Power Dynamics in Adult Education

Power Dynamics in Adult Education
Understanding power dynamics in the classroom is crucial when striving for results. Distribution of power in an educational setting determines the materials to be taught, the teaching methodologies adopted, and the course’s final objectives. Obviously, as the students grow older, this allocation changes—for instance, at a primary level, educators hold the reins of power, whereas when dealing with adult learners power is more often than not shared. The latter point begs a question: How is power best distributed or shared in adult education?
It is extremely important for adult educators to consider the issue of power in the classroom and implement a power-sharing model that best suits the group. First thing to draw attention to is the students’ ages. In adult education, learners can vary from being the facilitator’s age or younger to many years older. If an educator treats his adult students like adolescents, they will be unmotivated to learn, quickly lose respect for the instructor, and more than likely end up dropping the course.
Secondly, the educator must realize that, to a great extent, the adult learner grants him or her power within the confines of the classroom. Independent, self-sufficient adult students choose their own academic institutions, placing their trust in them and therefore empowering them to guide them through a specific learning experience. With this in mind, the educator’s job is that of a guide, facilitating the dissemination of information yet at the same time acquiring knowledge from his or her adult students.
Lastly, power also plays a role defining the relationships between the students. People’s personality types come in all shapes and sizes—from dominant to introvert and everything else in between. Adult educators should try to distribute power among their students in a balanced manner, curtailing students with strong personalities from taking over the classroom and providing spaces of engagement for those with less dominant ones.
So how should an educator go about building an effective, transparent and ethical power-sharing model for the classroom? Here are a few good starting points:

  • Instead of presenting students with a finalized course syllabus on the first day of class, provide them with a draft versionthat can be modified based on their interests, experiences, backgrounds and expectations.
  • Be flexiblewith regards to class policies and allow students to determine what these should be.
  • Give students optionsin terms of the course’s assignments and final assessments and allow them to decide which will contribute the most to their learning experience.
  • Find out from the students what are their preferred teaching methodologies (Group presentations? Debates? Role-playing?) and try to incorporate as many as possible into the lectures.
  • Jointly define what the classroom’s culture will look like, primarily with a focus on how to deal with dissenting or controversial opinions and unbalanced student participation.

Generally speaking, power sharing encourages students to become more active in their education instead of being passive listeners who solely sit and soak in information. By granting adult students some power, they become responsible for what they learn, interacting with their instructor and classmates, working together in the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and respectfully exchanging opinions, meanings and differing perspectives. Likewise, each student receives a confidence boost as they become important cogs to the overall shaping of the course


Marios Siathas, General Manager, EIMF