Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 1998 Issue »

    Editor's Review - Power Dynamics in the Classroom

    Bonnie Hao Kuo Tai
    Classroom Power Relations: Understanding Student-Teacher Interaction
    by Mary Phillips Manke.
    Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997. 170 pp. $22.00 (paper).

    "Sometimes I Can Be Anything": Power, Gender, and Identity in a Primary Classroom
    by Karen Gallas.
    New York: Teachers College Press, 1998. 153 pp. $18.95 (paper).

    Political Moments in the Classroom

    by Margaret Himley, with Kelly Le Fave, Allen Larson, Susan Yadlon, and the Political Moments Study Group.
    Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann/Boynton Cook, 1997. 136 pp. $22.50 (paper).

    Despite interest and inquiry across decades and disciplines into the general phenomenon of power (Foucault, 1980; French & Raven, 1968; Miller, 1986; Russell, 1938; Wartenberg, 1990), particularly in teacher-student relationships from elementary to graduate education (Aguinis, Nesler, Quigley, Lee, & Tedeschi, 1996; Cothran & Ennis, 1997; Kreisberg, 1992), a firm understanding of classroom power dynamics continues to elude educational researchers and practitioners.

    For educators and researchers interested in the micropolitical life of classrooms, three new books attempt to return "dynamic" to the concept of "power dynamic." Mary Phillips Manke's Classroom Power Relations and Karen Gallas's "Sometimes I Can Be Anything" explore power in elementary classrooms; the former is an ethnographic study of three classrooms not taught by Manke, and the latter the results of a four-year teacher-research project of Gallas's own first and second graders. Political Moments in the Classroom documents the discussions and experiences of a group of writing instructors at Syracuse University, and includes reflective essays by Margaret Himley and her collaborators Kelly Le Fave, Allen Larson, and Susan Yadlon.

    All three of these books move away from the static and unilateral theoretical concept of power as something teachers have over their students, acknowledging the ways that power is mutually constructed and negotiated between teacher and student, as well as between students. Social constructivism guides Manke's study; she describes the power she observed as a "structure that students and teachers build in the interactional space they live in [called] `What Teachers and Students Can Do Here'" (p. 6). In contrast, Gallas spotlights the "subtextual dynamic that permeates both the social and academic domains of schooling" when "children attempt to negotiate the power relationships" (p. 4) within the classroom in her descriptions of and reflections on classroom life. Himley writes that "power is best understood as a multiplicity of force relations that are immanent, constitutive, relational, and dynamic" (p. 58). While emphasizing the "dynamic" characteristic of power, these authors use different theoretical conceptions of power and methods of inquiry to contribute varied perspectives to a greater understanding of the politics of teaching and learning.

    Manke focuses on the classroom interactions of three primary school teachers and their students. As a former teacher and current teacher educator, she sets out in what was her doctoral dissertation research to learn what bases of social power were available to teachers and students and how they used these bases in interaction with one another.

    Classroom Power Relations is organized in two parts. The first part provides descriptions of "typical" or "sample" days in the classrooms of three elementary school teachers--a whole-language teacher of a semirural first grade, an "authoritarian" teacher of an urban fifth grade, and a suburban fifth-grade teacher who "shares control" with her students. Manke provides contextual information about each school district, community, school, and their inhabitants, creating a snapshot of each classroom in which she observed. The second part offers a discussion of three themes across the classrooms: their organization of time and space, teachers' use of politeness and indirect discourse, and how classroom knowledge is defined. Another chapter specifically explores students' contributions to classroom power relations. In the final chapter, Manke discusses some implications for teachers, teacher educators, and educational researchers. She appends an annotated bibliography.

    Of particular interest in Classroom Power Relations is Manke's chapter on "Teacher's Organization of Time and Space," in which she explores the ways teachers arrange class time and space to proactively control student behavior and promote learning. She describes how the "authoritarian" fifth-grade teacher arranged her room in a way that discouraged students from moving. The exit was also "tightly controlled," and three of the most difficult students sat in "isolated seats" designated by the teacher (p. 67). In contrast, the fifth-grade teacher who favored giving students choices believed that "students' learning is enhanced when they feel they are in control of their environment" (p. 69). In her classroom, students and teacher frequently rearranged furniture to facilitate the learning task in which they were engaged. Similarly, the first-grade classroom she observed "was aimed at making possible the many choices offered" (p. 67), although particular areas of the room were specified for particular uses (i.e., reading, block play, writing). Manke also explores how each teacher used structured activities to control student behavior.

    While the theoretical foundation of Classroom Power Relations represents a significant departure from past empirical research, which generally focused on teachers' uses of power and students' compliance or resistance, Manke's analysis falls short of her intentions. While she emphasizes the importance of students' "interactive contributions" to classroom power, her method does not provide enough data to adequately explore students' perspectives. Not only are her observations and thematic chapters focused on teachers' uses of power (except chapter eight), but her research design also fails to include student interviews and focused observations of students. Thus, students' experiences, perceptions, and constructions of classroom dynamics are very noticeably missing from her data and analysis. In chapter eight, Manke provides an unconvincing rationale for her failure to interview students, and writes about the difficulty of observing so many students in a classroom as compared with observing one or two teachers. There is little I see that kept her from focusing on and interviewing a subgroup, or even one or two of the students from each class, particularly among the fifth graders.

    Another serious weakness is her failure to include race relations among students and their teachers in her analysis. All of the teachers in this study are White women, while many of the students are African American and others are Latino/a and Asian. It is unclear why she never discusses identity and constructions of difference, when it is well-established that identity--especially minority or majority group membership--plays a significant role in power dynamics in classrooms (Delpit, 1988; Freire, 1970; McLaren, 1994).

    Finally, there is an implicit idealization of power-sharing in her emphasis on interactive constructions of power that leaves the reader with the impression that Manke believes students and teachers can exercise power equally, or perhaps even should, yet this question remains unexamined. Manke writes that power relations are socially constructed and suggests that teachers who share power with students, use indirect discourse, and give students choices in their learning can more efficiently get their students to engage in the tasks they design to promote student learning. However, this statement is a leap of faith from her data and analysis. Implicit in her conclusion is a comparison between the "authoritarian" and the "shared power" classes, although such a comparison cannot be made. An in-depth and extensive exploration of a classroom in which the teacher was actively making changes in her practice to share power with her students, as was the case for one of the teachers Manke observed, might have been more convincing.

    While Manke focuses on how students and teachers further their own and their "colluded" agendas, Gallas undertakes a study of power dynamics among the students in her own classroom. The knowledge she has of her students, combined with sustained inquiry over four years, provides her with both data and insight into how the students themselves make sense of identity, power, gender, race, and language. "Sometimes I Can Be Anything" sets out to understand "what's going on" in Gallas's class; the result is a provocative and evocative work, a documentation of what Gallas calls the "perishable art" of teaching and learning.

    The book is organized chronologically. Gallas juxtaposes short vignettes from classroom observations with her own reflections and questions about these peeks into her students' interactions and how they make sense of things. She considers the ways her six- and seven-year-olds "do" gender and race, assume different poses and personae, and cross boundaries to share and control power in the classroom.

    Gallas's authority as a writer comes primarily from extensive research in her own classroom and her ability to listen and watch her students closely. The strengths of this book lie in her strengths as a teacher-researcher. The book is unencumbered by wordy, inaccessible articulations of theories of power. It is full of intimate depictions and stories of classroom events and conversations between students, and between students and teacher, that provide a model for a way to attend closely to the communicative acts of our students. For example, she describes how one student responded to new learning tasks: "Latia would drop any expression from her face, pull her legs into her body, if she was sitting on the rug, wrap her arms around them, and become immobile" (p. 119). Her descriptions of classroom life convey well the sense of power as subtextual.

    Gallas writes convincingly of the costs some of her students pay for maintaining certain personae, as well as the benefits and gains of personal and social power they bring. For example, she tells the story of Rachel, a silent student who refuses to speak in class, fears not knowing what to say, and consequently misses out on many learning opportunities. Gallas realizes that the invisibility that comes with Rachel's silence gives her the freedom and power to do as she pleases (such as leaving the classroom) without risking punishment. She observes how Rachel's social power increases when she finally breaks her silence in a hilarious event that forever positions Rachel as courageous and unusual. She learns that Rachel uses her silence for protection, as a "container for a rich imaginal world" (p. 127).

    She also illustrates effectively how many children are not color-blind or race-innocent. She describes an incident in which several boys, led by a White boy whom the "bad boys" frequently marginalized, exclude Anthony, an African American, from their lunch table. One of the boys described how he thought Anthony felt: "I think he probably felt like we were calling him the `N' word." When Philip, an Asian American, asked him what that meant, he responded "in a whisper, `nigger'." Another African American boy, Germaine, overhearing his response, "jumped like he'd been shot, rose to his knees, and said, with an unusually aggressive tone, `What did you say?'" (p. 107). Her discussion of this episode brings to light ways in which students themselves can read how race colors a social moment.

    What I appreciated most about this book was Gallas's premise that children make sense of social dynamics the way they do other aspects of the world around them--through experimentation and investigation. She describes how her students try on different ways of being with others, and how they sometimes are unhappy with the outcome of a dynamic they initiate. She writes, "sometimes I think much of what these boys ["bad boys"] do surprises even themselves. At certain points I have gotten the feeling that they will start a dynamic in motion on an impulse and then find themselves not in control of the event they have orchestrated, and not really liking the outcome or themselves" (p. 41). While I might question the motives of the "bad boys," I agree with Gallas that

    bad boys, like most children, are not naturally mean-spirited; they are experimental. They are small social scientists studying the effects of their behavior on others. The experiments begin at home and gradually expand outward into the world. At all stages of their investigations they need thoughtful "others" helping them to reflect upon and take responsibility for their actions. (p. 44)

    In this book, Gallas describes how she helps her students "reflect upon and take responsibility for their actions" and courageously subjects her own practice to this same reflection and scrutiny.

    While Gallas reflects on and critiques her own practice, there are three important aspects of this book that I find problematic. First, the portraits of her students seem a bit too neat and polished. I am left wondering how she can know her students so well. She reveals questions and behaviors that remain outside of her understanding in her narrative, but in the end, she always seems to have an airtight explanation of a child's personality or way of being in her classroom. Similarly, while it is helpful to the reader to understand how and why she labels certain students "bad boys" or "silent girls," I am uncertain that this strategy ultimately helps teachers to break the habit of stereotyping students. She begins to make her labels more three- dimensional and complicated, but ultimately they are still the bad boys and silent girls who parenthetically, and as a result of her teaching and in the course of her storytelling, become boys and girls with complex dimensions.

    Secondly, her treatment of race remains on the level of Black and White. As an Asian American who was once a "silent girl," I was particularly sensitive to the fact that she names and labels her Japanese students as such, but seemingly does not explore the racial dynamics for these students. For example, she explains that her Japanese students have an excuse for being silent, but then does not elaborate on this belief. Is she suggesting that their language skills give them an excuse for remaining silent? Their culture? What is her responsibility in light of their silence and social experimentation? Is her responsibility to foreign nationals different than to U.S. citizens? I find this information relevant and important to a study of power and identity. In addition, she makes claims to knowledge and understanding of Philip, the Chinese American student in her class, that are not nearly as substantiated as her discussions of the experiences of her White or African American students. Her conclusion that Philip "did not have a complete understanding of the rules he was breaking or the implications of his act" (p. 107) is based on two sentences she quotes him as saying. Not understanding the meaning of "the `n' word" does not also mean not understanding the meaning of racism in general or "nigger" in particular.

    Finally, Gallas focuses on the dynamic classroom social process divorced from her academic curricular objectives. This separation of process from content has two important implications. The first is the more common and obvious: classroom behavior and disciplinary issues are a separate concern for teachers, and while important, they still occupy second-class seats to more important academic curricular issues. The second implication is less obvious but equally important. By focusing on peer social dynamics, Gallas investigates her own power only peripherally. Her power is taken for granted. The problem with this stance is that she misses ways in which she might be complicit in maintaining the power status quo. For example, she writes of how she "sat down with the girls to ensure that the boys did not return" (p. 77), but does not reflect on how her presence selectively protects rather than challenges the girls' right not to hear "gross talk" (violent, explicit, and graphic). While she later writes at length about how one girl challenged her own assumptions about how girls might react to the gross talk, her own power to challenge both boys' and girls' assumptions that girls were intimidated by this kind of talk remains under-explored.

    Departing from the world of elementary classrooms, Himley and her colleagues take us into the world of college writing studios. As a collaborative teacher-research project, Political Moments in the Classroom brings together real teaching dilemmas and tensions as teachers gather to make sense of the political in their teaching.

    Political Moments
    is postmodern and eclectic--multilayered, multitemporal, and multicultural. It is composed of alternating edited transcripts of meetings of the Political Moments Study Group and essays by members of the study group. Within this structure, the authors explore teaching as a political act--the specific and the mundane that challenge teacher professionalism, knowledge, and authority, and ideas about teaching as a profession. It reveals how this group of teachers supported, challenged, and made sense of each others' "political moments" as teachers. In this way, the authors explore sexuality and sexual harassment, speech and silence, and politicized identities in their own classes.

    Himley's introduction situates the work of the Study Group and the book itself within a higher education context still polarized by the "culture wars" and within the educational philosophy of critical pedagogy. The group's discussions are centered around "political moments"--uncomfortable, teachable, or transformative moments (these were alternative terms considered for the group's name)--in which teachers faced an "episode that is immediate, perhaps disruptive, and that dramatizes the anger, sense of threat, and deep disagreement about difference that characterize contemporary culture and that inevitably now emerge in the classroom" (p. 3). Himley poses the question: As a writing teacher who aims to help students develop their own voices, what is her job when that voice, for example, "emerged from within the homophobic discourses of culture" (p. 3)? She also asks if it is her job to "lead an intelligent discussion on difference" (p. 4). The book explores this and related questions by following the thinking--the immediate, emotion-laden talk of the study group meetings as well as the subsequent reflections--of individual group members.

    The strengths of this book lie both in its unusual format and the authors' courageous confrontation with and open revelation of their own difficult teaching moments. The edited transcripts provide, through the voices of the participating teachers, narratives of very recent events in these teachers' lives, from a case of sexual harassment by a male student to a story about how a "partly" Native American student "raised on welfare" exposed and challenged the academic "gameplaying" in an honors thesis seminar (p. 88). These transcripts provide very real tastes of the tension, uncertainty, and vulnerability that teachers face during a challenging class, through their own eyes and weighted by their own interpretations. They also describe ways that other teachers respond to these stories--concerns and questions the stories raise, and different reactions and interpretations of what is important in a story. The essays then take these discussions one level further and explore the stories' meanings from a theoretical view. Finally, the book's style of presentation implies a way for teachers to explore collectively and communicate publicly the ways in which power dynamics influence teaching practices.

    Throughout this text, the teachers of the Political Moments Study Group interrogate their own assumptions and practices, looking into the ways they shy away from bigoted or silencing speech or intimidating behaviors, and share ways of confronting and uncovering their own and students' unspoken fears and invisible ignorance. As Kelly Le Fave writes in her essay "Why Stories?" the group, and I believe also the book, seeks to "create a space" for the kinds of stories that teachers might commonly be "unable or unwilling to tell . . . because they become associated with a wide range of negative qualities, including: shame, fear, embarrassment, insecurity, and anger" (p. 20).

    Particularly enlightening in this book is the deconstruction of the notion of classrooms as safe spaces for learning. Himley writes:

    The definition of the classroom as a community or safe space where everyone speaks and where everyone's opinion counts equally fails to recognize the many ways students may feel unable to speak or to be heard. We don't want to be naive about power relations in the classroom, or silence those students who do not agree with us, or privilege those who do, or get locked into the position of appearing to enforce an agenda of political correctness. (p. 6)

    Despite these words, there will be readers of this book who will undoubtedly see these teachers' practices as further evidence that higher education is swarming with radical leftists who use the classroom as bully pulpits to further their own political agendas. However one might disagree with any of the individual teachers' responses to teaching incidents, one of the strengths of this book is that it reveals teachers' vulnerabilities and students' bases of power. What this book makes most evident is that sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia are alive and well in the classroom; that teachers, and not only students, can be momentarily powerless and speechless victims of abuses of students' power; and that "political" issues affect teaching and learning in real ways.

    These strengths also characterize the book's weaknesses. Because of the authors' attempts to capture the "ephemeral" (p. 19) nature of teacher talk, the overall composition lends itself to impressionism rather than analysis. Related to this criticism, the book is at times overly introspective without providing readers with a clear rationale for the importance and relevance of the excerpted and edited transcripts.

    Finally, the essays are inconsistent in quality. Most are thought provoking and critically reflective. However, two depart from the book's overall tone and significantly weaken the overall aim of the book to tell stories: Diane Penrod's "The Working-Class Student in the Groves of Academe" and Himley's conclusion, "The Classroom as City." Penrod fails to convince me that her own educational experiences give her the authority to make broad generalizations about working-class and first-generation college students. She writes, for example, "To compensate for a lack of educational experience, working-class students develop a strategy along the lines of what they know best: the puritan work ethic" (p. 103). Assuming knowledge and speaking for others is an assumption of power that I think should be questioned in a book on this subject.

    Although the book emphasizes the importance of "continuance of conversation" (p. 15), Himley's conclusion is overly pat and prescriptive. A focus on the ideal departs radically from the complexities of power dynamics with which this book grapples. The book's strengths lie in its ability to expose raw and living questions and to make those questions resonate for readers. A conclusion focusing on an ideal contradicts the very nature of a book of stories told by different teachers.

    Despite the shortcomings, these three books provide thought-provoking classroom vignettes and reflective observations that bring into sharp relief the ways that power influences teaching and learning at two levels, elementary and post-secondary. Manke and Gallas provide complementary descriptions and analyses of power in elementary classrooms. Manke focuses on teachers' uses of power; her greatest contribution is her inquiry into how elementary teachers who profess to take a whole-language approach and strive to use collaborative learning groups redefine their power vis-Ö-vis their students. Gallas focuses on peer interactions and how certain kinds of students (bad boys, silent girls, beautiful people) use and manipulate their personae and others' perceptions of them to gain control of their own and others' experiences. Himley and her teaching and study group colleagues provide a glimpse into how teachers of writing make sense of their power and authority with relation to their students' power to silence, control, and intimidate; the power and privilege of academic knowledge; and their commitment to social justice.

    All three books touch upon the issue of classrooms as "safe spaces." Manke's analysis of the use of polite and indirect discourse and physical arrangements of classroom space suggests that there are ways to create this "safe space" for students to venture out of their comfort zones. Gallas repeatedly asserts her attempts to create safe spaces where children can cast off personae that constrain learning opportunities, and can try on new ones that will facilitate their entry and membership into the class as an internal community that acknowledges each individual's ways of being. Himley and colleagues begin with the premise that the classroom is not a safe space and that teachers must actively learn to understand how to harness the power dynamics so that learning can take place despite the risks involved.

    All three discuss how classroom talk reveals and influences power dynamics. Manke's study shows how teachers use certain kinds of speech to get students to comply with their requests, and how students resist compliance and assume the teacher's role. Gallas describes how certain students use certain kinds of talk (e.g., stories that include or exclude, gross talk, strategic questioning) or silence to manipulate the outcome of classroom events. Himley and colleagues reflect on their efforts to deal with talk that they considered racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic, and how students sometimes use silence as the privilege of staying outside of the fray, beyond the touch of controversial subject matter.

    Manke, Gallas, and Himley also discuss the various ways in which knowledge defines power in the classroom. Manke's chapter on ways that students and teachers define classroom knowledge explores the ways students actively bring in their own knowledge to determine the course of a classroom activity. Gallas describes in poignant detail the ways some children use knowledge of other students' weaknesses in skills such as reading to further their own power. Himley and the Study Group actively question and discuss the ways their and their students' claims to knowledge clash as they seek to push students' assumptions about race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and higher education.

    Finally, all three affirm the conception of a complex, interactive power in the teaching-learning enterprise. Manke and Himley both cite Foucault's concept of power as a web of relations. Gallas, while eschewing direct references to theories of power, demonstrates from her classroom descriptions and reflections a conception of power as dynamic and highly contextual. Manke, who articulates her theoretical framework, ends up describing a power dynamic that is primarily teacher centered and initiated, even as she seeks to convey the positive relations in the more student-centered, less authoritarian, and more democratic classrooms. Gallas downplays her power by focusing little explicit attention on it. Himley and colleagues succeed in evoking a conception of power that is highly complex, with multiple initiators, players, perceptions, and outcomes.

    These three books deal differently with how identity affects and is affected by power. Gallas and Himley explore the influence of identity on power dynamics. Gallas focuses on race and gender. Her analysis of gender politics is particularly insightful as she explores how her students, male and female, try on stereotypically male or female personae. Himley touches upon almost every aspect of identity that is currently and hotly politicized, except religion and disability. Manke misses the boat entirely on this issue, although there are many opportunities for her to explore it.

    Notably missing from these books is any in-depth discussion of grading and evaluation. Manke devotes two pages to an explanation of how one of the teachers she observed used grades to motivate her students. Gallas does not make any mention of grades affecting peer power dynamics and identity constructions. While there is occasional mention of grades in Political Moments, this aspect of the teacher's role does not seem to play a prominent role in what these teachers consider "political moments" in their teaching. From my own research (Tai, 1997), I have found that grading is a significant issue for some college students and faculty.

    These three books suggest that there are methods of inquiry that are more fruitful for investigating power dynamics. Because power is centrally connected to individual perceptions, experiences, and ways of making sense of the world, student and teacher perceptions of social interactions are especially important to any study of classroom power dynamics. Teacher research provides invaluable data on how teachers make sense of their roles and how they make decisions about how to use their power. For researchers studying other people's classrooms, in-depth student and teacher interviews seem particularly important. Perhaps a collaboration between a teacher-researcher and a researcher would be ideal; the teacher could reflect on his or her students and classrooms, while the researcher could gather information about students and classroom interactions that is not necessarily accessible to the teacher.

    Reviewing Classroom Power Relations, "Sometimes I Can Be Anything," and Political Moments in the Classroom together reveals many still unanswered questions. These three books highlight the differences between post-secondary and elementary teaching. Are assumptions of teacher and student power and authority, peer influence, and curricular control really that different across levels? Should they be? These books describe fairly conventional educational settings. What do power dynamics look like in vocational, professional, or non-formal educational settings? All of the teachers in these classroom stories are White. What are the experiences of Asian American, Latino/a, Native American, and African American teachers? Finally, how does the subject matter and the teachers' relationship to it affect classroom power dynamics?

    As Manke, Gallas, Himley, and the Political Moments Study Group demonstrate, a critical and reflective examination of the multiple forms and uses of power that shape classroom dynamics and teacher-student relationships can constitute a rich and productive inquiry into assumptions educators and researchers maintain about what it means to teach and learn.
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    Fall 1998 Issue


    Reporting Ethnography to Informants
    Reba N. Page, Yvette J. Samson, Michele D. Crockett
    On the Theoretical Trappings of the Thesis of Anti-Theory; or, Why the Idea of Theory May Not, After All, Be All That Bad
    A Response to Gary Thomas
    Kanavillil Rajagopalan
    From the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to Hopwood
    The Educational Plight and Struggle of Mexican Americans in the Southwest
    Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., Richard R. Valencia
    Voices Inside Schools - Teacher as Rain Dancer
    Simon Hole
    Book Review - Will Teach for Food edited by Cary Nelson
    Robert P. Engvall

    Book Notes

    The Role of State Departments of Education in Complex School Reform
    By Susan Follett Lusi

    Improving America's Schools
    Edited by Eric A. Hanushek and Dale W. Jorgenson

    Orly's Draw-a-Story

    Locked in the Cabinet
    By Robert B. Reich

    Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering
    By Susan A. Ambrose, Kristin L. Dunkle, Barbara B. Lazarus, Indira Nair, and Deborah A. Harkus

    The Curriculum Studies Reader
    Edited by David J. Flinders and Stephen J. Thornton

    First Person, First Peoples
    By Andrew Garrod and Colleen Larimore

    Historical Dictionary of Women's Education in the United States
    Edited by Linda Eisenmann

    I Don't Want to Talk About It
    By Terrence Real

    Randomized Experiments for Planning and Evaluation
    By Robert R. Boruch

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.