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Philosophical Meanderings

Education or Subjugation – Power & Empowerment in Schools

😉 (Note: ‘subjugation’!?  Sorry, I just had to use that word. It rhymes!)

I have been thinking, once again, about empowerment and what it means- both theoretically and practically.

Rules to Follow (CC by Editor B

You will think about the term and its ramifications quite differently depending on the lens you are using (your upbringing, your values and beliefs, your profession, your education, your life’s mission).

What do we mean by ’empowerment’?

Some definitions demonstrate the diversity of interpretation attributed to the concept of empowerment.

empower – To give permission or power to do something; Abstractly, to give the confidence to do something.

empowerment – The granting of political, social or economic power to an individual or group; The process of supporting another person or persons to discover and claim personal power.

empowerment – …a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control over their own lives. It is a process that fosters power in people for use in their own lives, their communities and in their society, by acting on issues they define as important.

It’s about power

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC-ND

We could continue getting definitions, but clearly, it is about ‘power’ – power over choices, who has the power, how the power is shared, individual power vs the collective needs.

I will focus here of ‘educational empowerment’ – empowerment to learn and for learning. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this is not a closed box uninfluenced by other aspects of life. We, in schools, need to see through a more holistic lens than often is permitted by the school or by the school system. (In fact, we as educators, are often not empowered to do what we need to do to empower the students.)

Having said that, we often feel that we are empowering students:

  • if we are engaging them in their areas of interest
  • if we are giving them choices about all that is mentioned it the differentiated instruction literature – choice over process of knowledge acquisition (construction), content, and product
  • if we are engaging them in the assessment/evaluation process (e.g., collaborative rubric creation).
  • if we engage them in their ‘preferred learning style’ – although this often is a simplistically applied construct.

I don’t dismiss these notions. In fact, I am generally in agreement with them. But, it’s not sufficient.

What we often do is still rather contrived – often by the structures of the institution.

We need an holistic approach

School is only a narrow slice of their life. What we often do is still rather contrived – often by the structures of the institution. Some of this we cannot change – unless we want to speak of education/school reform on a large scale. I prefer, at this point, to examine what we might be able to control within existing structures.

The kids are whole when they arrive at our doorsteps – and come with a full life replete with desires, passions, problems, issues, excitement (not necessarily about school) and confusions.

Neill on his birthday

A.S. Neill on his birthday via Wikipedia

We need to deal with the whole child.

I am a Summerhillian at heart. Always have been. A.S. Neill started Summerhill in 1921. There are, of course, many who have piped in on this topic in one way or the other over the years – John DeweyAlfie KohnIvan IllichGary StagerSeymour Papert – to name a few.

Our attempts and challenges

We attempt this at our small, independent secondary school. We are somewhat successful…and we struggle with some aspects.

We believe that students have a right to make choices in all aspects of their lives. The principle is: “we are dependable & accountable for choices, actions, & commitments”.

Are we punitive about lates, absences, cell phone and Facebook use (Farmville and Fishville!)?


Do the students meet the curriculum expectations required by the government policy makers?

That is the question that we ask. That is the discussion we have with the students. We encourage and support them in making wise choices that will allow them to succeed in those areas. They have the freedom to make their choices (as long as it does not, of course, negatively impact the group).

I’m not saying this is all easy.

Ego gets in the way

…we choose to ensure compliance through marks.

In fact, there are two major issues we face in attempting to implement a more ‘democratic’ school that will empower students in these ways. One is the ego of the teachers. We, as staff, work hard to prepare the learning environment in order that students may meet certain curriculum expectations. If students are late, absent, inattentive, unfocused, or don’t ‘love’ the activity as much as we hoped they would, we can often become defensive and move to a more authoritarian stance where we choose to ensure compliance through marks.

Empowering or enabling?

The second issue with which we struggle is the distinction between empowering students and enabling them. If we are too democratic…too willing to let them make choices…about behaviour and about academics…are we enabling them to be more lax than they might otherwise be?

We don’t have all the answers – not by any stretch. But, we know that we must educate not subjugate.


About Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is an independent educator in Ontario, Canada. He has been involved in technology supported, inquiry-based learning since the mid 1970s–particularly as it relates to learner agency, passion, & cognitive intent. Peter blogs at The Construction Zone.


8 thoughts on “Education or Subjugation – Power & Empowerment in Schools

  1. I wonder if:

    our concepts of students being lax, is really our need to feel that they are progressing on our schedule. Do we as progressive educators believe that children want to master new skills and move in a “learning direction”? The reality is control is an illusion, compliance, coerce, and control will not produce creative independent thinkers.

    We play lip service to this concept, but I am concerned that the system of education as it currently stands is producing the exact opposite of these higher order thinking skills. I am reading Someone Has to Fail: The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling by David Labaree. Public school has a number of contradictory purposes: 1. School is a mechanism for social mobility and 2. School is a mechanism for social equality. These purposes can not reconcile. It is the ultimate pyramid scam. There are only some many positions at the top, so the more you move up the ladder, the more people are left behind.

    So does schooling and higher levels of schooling allow entry into the next level of social standing? And if the answer is yes, are teacher unwittingly the gate keepers of this scheme beguiled into thinking that we provide learning to kids, when we know that if kids are given freedom and resources they will learn on their own. See Sugata Mitra:

    So the real questions we need to ask. What resources, facilities, experiences and conditions will leverage a child’s own desire to learn? I would venture to guess that it would not be the comprehensive school that the majority of kids attend today. Answering this question honestly would topple the system we have grown up with. Yet if we truly want all children to realize their individual potential then we need to the courage to do so.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | April 15, 2011, 1:21 pm
  2. Thank you for your response. I hear you saying that the real challenge is understanding and mobilizing all that it takes to support a child’s own initiative in pursuing their learning – with the emphasis on ‘their’. Actually, their ‘desire’ to learn. A phrase of which I have always been fond.

    I look forward to diving more deeply into your blog.


    Posted by peter skillen | April 15, 2011, 5:59 pm
  3. Our default setting is coercion, and we often don’t pursue educational strategies – like relationship building – that take significant investments of time, sometimes years per kid. We, as a system, are addicted to the quick fixes of reward and punishment. When a student complies to avoid a punishment or receive a reward (even the reward of being left alone, invisible in the classroom), we willingly suspend our disbelief, put aside what we know about learning and motivation, and think of compliant kids as adequately “consequenced” or “learning” or “behaving,” by all of which we mean fitting in with the vision of a classroom we think we want and with a teacher we think we want to be.

    Part of what we need to do is be patient while kids luxuriate in freedom. We need to let them be lax until they ask themselves what it is they’re doing here. Then we can help them find out for themselves. Kids struggling with school are resisting something, not refusing to learn. We should take away the resistance, observe, and then facilitate inquiry when kids start asking the really great questions about why we’re doing school at all.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 15, 2011, 7:26 pm
  4. This is a delicious conversation.

    Jamie’s point, that there is a fundamental conflict in the concept of meritocratic, capitalist-oriented schooling in America: that “everyone can succeed,” yet the system is designed to produce winners and losers, I think is one of the central issues we struggle with in transformation of the sector. As Americans, we believe profoundly in possibility, and the power of individual possibility as an incentive. (Hey, we don’t want to tax rich people because I might be a millionare one day!) Yet evidence has mounted everywhere, over the past two decades, that they myth of meritocracy is unreal. We IN FACT have a system that privileges the already privileged. What is the best indicator of your SAT scores? Your family’s income. What’s the best predictor of whether and where you will go to college? Whether and where your parents went to college.

    The system reproduces social and economic privilege, while at the same time offering the possibility of transformation and liberation. It’s BOTH/AND. Holding those complex realities and trying to do the work at the same time, I think, is where most of us wrestle at the COOP.

    Or that’s what I hear in Chad and Peter’s comments. We believe in our guts, and in our day to day efforts, that education can be transforming and life-altering. Yet so much of it isn’t at all, and seems to utterly contradict that belief. (My work is all about schools as systems of oppression.) As Chad so rightly points out, transformation comes through deep investment in relationship, and we don’t have federal or state policy right now that places priority on relationship, that supports connection– that seems, in even more than an extremely superficial way, to acknowledge that there is a deep spiritual transfer between students and teachers that is complex, subtle, and does not yield to worksheets, standardized measures, benchmarks, rubrics?

    But I’d like to steer this back to a pedagogical question, one that Peter raises. How much DO we believe in freedom for the learner to uncover, unpack, unwound themselves to discover what they are interested in? Jamie proposes that unfettered freedom is the thing we fear, and the only adequate environment for real learning…Chad says that learning happens in relationship.

    How much scaffolding do we think is necessary, and ideal, in our imaginally-perfect learning communities? Because Peter’s school is different from Chad’s, and Jamie’s? As a teacher, I know I wrestle with this real question all the time. How do we understand our authority, and our own egos, in relationship to that structure and scaffolding?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | April 18, 2011, 9:09 am
  5. As someone who has never been able to align himself with the strategic world in any way at all, I’ve played the role as a passive observer my whole life.

    School was an exremely challenging time for me. It was no different than a prison.

    I was forced to go there without choice, and while I was there I was forced to participate in activities (homework assignments, etc) which I had little to no interest in. If I wanted to exclude myself in any way I would either be accused of being difficult, a troublemaker, confrontational, or strange on some level.

    It seemed like I was trapped in a process that created a population of people who were not allowed to be them self (“themselves”).

    I fully understood that in order to be “successful” as a professional, I would not be able to do so without following the paths laid out by all the professionals and ass that ca before me. But I’ve never wanted to be a “professional” – I’ve only ever wanted to “create” on my own terms.

    I’m finally now, at 28, in a place where I’ve only begun experiencing life operating as my own authority. And everyday I work on trying to forgive the education system (and my parents, too, for similar reasons) for not allowing me to be who I was and experimenting with life the way I feel I should have been allowed to experiment with it.

    I think school is a fine place to send children who want to BE a student or want to BE an accountant or whatever, but I’m not able to view “school” as a place to “learn”. I see it as a place where humans are forced to go to be TAUGHT/forcefed information and DIRECTED down only paths that support society as it is.

    In other words, it’s a factory used to cookiecut more numbed minds who are unable to SEE the system for what it is let alone question it.

    The “education” system is in desperate need of an overhaul.

    Each of us are born with a very specific design – it’s that thing that we think about the most, the websites we go to, the magazines that we buy, the things we like to talk about most – but we never get to fulfil it, or are held back or forced to start late in life, because of what gets referred to as “education”.

    There should be no “school” because there is little to no love in “school”. Teachers have their favourites, students have their cliques, and parents are removed from a significant portion of the rearing of children.

    It’s all very unnatural.

    Unfortunately it’s big business and not easily overthrown. So I can only pray for children who have fallen under the rule of adults who think the youth are here to serve the old who govern with fear based tactics. The truth is the old are here to serve the youth who are born to operate only on love but are let down by grownups time after time.

    Where does it stop?

    Posted by Kyle | January 26, 2012, 2:10 am
    • Thx Kyle for your transparency and honesty.

      You ask, where does it stop? That is the big question right?

      I sure don’t have a really good answer for that. Perhaps those who are well versed in historical or anthropological change might have some clues for us. If one were to study the cultural and economic surrounds and motivating factors that led to the development of western schools and extrapolate that to the conditions necessary for another radical shift, that might be useful. I dare say economics has to play into it somehow as it is such a driving force in our worlds. I also think that someone who is versed in cross-cultural studies might shed a different light on it all for us.

      Meanwhile, we all need to continue our bits – in our own ways, with our own passions – to spur on this needed (r)evolution.

      Posted by peter skillen | January 26, 2012, 7:39 am


  1. Pingback: First Year Reflection: Kirsten « Cooperative Catalyst - April 29, 2011

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