The Essence of Powerful Teaching

The Essence of Powerful Teaching

Stephen Brookfield (University of St. Thomas, St Paul, MN, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/ijavet.2013070107


Empowering learners and using powerful techniques are prominent elements in the discourse of adult and vocational education. But what constitutes the elements of what might be considered as powerful teaching? This paper begins by examining the way educators talk about power and then proposes four elements that lie at the heart of powerful teaching; understanding how power dynamics intersect with adult educational approaches, supporting empowerment, helping learners understand how power works, and rendering teacher power transparent. The paper uses the work of Baptiste, Marcuse and Hooks to explore some of the problems involved in adult teachers attempting to work in the democratic manner endorsed by the adult education tradition. It concludes by acknowledging the practical and ontological contradictions of teachers trying to balance their prescriptive agendas with a learner-centered approach.
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How Do Adult Teachers Think About Power?

Not only the reality of power is everywhere, but also its rhetoric. One of the most frequently used words in the discourse of adult learning, power has three chief connotations. First, and most frequently, a powerful teacher or leader is often characterized as a person with charisma, wisdom and presence; someone who can hold an auditorium in the palm of their hands or whose personality can fire people with enthusiasm for learning. These are the individuals who win ‘Teacher of the Year’ awards and who feature in media portrayals of teachers. The power thought to be exercised here is usually the power to inspire. Quiet power, power behind the scenes, the power of grass roots organization can get lost in this emphasis on charisma.

In this discourse power flows overwhelmingly in one direction, from teacher to taught. The teacher motivates and inspires others by her presence. A powerful technique is understood in a similar way as a task, exercise or activity that is so skillfully energizing that it cannot fail to activate students’ enthusiasm, dispelling any resistance to learning they feel. Such a technique is imagined as a kind of elixir that, once drunk, turns apathy into engagement, hostility into eagerness. In Learning as a Way of Leading (2008) Stephen Preskill and I argued that this was the prevailing model of leadership in contemporary culture.

A second connotation of power is that it is a force used to intimidate, control or bully. Whenever I feel I am being made to complete a meaningless task, simply because my teacher has told me I must do this or risk failing the course, I am in his power. I can, of course, exert my own power of non-compliance, but the consequences of doing this are usually worse than the boredom of having to jump through a particular teacher-prescribed ‘hoop’. So many organizational behaviors are determined by edicts and requirements issued from above. In the universities in which I have worked what I and my colleagues taught, and how we taught it, have been strongly influenced by the dictates of whichever accreditation agency had the power to award, or withdraw, the university’s accreditation. The power here is the power of coercion.

Coercion, by the way, is not always a bad thing. Being coerced into making sure you treat people respectfully, don’t privilege research over teaching, try to recruit employees who represent racial diversity, challenge groupthink, and allow learners time to think before they speak, are all coercions I would endorse. Sometimes I use my authority as a leader or teacher to coerce my students or colleagues into examining ideas or practices they would much rather ignore. An example of this would be in leadership courses where I insist that the White students I teach explore the concept of racial micro-aggressions. These are the small behavioral tics and gestures (tone of voice, body language, choice of examples, eye contact, and so on) that Whites display without realizing how these diminish racial minorities. I don’t like owning up to my racial micro-aggressions and my students often don’t either. But I force the issue and insist that we cover this ground. Baptiste (2000) describes this as ethical coercion and points out that it is usually masked by blander language such as facilitation or encouragement.

The third way power is spoken of is particularly prevalent amongst trainers and educators of adults. This is the discourse of empowerment, where the point of learning is thought to be the development in learners of a sense of agency - a belief that they can accomplish something that previously had been considered unattainable, or that had they had never even imagined. An empowered classroom is usually thought of as one where students decide what they wish to learn and how they are going to learn it. An empowered learner is deemed one who applies the new skills learned in class to take action in the world outside. Time after time in my career I have heard people say they wished to empower students, meaning they wanted them to feel more confident in their abilities and to see themselves as self-directed learners who could take responsibility for planning and conducting their own learning without a teacher’s assistance.

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