Can we learn from a place of power?

This weekend I had a conversation about education and classroom dynamics. In it, I said:

We need to remember that students will have a wide range of reactions to any curricula or activities we bring to the classroom. There will always be some who are not drawn into an activity and others who love it. As teachers, we must be attentive to this dynamic. Attentiveness is particularly important because the position of the learner is not a position of power.

I felt like a bomb went off in my head as I said the last line. The conversation continued around me as though I hadn’t said anything momentous, but I stopped attending to the flow.

It is common to reference teacher-student relationships as ones where a power dynamic is in play, which is probably why no one reacted strongly to my statement. But what does it mean to be learning when you are in a place of weakness? What does it mean to lack authority in a situation where you are trying to integrate new information and skills on a topic as deeply personal as sex and sexuality?

We talk about the need for equal power dynamics in relationships because it lends itself to all parties being able to state what they need. Why do we assume it okay for the power balance to be so dramatically different in the classroom environment? The power dynamics in a classroom are often conceived in terms of the relationship between the teacher and the student. But the relationship between the content and the student is also very important. Students need to feel ownership of the content, they need to have autonomy over themselves and they need to gain autonomy over the content. This may be particularly true in classrooms that address topics of sexuality.

What about your classrooms? Do you think your students feel that sense of power that autonomy can yield? Are they able to gain authority over the material in such a way that it feels like it belongs to them?

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.