A lot of philosophically-minded folk likely know the struggle of being a teacher with big questions around power and oppression in the classroom, and the personal conflict that sometimes creates. Over the years, I have kept both my idealism and my cynicism of the education system. Philosophy has offered me, so far, a way of balancing the two.
The dynamics in the classroom as a result of an authoritative system can often lead to power struggles. Sometimes, behaviour issues emerge as a result of a complex mix of one party straining to maintain authority, and the other to subvert it - especially when you’re working with teenagers. A dynamic, uncoordinated dance. The very notion of ‘behaviour issues’ lends itself to this very problem. Here’s how I’ve used philosophical approaches to disrupt the hold of these power dynamics and improve relationships.
1. Open questions - Socratic Dialogue
Questions can help us to gain an insight into the lives of others. They build bridges and can help us learn more about people so we can build our knowledge of them and respond dynamically as the relationship develops.
It is also important we use questions skilfully in teaching. I use open questions - but not in the way you might think. Peter Worley makes an important distinction between grammatically and conceptually open and closed questions, and what he calls an Open Question Mindset. (Read the paper here)
In sum, a grammatically closed but conceptually open question is one whose grammatical structure looks closed, but is in fact rich in conceptual possibilities:
‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’
You can answer this with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but the number and combination of answers are endless.
His Open Question Mindset is even more crucial, and the heart of a philosophically-informed educator. You can ask an open question (‘what is poetry?’ Is his example) but have a specific idea in your head of what you want your class to answer, without opening up or exploring their response. You can ask a closed question, and be open to hearing and making visible all the different thoughts and possibilities.
This sort of questioning helps students feel heard and listened to, but it can also be challenging in positive ways. Students are encouraged to go deeper into their own and each other’s thinking, and question things they take for granted. I know that when someone challenges my thinking, I feel stimulated, respected and curious - especially when we are participating in good faith, and the questioner is is also open to being challenged in a mutual exchange. Good questioning can therefore develop and sustain positive relationships with students, and increased expectations can push their thinking in ways that make learning rich and enjoyable.
2. Don’t assume you are right
It cannot be true that you are always right. Yes, you’re the teacher, and you are likely highly educated in formal terms, but don’t assume you are correct just because you perceive yourself to know more. Model epistemic humility in your classroom, by opening yourself up to the possibility you might be wrong - there are limits to your own knowledge, and you are limited in your own ability to obtain knowledge. Hear and listen to the responses you are given, and consider them seriously.
Assuming a position of absolute authority makes you inflexible. Responding to the emotional and intellectual needs of your students requires flexibility. Flexibility helps us improve relationships as we enter into a nuanced and synchronised dance with others.
3. Be playful with the notion of authority
I often struggle with what seems to be the inauthenticity of the roles we play in power dynamics. Perhaps they provide helpful constraints that allow us all to navigate social norms, and I’m not sure what the alternative could look like unless you were in a fundamentally alternative school. A philosophical approach I use to help me with this is to hold the concept of authority (and of myself holding a position of authority) without attachment to it and as an abstract idea that I can observe playing itself out in the classroom in various ways. I do not take it too seriously, but I acknowledge that it exists, along with the way it’s perceived and the role it plays in the classroom. If appropriate, it can sometimes become a topic of inquiry in the classroom.
Strict beliefs about authority, no matter how unaware of them we are, can lead to power struggles for two main reasons. Firstly, when we struggle for power, we enter into a battle of the egos - a no-man’s land where relationships go to shrivel and die. Secondly, the artificial veil of power structures can disrupt relationships by making us uncomfortable, and remove the possibility for authentic expression.
4. Practice curiosity
I think curiosity is the raw essence of philosophical thinking. It’s a motivation that drives us towards finding out more, exploring, learning, and wondering. Model this in your classroom - ask questions about things you don’t know about. Show interest in the hobbies and personal passions of your students. Are they into Lego? What do they like building? Do they have a favourite build? Who do they build with? What do they like most about it?
It feels good to be seen by people who are interested in your life and what you have to say. This can help to build trust, as your students learn that you can see the humanity in each other. It also helps students understand that you see them as more than just the set of behaviours they display in your classroom. Try it - in private, see what you notice about a student you’re struggling to connect with. Do they have a fun pencil case? A jacket with an interesting colour? Maybe you overheard them talking about a game, or a hobby they have. Ask them about it. Be curious. Observe how this changes the dynamic in the classroom.
Being a philosophical educator is more than just teaching about ideas in philosophy, and it’s more than facilitating inquiry sessions. A philosophical educator embodies the essence of a philosophical approach:
Open and questioning
Challenge authority (including your own)