Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner: Power in the Classroom: How Do Teachers Use It?

August 1, 2013
Instructional Communication

Some communication students who are interested in becoming teachers take classes in instructional communication to learn about the role of communication in the classroom. However, one concept students often do not learn is the communicative role that covert power, known as hegemony, plays in the classroom and in society. Because covert power in the classroom is a difficult concept to understand, I have created an activity that engages students in learning about power in the classroom. The activity shows students how power can either empower or oppress students.

The idea that education can be oppressive is largely attributed to Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire explains that all teachers have power,and he criticizes traditional forms of education in which all-knowing teachers use their power to force students to merely memorize information. Freire’s critique, known as critical pedagogy, speaks out against education that does not allow students to think for themselves. Freire explains that in traditional education, the teacher forces students to learn what he or she thinks is best. He calls this the banking concept of education because it resembles a banking transaction. In this educational transaction, teachers make deposits of information to students who must simply memorize information for testing purposes. Freire views such educational practices as oppressive.

It is important for future teachers to learn about power so that they recognize how they, often unknowingly, silence their own students’ voices in the classroom.  Because most students have not considered how power influences educational experiences, I challenge students to learn about power through a classroom activity. This activity assists them in understanding how teachers can oppress students and how they, as future teachers, can communicate with their students in ways that can reduce oppression. This activity is a useful way for students to learn a difficult concept and also to apply it to the classroom. 

To gain background knowledge about oppressive teaching practices, students read Freire’sPedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire’s work teaches them about the types of pedagogy that keep students from thinking critically. Through their reading, students become aware of how they have been part of the banking concept of education and how some of their own educational experiences may have limited their critical thinking.

After reflecting on how they may have been oppressed in their own educational experiences, students have the opportunity to view critical pedagogy through a cinematic lens. Students enjoy watching movies and seeing a movie in which a teacher uses communication to empower others helps students to better comprehend power in the classroom. Therefore, students view segments of the movie Half Nelson—a movie that portrays education that is in contrast to the traditional banking system. In this movie, actor Ryan Gosling portrays a teacher, Dan Dunne, who focuses on discussing issues with his students instead of dictating to students what they should learn. Dunne engages his students in critical communication pedagogy, which is an approach that teaches students about hegemony and focuses on communication and dialogue between the student and teacher. This approach opposes the banking concept of education in which the teacher tells students what they need to know.  

In an important scene, Dunne shows his students footage of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in which the speaker equates power in the society with “the machine.” Dunne dialogues with his students about the meaning of the scene. He challenges them to make thoughtful contributions to the discussion; he does not tell them what to think. Thus, he does not use the power he has as a teacher to oppress. Rather, this important scene demonstrates how a teacher can assist students in learning about a historical event by dialoguing with them, not by dictating what they should learn about the event.

After viewing the scene, students write and dialogue about their reactions to the ways in which Dunne works to empower students in his classroom. Specifically, students react to the ways in which Dunne empowers his students to think about hegemony. Students recognize that unlike teachers who force students to learn what the teachers dictate, Dunne encourages students to analyze the concepts and events for themselves. By viewing the movie, students become aware of the differences between teachers who follow the oppressive banking concept of education and those, like Dunne, who empower students by dialoguing with them about power in society and asking them to respond to it. 

The result of this activity is that students gain important knowledge about communication. Specifically, students gain a heightened awareness of the role of power in the classroom, which they had not previously examined. As potential future teachers, this activity assists students in thinking about how they can reduce oppression in their own classrooms by communicating with their students in ways that facilitate learning.

About the author (s)

David H. Kahl

Penn State Erie

Associate Professor