18 – #LEVER

An average high school classroom, on an average weekday morning. Students fumbling around, threading through papers, looking for last evening’s assignment. One of them comes up empty handed — he hasn’t even looked.

The teacher, quick to notice this student’s poor performance – far from the first time this has happened – walks over to his desk, stands over him, leans in a bit, and begins to let him have it. This storm has been brewing for a while, and has found the perfect opportunity to let fly.

In the midst of the tirade, underneath the stream of invective, the student reaches into his backpack, fishes around a bit, withdraws a mobile, taps a few buttons, waits a moment, and then – once the connection has been made – says, “Hey. You listen to the bitch,” then holds the mobile out, capturing every calumny heaped upon him by his teacher.

The classroom as we know it, invented by the Prussians a hundred and fifty years ago, and adopted across Europe and America as Germany rose to world power status, features a teacher sitting before a chalkboard while the pupils sit and face the teacher. As the center of attention – and the master of the environment – the teacher has absolute power, controlling, containing and managing the behavior of the students under supervision. This close control ensured the classroom did not descend into chaos. Order created the space for learning.

As the seat of all authority, the teacher not only mastered the classroom, but possessed an acknowledged mastery of the material. Students did not question the teacher. But they do, now. Science teachers regularly confront students who (from perches safe in the back row of the classroom) consult Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha, correcting all of the instructor’s mistakes, in real-time. The know-it-all teacher, center of the pedagogical universe, has been stripped of all power, revealed as the know-nothing.

Both of these examples show how the mobile can rapidly destabilize any environment reliant upon isolation as a technique of control. The kind of abuse teachers regularly deliver to students had never had an audience outside the walls of the classroom. Suddenly, every student walks through the door with parents in their pocket, and those walls no longer exist. The teacher no longer faces a younger, smaller, and weaker student, but the whole set of connections that student brings with them, via mobile omnipresence.

The power relations of education have reversed. The student can instantly summon parents – or any professional – to support any efforts to resist the teacher’s negativity. Teachers can’t throw their weight around anymore, because students can now hold those power games in check with powers of their own.

Where a teacher is trying to hector a student into learning, but encounters resistance – as might be the case with that underperforming student – this new balance of powers brings the educational process to a halt. The teacher has lost any ability to coerce, which means the student could now freely revel in ignorance. This deadlock persists for as long as the student’s relations are willing to countenance that state of affairs. We can be dumb with power.

Conversely, teachers can no longer pass their own ignorance off as truth. Another set of relations connects students to bodies of knowledge far greater than those which any teacher could ever hope to encompass, the collected wisdom of the species.
Omnipresence veers close to partial omniscience.

Inside the confines of the classroom, with a restricted range of curriculum material under study, it has become possible for a student to be at least as well informed, moment-to-moment, as the teacher. “All knowing is doing, and all doing knowing.” A student who knows more than the teacher will inevitably act on that knowledge, pulling aside the curtain of pretense, revealing the small and frightened Wizard of Oz beneath.

The classroom is microcosm and rehearsal for all of the power relations of public authority. Employers, police officers and religious leaders each embody different aspects of this power relation. Although these power relations are generally less obvious than the alpha-male / alpha-female of other hominids, they are no less significant. We like to know where we stand in relation to others, so we can present ourselves accordingly.

The instant omnipresence of the mobile has scrambled all our power relations, overthrowing some while rewriting others. Since the broadcast of the video of Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD, all police have evinced a hostility to videography, because revealing power undermines its authority. Connection pierces the veil of power, removing its mystery, rendering it impotent.

The new power relations of the classroom already extend throughout the entire world. Now that perhaps a billion and a half people carry networked video cameras in their pockets, the opportunities for a sudden turning of the tables have multiplied furiously. Each connection holds within it the possibility of a challenge to authority. The mobile provides a lever long enough to move the world.

This fundamental reconfiguration of power relations has been even less remarked upon than the sudden upswing in human connectivity. This redistribution of power comes as the inevitable consequence of our sudden omnipresence. The teacher can not control the students; the dictator can control the restive populace; no one will do as they are told. There is no control anywhere. When we picked up the mobile we had to surrender the cudgel.

We want to believe our power relations have remained as they always have, unchanged for many thousands of years. Top and bottom. Inside and outside. Elect and damned. A mobile, transmitting a faithful reproduction of a teacher’s angry words, tells us everything has already changed.


4 thoughts on “18 – #LEVER

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » How Connectivity is Changing Power Relations in the Classroom

  2. Pingback: The power relations of education have reversed « Learning Change

  3. The power relations have reversed and yet there is a power struggle happening. If before the rule was authoritarian teachers, now there is a power battle where still no one benefits.
    Good to know that violence has been exposed, but simply exposing violence will not generate a better relationship in schools. We don’t need a reverse, we need to ask ourselves why power over others is needed in schooling.

  4. I’m having a cynical Saturday so forgive me if this comes off as a rant… I’ll probably disagree tomorrow with what I am writing today.

    You make interesting examples… I often wish my students were precocious and provocative enough to do live fact-checking and use their mobiles for disruptive learning — it is a rare and beautiful thing. I have to beg this behaviour out of them, even basic disagreement… have we dumbed them down long enough that they’ve lost their fight? My school’s students seem to have less tech savvy and ability to manipulate their own tech experience than students did 7 years ago, even of their world is hyper-connected. I think much of the incredible potential we see in a mobile/linked learning environment is the wonder that we (adults… “digital immigrants and natives”) have experienced transitioning through 2 or more social paradigms. Today’s the student identity that we associate with technology (dangerously matched with actual persons, for I think there is a lot more to our students), is less “digital native” than “post-digital product.” They know how to connect and consume, but are very unsure what it means to create and confront. The mobile/linked learning environment has created a dialectic of furtiveness & aggressiveness, with the boundary (typically a place of learning) becoming sharp and inhospitable.

    I also wonder about the demise of our factory model. The functions (and dysfunctions) of our system are so embedded in the dominant consumeristic industrial culture that there is very little impetus for real change, not from teachers, but especially not from management. Even the glorious ministry of learning has a hard time describing this future de-schooled society, at best they come off like they are trying to privatize the system and leave the details up to corporate partners. Imagine the chaos to a school, community, province, and society if a principal said “in 5 years our school will not have classrooms with a solitary teacher, textbooks, grades system, bell schedule, fixed curricula, age-based groupings, or a hierarchical power structure.” If one is not prone to dystopic visions (as I appear to be today), it can be very cool to imagine (just like it is compelling to read John Taylor Gatto), but I think we’d be looking at societal breakdown. And not in a good way. The same students that can’t be bothered to use their mobiles for anything other than sexting and hazing could now do it full-time without their Prussian masters offering some structured guidance. The other students who thrive in the give-and-take of a teacher-facilitated classroom rarely see the relationship as one in which power has been withheld from them (again, maybe because we’ve dumbed this on them). There are certainly students who get what they perceive as a cudgel, but they also get care and some support from a school system that many of them do not get at home.

    A billion networked video cameras is awesome, but we need a billion decent, grounded, self-reliant people to use them. Our networked students are not at the edge of an Arab Spring, they are at the edge of a Vancouver hockey riot. I have no doubt our students, my students, are just as creative and important as any other cohort, and responsive to the power of narrative, but I think the impact of an unguided mobile/linked “being” has challenged their ability to be compassionate, present, and activistic. They still want these things, and are just as capable of achieving them, but the numbing power of the technology actual gets in the way of success. They have turned mobile devices into cudgels of their own, and use them on each other. They need some real structure, modeling, and relationship with adults to liberate the technology and develop a whole socialized self that can earn independence and seek authentic interdependence. I’m one to talk, my head is buried in a screen while my kids are drawing chalk on the driveway… time for me to disconnect so I can actually connect!

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