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Education and power

Education is about power

When I was a child, I remember ‘playing teacher’, replicating what I saw my teachers do, and to me, at that point, being a teacher meant being in control of others. Telling them what to do. Having power over students. Teachers could choose favourites, make some feel loved, and other feel bad.

This is deeply problematic, for a several reasons.

First, humans don’t want to be controlled. We don’t want others to have power over us. Our history is filled with examples of humans fighting for their right to choose their own path, to feel in control of their lives. We are each born full of independence and desire for freedom – if you don’t believe me, find any toddlers and hear them scream ‘I do it!’. We will fight being controlled and only be controlled under duress – which is mentally damaging.

This is, of course, different from the respect we give to those we look up to. But we do not look up to those who try to control us or are simply arbitrarily placed above us. Those we love, we listen to. Those who can do more than us, we try to emulate. Those who try to control us, we rebel against.

Moreover, if a classroom is set up as a site of power struggles, class time is focused on fights for power rather than learning. If teachers are fighting for power, the set-up is an unstable equilibrium. As active students learn they gain power, they question structures, they move the equilibrium. Teachers might react against this by increasing discipline, making lines stricter, flaunting knowledge or gatekeeping knowledge. Students might react against this by fighting harder, failing to conform, refusing to grant power. The class is in constant tension. Sides are drawn, tension kills learning.

A place of constant battles, where teachers are fighting to stay in power and students are fighting to establish their power is not a healthy or fruitful teaching environment.

A mature educator, however, realises that teaching is not about keeping or gaining power. It is actually about giving power to the learners. It is about helping our students grow in confidence so they can step into leadership. It is about helping our students realise the responsibility they have to lead their own life, to shape their future, to shape our world.

By keeping power away from my students, I am hurting them. I am keeping them limited, which will not help them in any way outside the classroom. By keeping myself in power I am limiting my students to what I can do – which is little. Because any one person can only do and be so much. We are so much greater together, learning from each other.

Paulo Freire wrote about power in education when he discussed education as a process of liberation. He said education is something that is never given, but rather something that a person develops, as they come to reflect on what they know from their experience. Educators’ role is to help students with the tools to think critically and creatively.

Education is not about giving information (the internet is far better at that!) It is about helping our students know how to find information and how to use information. It is not about being guardians to a set of knowledge or judges of learning. It is about guiding our students to develop tools of critical thinking, of creativity, of communication, so they can surpass us and become their own leaders. So they can use their power to change the world.

I think giving up power while teaching requires maturity in a couple of ways. First, it requires us to feel confident enough in what we know/do that we do not seek to have students as followers to boost our ego. Second, it requires us to trust our students and that is to trust human nature. To trust that humans are creative, curious, thoughtful. That if we give humans access to ideas, that if we enter into kind and honest discussions, they will engage intellectually, seek out truth, and want to learn, want to improve for their sake and that of their community.

Education is about giving power to the learners.

A young person sitting on top of a mountain lifting their fist in joy and empowerment. In front of them a beautiful sunset in pinks and oranges.
Education should empower young people


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