Power Dynamics in our Classrooms

April 10, 2016

Brookfield (2015) makes the statement that there is “no such thing as a power-free classroom”.  As much as we as instructors want to create a collegial environment, we ignore our power (and that of the students) at our own peril.tug-of-war-515183_1280

An instructor’s power comes in several forms.  In essence, we have the power to assign a value to the work students do.  We decide what is taught, how it is done, how and on what students are assessed.  Even in instances where students are given the ability to “self-assess”, the instructor is one who often creates the rubric around which the student conducts the assessment.

Students’ power is more subtle.  If you have ever posed a challenging question to a group of students and the result is a sea of blank faces or glazed looks staring back at you, you’ve experienced it.  Students can also make their power known through feedback they provide in surveys, especially when those surveys are seen by your supervisor or other stakeholders.

And speaking of stakeholders, they, too, have power in our classroom.  Accrediting body requirements, supervisors, parents all have their own unique power they can wield.  Other external forces that impact our classroom dynamic that we might not immediately think of are issues related to race, gender, and class.  Additionally,  in classroom discussion, dominant students can impact the flow of teaching and learning in your group.

We can’t ignore the fact we have power, so how do we increase the likelihood we will gain student buy-in and trust and thereby more effectively manage the power dynamics in our classroom?  Brookfield lists three ways:

  1. Be transparent – Be clear in your direction. Let students know what they’ll be learning, how you will assess them and what policies you will be applying in the classroom.  Don’t make students guess and check periodically for understanding.  What you mean and what students hear aren’t always the same and that confusion can erode trust.
  2. Be responsive – This does not mean giving students whatever they ask for. Brookfield makes the point that students generally gravitate toward ideas and concepts with which they agree and are comfortable with and they typically don’t like being pushed to think for themselves.  Teaching to the test may be something students like, but it doesn’t leave students well-prepared to think critically or to apply the information they learn once they leave the classroom. Responsiveness can be demonstrated by identifying student concerns and addressing them promptly.  They don’t have to agree with your rationale, but they do need to know what it is.  In addition, pay attention to the power dynamics in your classroom and address them.  We have all had students who dominate a discussion or who are sarcastic or rude to other students.  If you tolerate that behavior, you are showing students it is acceptable and you will quickly lose control of your group.
  3. Be consistently fair – As a student, it drove me crazy when I was told there was a policy on attendance or assignment submission and then I saw the instructor be inconsistent in his/her application. We all understand things come up for people, but students watch us and if we aren’t being consistent and they see what they consider to be preferential treatment to certain students, they lose respect for you and for your rules.

Use the power you possess wisely.  Be transparent, responsive and consistently fair and students will use the power they have to amplify your efforts rather than disable them.



Brookfield, S.D. (2015) The Skillful Teacher.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass



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