[xmca] Does Power Really Flow From the Mouth of a Teacher?

From: Kellogg (kellogg@snue.ac.kr)
Date: Sun Oct 29 2006 - 18:31:20 PST

Dear David (Kirshner):

Thanks for your reference (I'm over budget this month, but I'll look it up this winter when I get to a good library). I am a big fan of Carl Bereiter, from as long ago as the mid-eighties, and I particularly liked his last book on the death of the mind-as-container idea.

I went to a talk here in Seoul yesterday that reminded me a lot of your talk a month ago. For those on the list that weren't there, David gave a talk at Korea University where he began with the idea of "good teaching" and led our poor graduate students up the garden path by eliciting numerous attributes of the good teacher, and then demonstrated that, alas, once again, concepts that are very developmental (such as "good teaching") are not very analytical, precisely because they present moving and dynamic targets that change from moment to moment, and even from mouth to mouth.

Yesterday, I went to another talk, this time by Chris Candlin. For the non-applied linguists on the list, Chris Candlin was, with Dick Allwright and Mike Breen, one of the founders of the idea, back in the 1970s when "communicative teaching" was young, that foreign language classrooms are really about learner meanings.

Now, one of the unpleasant hangovers of this heady idea was that the classroom was a basically conservative place, with fixed teacher and student roles and a gross asymmetry of power, and that the world OUTSIDE the classroom provided alternatives to this.

Candlin clearly STILL holds this position, so for example he spoke of how EFL classrooms offer asymmetries of power that are actually more pronounced than, say, courtrooms or doctor's surgeries. He suggested that "the back row" offered a kind of resistant discourse to the "front row" where the teacher's rule dominates, a marginal area where the refreshing air of the outside world could still be felt.

Candlin assumes that power is talked into being (which is why the teacher's classroom power is therefore weaker in the back of the class than the front). In situations where the teacher has a great deal of control over language (e.g. a foreign language classroom) that power is absolute. In other words, Candlin's position is Foucauldian, and philosophically idealist.

That in itself does not condemn it. But there are a number of facts that Candlin's Foucauldian model does not explain very well, and the more pluralistic model of classrooms that David Kirshner was presenting at Korea University explains rather better.

First of all, the back of the classroom is not such a great place to be if you are a weak child subject to bullying. Precisely because it is in the margins between the classroom and the real world, it reflects the truer sources of power, namely money, and organized violence. Secondly, the front of the classroom is not so bad; teachers DO reinvent discourse roles, in games and role play and they do give power away in ways that are rarely seen outside the classroom. Even grammar can be de-contextualized: we find that in foreign language classrooms sentences which are often used for threatening and complaining (e.g. "What's this?" and "What are you doing?") have a curiously power-neutral flavor.

David's talk at Korea University compared "student-centred" and "teacher-centred" teaching across a number of different theoretical frameworks (e.g. skills, knowledge, and culture). But his foundational concept was really culture; it was CULTURE which defined a particular kind of teaching as student or teacher centred. (This is my view of his talk, not his.) If a kind of teaching required the learner to abdicate his own culture and assimilate to that of the teacher, that was teacher-centred, while if it required the teacher to accomodate that of the learner, it was learner centred.

(David's talk was in itself a very good example of this, since he began with the definitions that learners themselves offered. The most important moment of the talk was when a questioner put forward a clearly NATIONAL view of what culture was, and David simply picked up the thread of the question and continued it with examples of non-national culture. People hardly even noticed how the concept of culture had suddenly expanded conceptually and contracted in scope.)

It seems to me that if Candlin's view of the classroom were really true, then learner-centred teaching of the sort that David talked about would be impossible, because for the teacher to abandon his culture would be to be to abandon the very discourse of power that makes him a teacher.

Yet the kind of learner-centred teaching that David talks about is possible (though perhaps only in the front of the classroom). This suggests to me that there is something profoundly wrong with the idealist position that power flows from the mouth of the teacher.

It seems to me that the very identities of teacher and student are not talked into being at all (they exist even when teachers and students say absolutely nothing at all); in fact I rather doubt they are formed in the classroom. It seems to me that they are brought into the classroom from the outside world that Candlin finds so comparatively progressive--the world where power is not the product of discourse but money and organized violence.

Finally, I note that Candlin himself has retreated from the classroom. Like many critical discourse analysts, he has moved on to rather greener pastures, namely law and medicine. As Widdowson points out, it is perhaps too cynical to note that these greener pastures tend to be rather more prestigious, lying as they do rather closer to the true sources of social power.

David Kellogg
Seoul National Univesrity of Education

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