Power in the Classroom


by Marcia Carmichael-Murphy

If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.  Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.” -Paulo Freire

Traditional school and classrooms can often be void of dialogue, either conversational or instructional. We have all seen in classrooms that we were students in, observed, or even taught in. This looks like kids sitting in desks, wilted over due to the lack of intellectual engagement or sheer boredom, or exited from the learning space because they seek adult attention in ways that elicit negative attention from teachers.This can sound like an eager to talk student being shushed, ignored, or exited from class. It can sound like students responding to “yes/no” questions that barely touch any higher order thinking. It feels like a millennium for an adult observer and a soul-sucking eternity for a student. For a teacher in one of these settings, the lack of dialogue is maintained by the teacher as a way to exert control of the class. “Of course it is,” you might be thinking, “there’s 24 or 31, or 50 of them and only one of me! One false permissive teacher move towards student dialogue, and all hell will break loose and they will declare mutiny! And I will lose all credibility and control!”  

So why talk about power dynamics and classroom dialogue? Let me set it up for you:

  • The main way we exchange information is through verbal communication (talking) and basic inquiry requires dialogue, or the sharing of and building upon ideas. CHECK.
  • Classrooms are social microcosms that are representative of society. If classrooms mirror society, then we find power dynamics present in larger society are present in our classrooms.CHECK.
  • Inequities present in society appear in our schools.CHECK.
  • We find that constructs of inequitable power and authority are enacted up and down the corridors of our schools with regularity.CHECK.
  • To that end, if education is to be the great equalizer, these power dynamics present in classrooms, corridors, and schools must be addressed and changed to embody empowering instructional supports that liberate the learner (emancipatory pedagogies). CHECK.


That’s right; I said it. If you want to help kids self-actualize (a little Maslow for my lay psychologists out there), you have to change the way you allow students to talk about what they think in your classroom. This change in how academic conversations are had will shift the learning power from you to your students because you are inviting educational self-determination. If we are dissatisfied with the state of equity in society, we have to carve away at imbalances of power as they present in our classrooms and invite students to think and talk in ways that empower deeper learning.

Chew on that for a moment…

Without innovating how we as educators think about thinking (ours and our students’) and act out inquiry and dialogue in our classrooms, we will continue to stifle and silence our students, especially those who are wounded, culturally and racially dissimilar to us, hail from divergent economic experiences, and those who are linguistically diverse. Empowering student-led dialogue engages all students.

Now you might find yourself in a quiet moment of complementation of reflection or staving off an effusement of rage. I encourage you to probe further no matter how you are feeling or thinking about inquiry-based dialogue and power. Lots of teachers freak out when it comes to allowing dialogue even when focused on content-related topics. The foundations of inquiry-based dialogue are simple:

  • Teach and facilitate the guidelines under which the dialogue takes place.
  • Have the students develop and agree upon the norms of dialogue with teacher facilitation.
  • Plan questions to pose to students for the talking time.
  • Teach students what Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge is so they can identify their thinking and inquiry strategies.
  • Engage students in the planning of, the posing of, and the policing and permitting of their own questions and those of their peers.

The bottom line is teachers have to be willing to relinquish some of the instructional power to their students to engage them in deeper learning.

As a high school World History teacher, I often used version of the Socratic Method called Socratic Circle to engage all of my students in more rigorous dialogue about the content. Students in my class learned about Webb’s DOK, and then were required to scaffold and construct all the Socratic Circle questions for our sessions. I taught them the framework and then together we created the dialogue with student-led inquiry. The only time I interjected was by getting into the “guest chair”. Students could not just be on autopilot, and I was not running the show.

Don’t get me wrong, it took 5 years to get to the place where I was comfortable giving over the power to construct and answer questions to my students.Sometimes it was downright PAINFUL to hand the reins over to my 10th graders…if you know a 15 year old you can imagine why.  The desire to constantly be in control of the trajectory of the learning fades with time once you are able to sit back, quiet your inner control freak, watch the learning unfold. But as I reflect, I remember them going deeper in their thinking than I could have imagined, especially when allowed to practice and wrestle with ideas with their peers, not me. “Why did the Allies enter WWII?” became, “What are the consequences of war, how are those consequences still felt today?” Discussion moved from determining who was correct – the teacher or the student, to how can we grapple with, exchange, and synthesize this information together. This is one way that students can become the captain of their own learning. It is amazing to watch and be a part of and it is the stuff that teacher dreams are made of.

On a more serious and reflective note, as we move into the new school year, I encourage you to think about your current practices in relation to student-led inquiry for deeper learning. Drawing from the Socratic method of asking and answering higher order questions for critical thinking and dialogue, think about the following questions about classroom inquiry, cogenerated dialogue, and emancipatory pedagogies:

  1. If classroom structures do not allow for authentic inquiry-based conversations among students and the teacher, how might students and teachers learn from each other in a deep and holistic way?
  2. Which current classroom practices do I use that might help shift my inquiry techniques to be more student-led?
  3. How might I allow for students to create and pose student-created questions to their peers?
  4. How might a student explain how they are invited to talk about their thinking in your class? What would they say?
  5. How might in ensure that I am not silencing students of Color or other marginalized groups when issues of inequity arise in class?

Inquiry is the stuff learning is made of. Teachers must hone their teacher moves to develop dialoguing strategies for deeper learning. Relinquishing the learning power in the classroom supports student voice and allows students to practice agency. It isn’t easy, it takes time, but is worth it to see students engaged in meaningful discourse about their thinking and learning. I’d love to hear your thoughts on implementation of student-led inquiry, learn about your inquiry practices or resources, or answer questions about student-led inquiry. I can be reached via Twitter @mainmarcia.