Please visit
for new posts


Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Problem of Power

Effective bullying prevention must be part of a larger overall transformation of how we educate our students.    Bullying prevention efforts that are added to the "status quo" of a school become just another program or initiative that dies a slow death because, as I said in a previous post,  the culture of the school eventually devours it.  Since power is at the heart of bullying, effective bullying prevention should lead a school community to examine and understand how power is used throughout the school.

 The best article that I have found to explore this topic is by Elizabeth Hinde and it is available at:

School Culture and Change

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in any aspect of school change.

Here are some excerpts that highlight why schools are resistant to many change initiatives:

"The culture of the classroom reflects to some extent the aspects of other educational cultures to which the teacher has been exposed.  Change that is introduced that is foreign to a teacher's lived experiences is likely to be met with resistance."

"... nothing presents a more potent barrier to change than the power relationship in schools.  The culture of schools is not only determined by these relationships, but they are subject to the least amount of scrutiny."

The article quotes a book,  Revisiting the Culture of School and the Problem of Change  by S. Sarason (1996):

"...schools were places where the students did what they were told to do.  They answered questions-they did not ask them; their special (or not so special) interests and curiosities were to be kept private; they were not allowed to take time away from predetermined curriculum.  In short, the culture of the classroom lacked almost all of hallmarks of productive learning.  And each level of the educational hierarchy viewed the level below it as the teachers viewed the students. (p. 333).

This issue of power is why I feel the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Support) program  actually is counterproductive for bullying prevention and the necessary transformation of how we educate our students.  Such a statement can be viewed as heretical since PBIS and bullying prevention are very often simultaneously implemented in many schools.  PBIS is also recognized as evidence based program that is eligible to receive federal money.

If a school has teachers and other staff yelling at students and threatening them with punishments to gain control, then PBIS can be effective in getting that type of behavior to stop.  Inconsistent rewards and consequences coupled with emotional flare ups and constant power struggles create a toxic environment.  Having a clear a script and clear limits for teacher and student behavior does bring order to chaos.  I just think that we should have higher expectations for our students and believe that they are capable of meeting those higher expectations.  We need to see beyond just stopping the bleeding.

My issue with the PBIS is not that is it unsuccessful but that it is successful in many people's eyes.  I question its criteria for success and also question  the beneficiaries of its success.   I certainly understand the need for order in schools that are chaotic environments .  In those situations, I think PBIS is like triage or stopping the bleeding when someone is injured.  The problem is the after care-what does it mean to be healthy and fully alive after the bleeding has stopped.  For students what does it mean to learn and live in our world once the chaos stops in a school.

At the heart of PBIS is unquestioned assumption that the adults are in  charge and students just need to follow the rules and expectations of those in charge.  PBIS is just a better tool for making that assumption work in practice.  The basic power  traditional power structure of the school is just strengthened and that order and control  is more for the adults benefit than it is for students.

We do our students a disservice if we highlight and value the importance of following rules over  the value of "productive learning" described by Sarason in quotation above. Proponents of the PBIS  program incorrectly assume that students need the external motivation and control it provides  in order to learn.  They misinterpret misbehavior as a lack of motivation for learning instead of seeing it as  reaction to the often arbitrary and competitive version of learning they encounter in school.   Very often this apparent lack of motivation in some students is really a motivation to avoid failing and all the consequences of failing that accompany the schools' version of "learning".   PBIS's success makes it more difficult for educators to examine these deeper issues and questions.  It's success can make it harder for schools to change on a more fundamental and substantive level;  educators can too comfortably feel that the curriculum and instruction doesn't need to change.  Instead they just need to get the students to change their response to it and PBIS is designed to do that for them.

Ironically PBIS when "doesn't work" in a school, its advocates claim that its lack of success is because the teachers are not following the program (doing what they are told.)  Why would teachers not want to follow a program that will make teaching and managing behavior so much better?  Is it because they are stubborn and refuse to see the light ? Or is it because they resent being told what to do and interpret it as another imposition and restriction on their professional judgement and expertise?

The Hinde article I reference describes the relationship between power and change and answers the question of why PBIS is so often resisted by teachers:

"... the problem of change is the problem of power.  In order for the culture of schools to adjust to allow for change then power must be wielded in a such a way as to allow others to gain a sense of ownership with the goals and process of change.  It is often a delicate balance between mandating change (a process that is usually unsuccessful, as stated earlier) and bringing teachers to believe in the need for and the efficacy of the reform so that they feel a sense of ownership.  Schools that are successful in this endeavor will be able to enact lasting and effective change."

I add that teachers who are treated with respect and allowed to gain a sense of ownership will be more likely to give students more respect and allow them to gain a greater sense of ownership.


Anonymous said...

Another great article, Jim. You've hit the nail on the head. We all need to feel that we have ownership, and I think that's why teachers are feeling bewildered by all the change that's happening lately in education. Most of it seems like change just for the sake of change, and that the kids' needs are not really being considered.

The Peaceful School Bus said...

There has been very consistent research for many years showing that people who feel like they have some control over their learning learn and achieve more. It is also pretty clear that involving people in decision making leads to better decisions and greater ownership for those decisions. It does make you wonder how so much of educational policy ignores what we know about human learning. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.