and even poor health, which are all signs of powerlessness. So how can educators consciously use their power for the good?
This teacher and I explored some things she could do to shift the power dynamics in her classroom. The following suggestions may help your students to feel powerful at school.1. Use a strengths-based approach to learning
One surefire way to make students feel powerless is to focus on everything they are weak and failing at. When problems loom large, they can undermine your students’ sense of self and capacity to engage in class. No doubt students who feel hopeless generally aren’t going to be excited about learning.
If you want your students to see themselves as potential leaders, take a strengths-based approach: Start by supporting them in identifying their strengths, aptitudes, and interests. A focus on students’ assets celebrates resilience, resources, and solutions.
Here are several activities that you might consider using in the classroom to capitalize on students’ strengths:
An authentic, strengths-based approach to teaching and learning isn’t really possible unless teacher-leaders are committed to addressing their biases. Any biases we harbor against groups of students can manifest in our behavior, giving some students more power and opportunities than others.
Of course, the tricky business with biases is that they are often unconscious. However, we can use practical tools to help us unearth them. Invite a few trusted colleagues to visit and observe in your classroom. Ask your colleagues to watch your interactions with students and record their findings.
Consider tracking the following over time:
An honest look at this data could spark rich conversations with your colleagues and your own “aha” moments of learning and personal growth.3. Be a warm demander
Apart from the ongoing work of acknowledging our negative biases, genuine care for our students means holding high positive expectations for all of them—and believing in their potential for growth. Numerous studies suggest that when adults have high expectations for students, students increase their motivation and achieve more. Our expectations may be the most powerful force in the classroom.
If you walk into your classroom believing that every student has the capacity for growth, then your students begin to believe it, too. Students read and respond to perceived expectations and biases. Stereotype threat is alive and well—students are at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their respective social groups if they sense you hold them.
Perhaps just as dangerous is a kind yet neutral approach to students that leans toward dismissiveness. Quiet concern is not enough.
“Teachers have to care so much about ethnically diverse students and their achievement that they accept nothing less than high-level success from them and work diligently to accomplish it. This is a very different conception of caring than the often-cited notion of ‘gentle nurturing and altruistic concern,’ which can lead to benign neglect,” says researcher Geneva Gay. This is a quote I often share with new teachers, and it may be the most important message in this article.4. Create student-centered learning experiences
If we want students to feel empowered to take charge of their own learning, then student-centered learning experiences are essential. How do we create classroom environments that honor students’ voices and encourage active collaboration in the classroom?
Although highly structured, teacher-controlled lessons can be effective in helping all students meet a learning target, these types of lessons don’t always allow for rich and meaningful student participation.
Several other instructional approaches can be used to foster this kind of participation, including project-based learning, cooperative learning, and service learning. All three of these methods can be thoughtfully structured to create an environment where students are engaging as a community, taking on meaningful roles, and striving for real-world, performance-based outcomes.
Finally, rather than defaulting to lectures and individual seat work, teachers can consciously weave in opportunities for students to share their day-to-day thinking with one another in a variety of classroom participant structures such as a think-pair-share or a fishbowl discussion. Students can also regularly use think alouds in pairs or small groups as they attempt to solve problems or understand texts.5. Foster ongoing and active student reflection on learning
Another way students can direct their own educational experience—and end up learning more—is by establishing personally relevant learning goals and actively engaging in ongoing self-assessment.
There are several concrete ways that students can take the reins in monitoring and reflecting on their learning.
Students often feel more personally empowered if they are reflecting on their individual learning. Yet power grows and thrives (or not) in the social world of school.
In The Power Paradox, Keltner helps us to understand how power plays out in our daily lives. Across dormitories, camps, schools, businesses, and more, individuals who demonstrate the “Big Five social tendencies”—enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness, and openness—are considered more powerful by those in their social circle. “Enduring power comes from a focus on others,” he concludes.
If we translate this research to the classroom, teachers should not simply model these five ways of acting in the world, but provide opportunities for their students to experience and cherish the “Big Five” themselves:
There may not be a better time to pause and examine how we use our power in classrooms and schools. Ultimately, a more democratic, empowered classroom is one where all members feel that they belong, they are valued, and they are capable of achieving their learning goals.
As my teacher-friend shared last week during our brainstorm: “The only answer to all of this craziness is to really know each other.” I think she is right on target.
Repost from Greater Good Science
“Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1837 speech on the life of the mind and the enterprise of education, adding: “A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.” And yet in the century and a half since Emerson, the notion that education’s highest task is the cultivation of a great soul has become increasingly radical as we’ve grown more and more reliant on measuring the intellect and standardizing those measurements to the point of absurdity.
How to reclaim education’s essential engagement with the spirit is what writer and longtime educator Parker Palmer, a contemporary counterpart of Emerson’s, explores in his 1983 treatise To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (public library).
I call the pain that permeates education “the pain of disconnection.” … Most [educators] go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.
In the midst of such pain, the spiritual traditions offer hope that is hard to find elsewhere, for all of them are ultimately concerned with getting us reconnected. These traditions build on the great truth that beneath the broken surface of our lives there remains — in the words of Thomas Merton — “a hidden wholeness.” The hope of every wisdom tradition is to recall us to that wholeness in the midst of our torn world, to reweave us into the community that is so threadbare today.
Photograph by Martine Franck, 1965
Pointing out that spiritual traditions have all too often been hijacked for obstructing rather than encouraging inquiry, Palmer argues for a spirituality of “sources” in education rather than one of “ends”:
A spirituality of ends wants to dictate the desirable outcomes of education in the life of the student. It uses the spiritual tradition as a template against which the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of the student are to be measured. The goal is to shape the student to the template by the time his or her formal education concludes.
But that sort of education never gets started; it is no education at all. Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth — whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such a spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such a spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox. By this understanding, the spirituality of education is not about dictating ends. It is about examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.
To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced.
In the remainder of To Know as We Are Known, tremendously timely three decades later, Palmer goes on to explore how to cultivate that space, why civic community is integral to it, and where the experience of education fits with the broader question of how we come to know reality. Complement it with John Dewey on the true purpose of education, Aldous Huxley on how to get out of your own light, and Victoria Safford on what it really means to “live our mission,” then revisit Palmer on the art of letting your soul speak.
How do you use the ideas and strategies in the courses you teach to foster a rich conception of critical thinking in all aspects of life, including teaching and learning?
Drs. Richard Paul and Linda Elder, in their How to Improve Student Learning, begin with two premises:
Students should master fundamental concepts and principles before they attempt to learn more advanced concepts. If class time is focused on helping students perform well on these foundational activities, we feel confident that the goals of most instruction will be achieved. It is up to you, the instructor, to decide which of these ideas you will test in the classroom. Only you can decide how to teach your students.
Recommendation: Use a “student understandings” Google form. This Google form should be given to students during the orientation to the course, with an explanation
of each item. Students then check off each item as they understand it. Here are sample:
It is important that students clearly understand what instructors expected of them.
Audrey Lin is a volunteer extraordinaire with ServiceSpace. With a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, Lin has volunteered at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India; at Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, California; and has served as an educator on both the east and west coasts of the United States. While not everyone has the ability to travel abroad to volunteer, Lin’s life and perspectives remind us that anyone can participate in acts of kindness. In today’s busy world we are all ‘connected’ on social media, but often fail to connect in real life. Taking time out to really see and acknowledge people can have profound effects on both the person doing the kind act, and the person receiving it. In this talk she shares stories about the powerful ripple effects of kindness within and without.