The Power Game

Lately I have been thinking about the role that power plays to inhibit the learning in our classrooms and schools.  This has led me to think back…back ………back to my early impressionable years at university, as I studied justice and law and visited the works of such thinkers as Michel Foucault and german cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche. I remember being caught up in the ‘rise of the institution’ as a construction of power and control. At the time it wasn’t the institution of schools that I was most intrigued by, it was in fact the prison and psychiatric institutions I was more obliged to investigate.  The system of education was secondary but still of interest due to my reliance on being part of that machine to complete my degree!  It is now that my memories of such studies comes to the forefront as I consider why it is that our classrooms often preside as the playground of power struggles and control and how the systems we work within constrain and restrict originality.

Foucault saw schools in the 17th century as functioning to contain disorders, prevent ignorance, idleness, and insubordination (see Discipline and Punishment).  He then saw it develop with the rise expanse of the factory and population increase into the more modern system.

Schools began to develop, first, functional spaces, and later, separate classrooms; and pupils were distributed spatially and serially, not only according to progress, age, or level of achievement but also character, cleanliness, even morality.

The twentieth-century shift from traditional didactic or teacher-centred to more co-operative or child-centred instructional formats has not dissolved or tamed power relations but merely reformulated them.

 Roger Deacon 

I can walk around my school on a daily basis and see this in action. We have some amazing teachers in our school, yet if you asked each one of them who owns the power in the classroom, who controls the learning, I am quite sure most, if not all, would say they do.

George Couros recently suggested reading Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. It was quite serendipitous that 2 days from starting to formalise these thoughts on here, George would make this suggestion.

Notter and Grant declare that we are in fact struggling to be “fully human within our organizational lives” as they explain that our organisations have been “modelled after machines”.  Foucault would assert that in fact they ARE machines and we are but cogs within it.

Are we just cogs in a machine?

Are we just cogs in a machine?

Notter and Grant see that the “revolutionary breakthrough in technology” (the internet) has enabled us to become “more human”.  The social connections and implications creating transparency and enabling the line between professionals and amateurs to be blurred.

Yet our organisations (schools) remain rigid and our classrooms structured to maintain the machine. The struggle for control and power continues despite the mechanics failing those it is trying to ‘produce’. Most would agree and most schools would even impart in their vision that their objective is to support students to be innovative, creative and successful. How many of our schools are actually able to support their staff to be innovative, creative and successful? Does it start there? Shouldn’t our principals be able to be innovative, creative and successful too?

The challenge as Notter and Grant see, is “to make our organizations more human”. They suggest:

Taking more chances

Giving up control

Shifting authority

Thinking about old issues from new perspectives

Bringing in new voices

I would love to see these ideas being discussed within faculties, within schools, within executives, within regions. I would love to hear  about and see schools challenging the machines and transforming themselves to become more “humanized”. Most emphatically I am excited about challenging my own classrooms, my own staff, my own peers and my own leadership, to see how WE can become more “humanized”!


  1. Tony Lunniss

    The issue of power and control in education is fascinating and the norm in our system is certainly based on the teacher holding and, at best, distributing and sharing the power in the classroom. This was justified in previous times by education focusing on content and teachers being the subject experts, placing students inevitably into a subservient role.
    One of the interesting results of the ‘democratisation of information’, through the web and its increasingly pervasive alternative sources, is that the power is moving toward those who are able to navigate, evaluate and effectively extract content and information. While the issue of credibility and accuracy of source is an issue, it can be overcome by being selective and following a few basic guidelines. And, if that’s the case, why wouldn’t a student simply go to iTunes U and listen to a lecture from a world-renowned expert on a topic, rather than turn up to class? Increasingly, the power to choose is going to be with consumers, our students and their families, and we are going to need to provide a high-level service to hold them.
    Part of that service will need to focus on the nature of the relationships in the classroom, which leads right back into the question of power, the exercise of authority and the extent that schools are more ‘humanised’.

  2. rhonimcfarlane

    Thanks for your thoughts Tony. I think it’s an extremely exciting time. How we can construct knowledge and not just be delivered to us without query, enables so many of our students an opportunity to connect with learning in schools which they were otherwise disengaged from. Imagine a collective of learners humming away asking questions, seeking support, making connections and helping each other, not because they have a similar interest but because they are seeking the answer to questions they have conjured themselves and not purely responding to the “teachers” term plan delivered for the umpteenth year. I am excited for myself as a learner, I am excited for my children as leaners and I hope to provide opportunities for my students and others to be excited about their learning too!

  3. George Couros (@gcouros)

    Keep challenging Rhoni…Kids need to grow up to be adults that take ownership of their own learning, lives, and careers, while also learning to empowering others to do the same. School teaches us that adults are the ones with the answers and creates a dependence upon them and the system. Time to break the cycle. Thank you for your thoughtful post!

    • rhonimcfarlane

      Thank you George, for both your encouragement and the great heads up on the book! I think the more we (teachers) acknowledge that even when we may have the answers, our answers aren’t always right for each student, the better off we all will be. Constructing our own understanding is far more valuable.

  4. Christine J Roberts

    Absolutely fascinating discussion.I have always loathed the power imbalance in schools (this is why I became a teacher- to change it whenever I could) but felt ironically powerless most of the time to change it much other than working from the inside as a subversive student centred voice or element. Schools are usually run by those who liked or were successful at school, and therefore may not really want to see change or feel anything is wrong with a suppressive regime of control and domination. I DID NOT like school at all and wasted most of my time at school, such a waste, and yet to look at it i would be classified as a success, but not really. So many students I am sure have the same or worse stories about school. We unintentionally turn them off in droves…..such a waste of potential, time, people and resources.
    I think also a lot of this control issue is also somewhat cultural, where in some systems there are rules and regulations where they are not that necessary or essential to learning at all but just a form of control that looks ‘right’ or is traditional. Other systems are more flexible and kinder to the students which must help in not trampling them as much and therefore retaining kore of them to have them go on and be more engaged and successful.
    Relationships and relevance are going to be the key to successfully engaging and retaining students in our classes.
    The freedom that the web gives us is unbelievable brilliant and historically significant in our development as society and education industry. Finally students can and will democratically vote with their feet eventually as to what, where and with whom they learn. Teachers better lift their game or get out of the classroom.
    Humanising education……about time …..excellent….

    Sorry for this basic response but I felt I just had to say something and agree.
    This book I will track down and read.
    Thanks for articulating this discussion topic.

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