Explain, Explore, Express #1: Power.

"We" and "Us" Rather Than "Me" and "Them"

Over the next 3 blogs, I am going to use a three step process to look at some of the concepts underlying why, as a teacher, we would choose to use critical pedagogy. The first part of the schema will be an explanation. The aim of this is to inspire and motivate. The explanation seeks to show why it is worth engaging with. This is followed by an exploration of what the implications are and why it is significant. Lastly, the step I have called express, identifies how to put this into practice; when and where this could be applied in the classroom. In this first blog of the series, I am writing about the power dynamic in the classroom and the teach-student relationship.

Step 1: Explaining Power

I remember having a conversation with a colleague a few months ago where we were recognising that things had changed a lot in British society in the way that children speak and relate to adults. As we talked, an article I had read some years before sprang to mind because it identified some aspects of this change. In the article, Cas Woulters talks about a shift in the 20th Century, in the western world, towards informality:

“During the period of informalization, from 1890s onward, school regimes have loosened up, the balance of power between children and parents, and between pupils and teachers, has become less uneven, while the balance between hierarchical external social controls and internal self-controls has shifted towards the latter, self-controls…Relationships between the generations (parents, teachers, and children) became more equal, more open and more intimate, and a warmer and more cautious control on the development of children’s self-control was stimulated by a more permissive and trusting attitude towards their capacity for self-steering or self-regulation.”

In the school where I work, the students call us by our first names. This would have been unheard of in all but the most alternative of schools a generation ago, but I believe even this small change is a huge leveller. It demonstrates a shift is away from control through punitive, outward means and towards more intrinsic motivation, where affective needs are not ignored and autonomy is supported.

In her fantastic book “Children’s Experiences of Classrooms”, Eleanore Hargreaves recognises how easy it still is for us to fall back into authoritarianism the world over, which can lead to some very negative experiences for children. Thinking back to my own childhood, I shudder at the memory of being in an infant school (4-7 years) where boys (not girls) were still getting the cane as a punishment and all of us lived under a fierce and frightening regime within some classrooms. To separate out the concepts of authoritarianism and authority, Hargreaves definition is useful:

“The teacher’s authority is the teacher’s legitimate right or power, based on her/his expertise, to orchestrate the classroom in which pupils recognise the value of her/his expertise. On the other hand, the word ‘authoritarian’, in the context of the classroom, suggests that the teacher asserts her/his authority using coercion rather than consent.”

In this blog, we will be able to examine our own grassroots power dynamics right in our classrooms. I am not addressing the misuse of power at a state or institutional level here although it is good to recognise that by reducing authoritarianism in the classroom and enabling students to become more autonomous we are creating a change we might want to see reflected more often in governments themselves.

Step 2: Exploring Power

Moving from a stance of power over students to one of power with students, what does this mean for our classroom practice?

Let’s explore it further. How can we reflect the work of Paulo Freire who called teachers to: “work with students towards a world where people felt free, rather than trying to control students and turn them into something that they were not.” (Eleanore Hargreaves). How do I act as an authoritative teacher who values social justice rather than falling back into authoritarianism which just maintains the status quo?

The answer seems to lie in the area of creating and respecting autonomy for students rather than imposing ours! This is a subtle shift in perspective and I believe, it is the pedagogy we practise which brings about this shift in the classroom.

I am always amazed at what I learn about my students when I get out of the way and let them use their voices. Recently we talked about the losses and struggles they had experienced over the last year. One by one stories popped out about grandparents or great grandparents that had died. I had no idea so many of them had experienced this kind of loss just within one year. I invited them to make a card for someone and some of them wrote them to the people they had lost, to put on their grave. I had not suggested this, it was their idea. Whenever we step aside and provide space for independence, they step into it with great authority and the atmosphere in the classroom changes to one of cohesion and togetherness; “us” rather than “me and them”.

Step 3: Expressing Power

Let’s look at what we have discussed so far and pin it down to some practical steps in the classroom. As well as providing plenty of space for student voice and their stories, how can we practise a pedagogy which empowers and frees rather than coerces or forces? I’d like to suggest 3 ways:

Provide choice.

I find that whenever I provide even the smallest of choices within a lesson, the students’ sense of ownership increases and they are more into the task. This could be as simple as providing a menu of 2 or 3 activities on the white board with the same aim but a different product. They can then choose the activity which has the most relevance or interest to them which will also means they find it more meaningful and learning will be deeper.

Moderate Feedback

While I am teaching, I am often aware that I need to shift my feedback from an authoritarian attitude of right or wrong, good or bad to a words which will cultivate a growth mindset. Moving towards “glow and grow” means that students are empowered to take my feedback and put it into practise and take responsibility for their own growth and learning. Within a wider classroom discussion on mistakes helping us to grow, fear of failure is reduced and students can be more relaxed about their work. When we are relaxed our brains can learn more easily. Through fair and constructive feedback, we can all grow and at times they will also give feedback to me. The dynamic is one of learning together as a community, in a reciprocal way.

Practise cooperation

This, to me, is the most difficult pedagogy to sustain but I think it is worth persevering with. Cooperative activities shift the focus from the a didactic approach to a more even distribution of learning and sharing of discoveries. For me this often means stepping out of my comfort zone because the classroom is going to be louder and the flow of knowledge less controlled by me for a while. Using reciprocal reading methods and jigsaw activities (I will include links to explain these at the end) as well as any other kind of group work or investigation, shifts the balance of power. No longer are we practising Freire’s “banking model" of empty vaults waiting to be filled with the knowledge we have to share, but we are all making discoveries and sharing them together, the teacher-pupil dynamic is more equal. In addition, because this is an active and participatory way to learn it will often be more meaningful and enjoyable for most students.


Now we have completed our first cycle of Explain, Explore, Express:

Looking at our own power in the classroom can be an eye opener. I know, having trained to teach nearly 30 years ago, I am often having to unlearn and stop practising some of the things that were embedded in my training and initial years of teaching. Times change and hopefully the world is a kinder place.

Further Reflection

What is my balance of authoritarianism to being authoritative in the classroom? What is my default mode? Am I comfortable with that?

What could I try this week which would shift the balance of power in my classroom?

How could I improve opportunities for student voice and choice this term?

What happens when I get myself out of the way and create freer more cooperative ways for learning to happen? How could I test this out?

Further Reading

Eleanore Hargreaves “ Children’s Experiences of Classrooms.”

Chris Watkins “Classrooms as Learning Communities”

How to use the Reciprocal Learning Strategy, Cult of Pedagogy blog and clip. to find out about how to use jigsaw activities.

Cas Wouters article: “Education and Informalization” Anales XII SIPC Procesos Civilizadores:10-13

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