The thermodynamics of teaching and power imbalances in the classroom

Heat one end of a rod, and eventually the whole rod will reach an even and elevated temperature. That’s thermodynamics.

Drip a drop of dye into a cup of water and eventually the dye will diffuse evenly everywhere in the water. That’s thermodynamics too.

When heat moves from here to there, it’s because of an energy gradient. When dye moves from here to there in a cup of water, it’s because of a chemical gradient.

Gradients represent sources of power. Water falls over a cliff because of a gravitational gradient; and we can tap that gradient to generate electricity; we convert gravitational power into electric power. The taller the cliff, the greater the gradient, the more power is available, and the more electricity can be generated.

Put another way, gradients and power go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other.

Classroom dynamics are like that too.

Knowledge and skills in a classroom exist on a gradient. The instructor (the “master”) has the knowledge and skill that the student (the “apprentice”) lacks. Like the waterfall, the gradient represents a power imbalance. Since the essential reason that students are in the classroom is to gain the knowledge and skill from the instructor, the power imbalance must necessarily exist because the gradient necessarily exists. It just wouldn’t be a classroom otherwise!

Therefore, learning cannot happen in the absence of a power imbalance.

However, power imbalances come in different qualities.

Some classroom power imbalances are bad; they’re like coal-fired generating stations – in the long run, everyone loses. Bad power imbalances in the classroom pollute the educational environment for extremely long periods of time, harming many generations of learners, while instructors become bitter, cynical, and joyless.

Other classroom power imbalances are good; they’re like hydroelectric or solar power stations. While some stress always exists, and some localized failures will happen (because nothing is perfect) most students have a meaningful, productive, and beneficial experience. Furthermore, instructors derive a sense of purpose and fulfillment having discharged their responsibilities well.

So, some power imbalances are beneficial; others are harmful. And If a student is lucky, they’ll experience more of the good kind than the bad.

The knowledge/skill gradient is not the only gradient in a classroom. There are other gradients that create a power imbalance in the students’ favour, but different imbalances do not always complement one another. A bomb and a hydroelectric dam both embody gradients; but lighting off a bomb in a dam rarely ends well.

Some of these student-centred imbalances can be bad ones: students’ energy can be directed toward disruption and confrontation; they can undermine completely the goals of learning; they can suck the life out of any discussion and over the years destroy the spirit of the instructor and stultify an entire cadre of students.

Others of these imbalances can be good ones though: smart, articulate questions can drive meaningful discussion and deeper learning throughout a class; intelligent, pertinent commentary can strengthen students’ self-confidence and create a sense of safety in the classroom; and instructors experience greater achievement and fulfillment.

Bad student-centred imbalances can completely negate good knowledge/skill imbalances, and vice versa. Unfortunately, there has been very little effort so far to understand deeply the systemic aspects of classroom interactions. So what most people know is anecdotal, poorly articulated, and probably quite wrong.

Case in point: I have heard some students proclaim that power imbalances in education are always bad. Or, at least, these students talk about the bad imbalances to the absolute neglect of the good ones, as if they’d never even considered that good power imbalances can exist.

Those students are naive, arrogant, and entitled. Naive, because they don’t understand deeply what education is; arrogant, because they wrongly believe their views are unequivocally correct; and entitled, because they act out their false beliefs to everyone’s detriment without regard for the impact of those actions on others.

That’s not to say that students simply oughtn’t have such ideas. It’s quite natural for immature people to pass through this stage. Everyone I know, in every generation of which I’m aware, has passed through it. I have strong memories of my late teens and early twenties: ideological, self-absorbed, and woefully superficial. Even though I thought – I knew – I was right then, it became obvious by my thirties that I was utterly wrong.

The problem, these days, is that students seem unhindered to blurt out these misformed and misinformed ideas they have. It’s as if they’re claiming some kind of intellectual privilege, probably in response to their outrage over those malignant power imbalances they perceive.

As the old saying goes, though: It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

See, the smart and civilized thing to do is to have an idea, and then reflect on it, research it, and think through whether it’s really a good one. Then you talk about it. And even then, you talk about it respectfully and paying attention to the language you use, because you might still be wrong.

It’s the smart thing to do, because if you take the time to think things through, you’ll end up making more sense when you do share your ideas.

It’s the civilized thing to do, because it doesn’t matter how good your idea is, you may unintentionally cause distress to others, which generally lowers the level of social well-being of the community in which you voice the idea. And that shouldn’t be something anyone wants.

So, dear students, sit down, shut up, and listen. Or leave. I don’t care. There are plenty of other students waiting to take your place. If you have a question that you’ve thought through and are confident is a good one, then ask it. I will answer respectfully and as fully as I can. And if you have an idea that you think is good on how I can improve my courses, then think it through, write it up, and send it to me. I will give it my full attention.

But if all you’ve got is complaints and sanctimonious outrage, then just go call someone who cares, because I surely don’t.

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