Sharing Power in the Classroom

The Balance of Power

The notion of the balance of power in the classroom is celebrated throughout Learner-Centered Instruction by MaryEllen Weimer (2002). In fact, she has an entire chapter in her book entitled The Balance of Power. The primary focus of this chapter is to bring to light the fact that many students are, in actual fact disempowered. They have little choice in the big decisions that affect their learning experiences in higher education – like assignment choices, classroom policies and assessments. Weimer notes that teacher authority in educational contexts has become the expectation, creating both dependent, unmotivated learners as well as teachers who are unaware of the extent of control they exert in the classroom.

She poses the following questions to challenge instructors to check their power:

  1. Who decides what (content) students learn in the course?
  2. Who controls the pace (calendar) at which content is covered?
  3. Who determines the structures (assignments, tests) through which the material will be mastered?
  4. Who sets the conditions for learning (things like attendance policies and assignment deadlines)?
  5. Who evaluates (grades) the quantity and quality of the learning that has occurred?
  6. In the classroom itself, who controls and regulates the flow of communication, deciding who gets the opportunity to speak, when, and for how long?
  7. Overall, who makes all (or even most) of the important decisions about learning for students? (Weimer, 2002, p. 23-24)

Another point of departure for discussions on the power dynamic in the classroom is the course syllabus. Most syllabi read like a contract with very firm (almost punitive) language about the policies, assignments, deadlines and expectations. In some syllabi, all caps or exclamation points are used (like yelling) to reinforce that late work will not be accepted, that students are required to participate, that attendance is mandatory, that there are no make-up exams, etc.

In an article entitled, Death to the Syllabus, the author, Mano Singham makes no bones about his stance. He says, “it is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class” (p. 52). He goes on to highlight language used by instructors that reflect their positionality, such as discussing the ‘management’ of students and the protection of the instructor through the ‘legally enforceable contract’ that is the syllabus. He notes the wide acceptance of the idea that controlling environments stifle interest, and yet they continue to be the norm (although it is shifting!).

Students are coming from a 12 year educational background (in most cases) where they were not given too many choices about their learning, so continuing in this way is not a shock. In fact, oftentimes, what is more shocking is when teachers do share the power and give students more choice and voice in the classroom. Instructional choices that exert control over students are often informed by the beliefs and assumptions that instructors carry around with them about students’ capacity for learning and decision making: they are not academically mature enough to make decisions about learning; they lack academic skills; they don’t come to learn, they come to get good grades (Weimer, 2002).

When Power is Shared

Power sharing in the classroom drives learner-centered instruction because students have to take responsibility for their learning and the role of the instructor shifts from one of leader to one of facilitator of learning. (Shrug, Atlas! Shrug!) Instructors are often faced with students who are more interested in the course because they had some say in the design or implementation of the course. The students take ownership over the learning and gain confidence as they realize they are members of a learning community that thrives on communication, interaction, co-construction of knowledge and most importantly, respect. They are honored for the knowledge they bring to class and have a say on how their knowledge can shape the course. They are no longer viewed as empty vessels waiting to be filled by the expert instructor. This empowerment model for education is ultimately a win-win for both instructors and learners.

Of course, note that we are talking about power sharing, not giving it all away. There are some elements of the course design or the syllabus over which the instructor will retain control; however, not all of the control. Importantly, decisions made – even those made by the instructor – should be guided by student input. On the Course Design wiki written by my colleague Dr. Vanae Morris, you can learn more about situational factors that should be taken into consideration when designing a course. These situational factors should also be considered when deciding how much control you can realistically share with a class. Situational factors include class size, students’ background knowledge for the course, level of the students (e.g., undergraduate vs. graduate), etc. Obviously, a 200 person Freshman Intro to Physics course would have a much different power sharing dynamic than a 16 person graduate course in the College of Education (see, my (Em)Power in the Classroom series housed within this site and on the U of Utah CTLE blog recounting one instructor’s experiences with power sharing in her graduate course on teaching in higher education).

In a nutshell, the less power we share, the more dependent and disengaged our students may become. If we increase student responsibility for learning through power sharing a shifted teacher role, students (reluctantly at first, perhaps) will have increased interest in the topics and in the notion of co-creating knowledge and negotiating meaning with peers and instructors.

Suggestions for Power Sharing

This list entails some activities and/or approaches to shifting the power dynamic in your course. The level to which you will share the power varies according to the situational factors mentioned above, and thus the applicability of these activities for your context will also vary.

  1. Come to class with a skeleton of your syllabus, rather than a fully fleshed out ‘contract’.
  2. Get to know your students on day one. Survey them about their learning expectations and goals for the course. Discover what content is most meaningful and relevant to them (given their majors, career goals, subsequent courses, etc.). Then go back and fill in your syllabus accordingly.
  3. Workshop the class policies with your students. Democratically make decisions about cell phone and computer use, food and drink in the class, attendance and punctuality, use of online learning management systems (i.e., do the students want to have that element for your course or not? why? what is the benefit or disadvantage?).
  4. Provide a sample of assignments for students to either choose from or modify.
    1. Example: Weimer talks about an approach she tried where students were told what point value would earn them an A. They could choose from a selection of assignments that totaled more than what they needed for an A. Effectively, they could opt out of 1 or 2 assignments of their choosing.
    2. Example: Select the assignments you would like them to do (because you firmly believe they will be the best measure of meaningful student learning in your course – i.e., they are non-negotiable for you). Then, find out how students would like to complete them. Will you give them multiple drafts on a paper before grading? Will they have the choice of submission format (e.g., paper, video, performance art, presentation) or the deadline?
  5. Let students contribute to the assessment decisions. What assessments make the most sense given the learning objectives you all have agreed upon for the course? What seems fair to everyone? Can students assess one another or conduct a self-assessment on a particular assignment?
  6. Give choices on actual assessments to reduce test anxiety (see, Assessment).
  7. Brainstorm with the students about their learning preferences. Ask: How should we arrange our classroom (if applicable)? In rows, in small groups around a table, in a semi-circle or a full circle including the instructor?  Who will be responsible for the course content – group presentations, pair presentations, individual opportunities to lead discussions, online tutorials with in-class activities that dive deeper (see, Flipped Course Design)?
  8. Work together early in the semester to establish the culture of the classroom. Ask: How will we deal with opposing views when they arise? How do we ensure that everyone can contribute? How do we address ‘dominant’ and silent students?

CTLE Blog: (Em)Power in the Classroom by Rai Farrelly, PhD

This blog series has 6 entries that track my experience with Sharing the Power in a graduate course entitled, Teaching in Higher Education. I recount the decisions I made leading up to Day One and shares how I developed the course with my students, right down to setting classroom and grading policies.