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

From: David H Kirshner (
Date: Mon Oct 30 2006 - 23:36:11 PST

David (Kellogg), thanks for your reflection on my "crossdisciplinary" talk
at Korea University in company with Candlin's Foucauldian analysis of power
relations in the classroom. Your suggestion in the coffee shop afterwards
that my approach somehow privileges the enculturational learning metaphor
above the habituationist (skills) and construction (concepts) metaphors
struck me at the time as a bizarre rejection of my explicit neutrality
toward the metaphors. But your response in this thread, aided and abetted
by Barbara's and Jay's discussions, suggests to me how my framing of
pedagogy violates certain taken-as-shared assumptions of our community.

To begin, there are certain quarters (I'll look up the references later, if
anyone is interested) in which talk of "the learner" is abhorrent because
it denies the full open-ended humanity of the student, crowding her or him
into some sort of technocratic and bureaucratic cage. Though we haven't
(yet) adopted this lexical convention, I think this community of discourse
is sympathetic to this critique. The discussion of Foucauldian power
relations operating in the classroom is trying to get at the common
frameworks within which teacher and student are coparticipants. So,
analytically, the student (them) and teacher (us) are jointly conceived,
with the student accorded the full measure of complexity accorded the

My crossdisciplinary approach is not oriented toward that purpose. I use
"the learner" in precise and technically delimited ways according to 3
distinct metaphorical interpretations of learning--rather like Piaget's
"epistemic child," but with schizophrenia. My goal is to articulate
technical practices of "good teaching" understood as teaching that supports
learning. To achieve this goal, I refract the holistic image of learning
that motivates current pedagogical theorizing into distinct subspecies,
articulating separate and distinct pedagogical methods for each. Thus "good
teaching" becomes a choice of methods, depending on the specific notion of
learning one seeks to support. The "whole child" is not to be found
anywhere in this approach. Even the teacher who seeks to coordinate various
of these prescribed pedagogical methods in a single lesson is not
addressing the whole child, only the various separate learning mechanisms
deemed to reside within the child.

What motivates this agenda is my recognition that despite our sophisticated
dialectical analyses, our basic intuitions about learning remain grounded
in the distinct metaphorical interpretations. Psychology is yet a
preparadigmatic science. Scholars in various schools of thought (e.g.,
behavioral, cognitive, developmental, social) continue to pursue distinct
visions of learning, I believe in ways that collectively characterize our
cultural commonsense about learning. I choose to accept this fragmented
reality about learning, opting for clarity at the level of pedagogical
prescription ahead of the romantic, but fuzzy, ideal of teaching to the
"whole child."

David Kirshner

                      Jay Lemke
                      <jaylemke who-is-at umich.e To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity"
                      du> <>
                      Sent by: cc: (bcc: David H Kirshner/dkirsh/LSU)
                      xmca-bounces who-is-at webe Subject: Re: [xmca] Does Power Really Flow From the Mouth
             of a Teacher?
                      10/30/2006 06:33
                      Please respond to
                      "eXtended Mind,

Power is a tricksy notion, isn't it? I generally agree with Barbara's
precis of Foucault on power and identity, though I think he did
rather a better job with the Discourses than with the discourse
construction ... though he did maintain, as too few who do discourse
analysis do, the view that even discourse (big and little D/d ala Jim
Gee here of course) was more than a matter of talk, it was more, as
in Bakhtin, a matter of doing-with-discourse in a situation-type and
as part of the exercise of what we'd call cultural practices. F.
really figured out, first I think, just how the macro-social
functions of Discourses condition what we actually get to say in our

But for the most part he seems to have been trying to get people to
NOT see power as inherent in micro-social interactions, where we get
rather the effects of more macrosocial power relations, or relations
we wouldn't even call "power" as such (e.g. institutional
reproduction or self-maintenance).

So I might agree with Chris that teachers are not really able to go
very far in altering the power effects in their classrooms, however
well-intentioned, and indeed whatever they say and do. (If that's
what Chris said.) One way that these effects might be altered is by
breaking the institutional frame (think Basil Bernstein here on
strong classification/framing, too) and hybridizing the classroom
modes and agendas and conventions (culture?) with that of something
outside it (I happen to find popular culture and youth culture an
interesting subversive opportunity here). After more than 30 years in
the field of Education, I'm pretty well convinced that the core
organizational and cultural forms of schooling are dysfunctional and
not reformable. They need to be replaced.

Much as I admire David Kirschner's work (are you around xmca these
days, David?), and I do agree in many ways that the culture of a
classroom is more important, and more complex to characterize, than
simple notions of learner- or teacher-centered discourse forms, I'm
skeptical just how far classroom activity can be "learner centered"
in any true sense. Did this get defined? It can mean pretty much
anything from centered on the learner, like a target in the
crosshairs, to paying enough personal attention to students to keep
them more happily engaged in the state's curriculum agenda, to more
systematically assessing on the fly where their thinking is headed
and scaffolding it in a desired (by whom?) direction -- but not very
often does it mean that we recognize students' right to decide what
they want to learn, when, how, and from whom.

Bizarre as it sounds, that's where we started a few hundred years
ago, when it was called Lernfreiheit and was the original meaning of
"academic freedom" before faculty got more "power" in education and
coopted it with our Lehrfreiheit. Of course in those days, Foucault
would tell us, the macro-social functions and connections of
education with other institutions were very, very different. If
culture is what matters to how classrooms work and how the people in
them relate and behave, perhaps we need to remember that "culture" is
something that changes on the historical timescale?

Provided we keep kicking its butt.


At 11:06 AM 10/30/2006, you wrote:
>Dear David
>Thanks for sharing the seminar experience with us, I remember
>reading Candlin myself some time ago when I was involved in EFL
>work. I wasn't at the seminar, so am not commenting on Candlin's
>take on this, but just to say that in my reading of Foucault he
>conceptualises power not in binary terms of either having power or
>not (where an aim of progressive pedagogy might be to 'transcend'
>power), but rather sees power relations as capillary and embodied,
>where he also emphasises the productive aspects of power rather than
>viewing it as necessarily oppressive.
>I think also at issue here over the way Candlin seems to understand
>Foucault is that discourse in Foucault needs to be understood in
>terms of Gee's discourse with a capital D, entailing much more than
>a linguistic text, and rather a wider embodied concept involving
>collective ways of being and doing, but where in particular social
>contexts some are privileged over others. In terms of a Foucauldian
>reading of a classroom pedagogic discourse, this could lead to an
>analysis of the sociocultural construction of those privileged
>Discourses, the extent that its norms were shared in an explicit way
>with learners, and the spaces that were available for alternatives
>(or not). As Judith Butler (2005) points out (and thanks to Mary
>Bryson for pointing me to her text in a posting last year), while in
>his earlier work Foucault focused very much on how subjects were
>constructed in discursive formations, in ways that seemed to deny
>any space for agency, his later work slanted towards subjects'
>self-fashioning within their particular socio-historical contexts,
>something that I find resonates well with activity theory, where
>structure/agency are also intertwined.
>In relation to the points you make in response to Candlin, I would
>agree with you that the classroom does not have to be an inherently
>conservative space, but needs detailed analysis to unpick ways that
>power relations shape it and the subjectivities of those engaged in
>it, where the teacher's power (like doctors/lawyers) does not reside
>in him/her, but is constructed dialectically within wider societal
>frameworks, but can be used to close down or open up spaces for student
>Dr Barbara Crossouard
>Research Fellow
>Sussex School of Education
>Sussex Institute
>University of Sussex
>Falmer BN1 9QQ
>--On 30 October 2006 11:31 +0900 Kellogg <> wrote:
>>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
>>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
>>David Kellogg
>>Seoul National Univesrity of Education
>Arts E 439
>00 44 (0) 1273 877042
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Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276
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