top of page

Exploring Three Differentiated Models of Power in Teaching

Updated: Jan 19

Our upcoming event on January 20th is inspired by the essay “Power, Authority, and Critical Pedagogy” by Patricia Bizzell. For the sake of the limited timeframe that we have for discussion in our upcoming event, we are going to focus this summary on the models of power proposed in the essay in reference to our non-human students.  Let us be clear that this essay contains so much more than what will be listed here, that are no less valuable or important, despite exclusion from this summary for this event, and discussion on all aspects of this essay are of course welcomed now and in the future. There are vital components of this essay that dive into the critical nuances and impact of power and privilege in human-human teaching that should not be overlooked.


This essay is written from the perspective of educators who wish to promote their values through teaching, but fear that doing so would contradict those values. For instance, teaching about white privilege as a white person invokes tension between the importance of the topic and who is best situated to speak about the impact of holding less privileged identities. Our desire to contribute to the greater good through the authority we possess as educators conflicts with a profound wariness of abusing the power we hold. The author suggests that this inner conflict arises multiple factors: first, from an oversimplification of the notion of power; second, a perhaps flawed belief that power is always oppressive, and lastly, that power is a singular force with uniform consequences across all applications. 

The essay describes the concept of the power held by educators, specifically through 'Critical Pedagogy.' In simple terms, this refers to educational ideas influenced by Marxism. These ideas try to question and reject teaching methods that create unfair social power imbalances. Instead, they support approaches that create fair and equal social power dynamics. It's worth mentioning that 'Critical Pedagogy' includes various teaching practices and isn't limited to a fixed way of doing things. It would be an oversimplification to say that Critical Pedagogy examines benevolent coercion, but it is one component. Well-meaning educators can create or exaggerate power-imbalances without the intent to do harm, similar to what we see in the idea of benevolent coercion.

The history of modern composition studies can be seen as a series of challenges to the use of power in the classroom. In 1982, Maxine Hairston referred to a 'Revolution' in teaching writing, introducing a new way of teaching that focused on empowering students to control their writing processes and create meaningful texts as determined by the students. By 1990, Andrea Lunsford characterized the field as 'nonhierarchical and exploratory, intensely collaborative,' 'dialogic, multi-voiced, heteroglossic,' and 'radically democratic.'

In reference to this evolution from the initial idea to more complex understanding and implementation, the author suggests that rather than viewing all exercises of power negatively, we should reconsider power through a framework consisting of three models of power, addressing the impacts associated with the use of each.

(1) Coercion

  • Teacher A exercises power over Student B.

  • There is no requirement for B to consent. 

  • B does not have a voice in the process or goals of learning.

  • This form of power benefits A over B.

Human Example of Coercion

Teacher A imposes their standards of “good writing” onto student B, these standards do not take into account the values, goals, and standards of B themselves. The students are expected to adjust their writing to meet these standards, regardless of whether these standards prove to be in the student’s best interest.

Dog Training Example of Coercion:

Trainer A is called in to help with Dog B who is barking and lunging toward other dogs on walks. Trainer A’s plan focuses on the goal of loose leash walking, reinforcing Dog B when they come to the side of Human A, who determines the direction and pace of the walk. Despite the presence of positive reinforcement, Dog B is not able to exert control over the goals or process of this learning framework.

(2) Persuasion

Teacher A exercises power only with Student B’s consent.

  • Consent is only given if Student B is convinced that doing as Teacher A suggests will serve their best interest.

  • Collaborative, Non-Hierarchical

  • Dialogic

  • Two-way communication must be used to determine the needs, perspectives, values and goals of Student B.

  • Guidance must only be provided in the form of suggesting how Student B may best accomplish their own goals.

Human Example of Persuasion

Teacher A refrains from imposing rigid standards for writing excellence that Student B is obligated to adhere to. Instead, Teacher A aims to foster a classroom environment where Student B can develop their own criteria for good writing. While Teacher A may seek to influence the standards Student B formulates, perhaps by gently steering discussions away from another student's grammar-centric dominance of conversation, Teacher A’s guidance is limited to providing advice on how students can effectively achieve their unique writing objectives.

Dog Training Example of Persuasion:

Trainer A is called in to help with Dog B who is barking and lunging toward other dogs on walks. Trainer A’s plan is to empower Dog B with strategies to control the direction and pace of the walk, so that they may gather more information about Dog B’s  preferences and goals, while ensuring Dog B is able to avoid discomfort at will. Trainer A shows Dog B how to start and stop the Human A’s movement, and change the direction of Human A. Dog B is now able to walk on a loose lead which benefits Human A, while still controlling the outcomes of the walk leading to less instances of barking behavior as Dog B is empowered to make any changes needed to fulfill their goals, while Human A maintains the ability to oversee the process to ensure safety.

(3) Authority

Teacher A can exercise power over Student B, in which sometimes Student B must do what Teacher A requires without first being convinced that their best interest will be served in the immediate context.

  • Teacher A can only exercise such authority if student B grants it to Teacher A. Consent is vital.

  • Two Stage Process in which stage 1 consists of persuasion, in which Teacher A must persuade Student B that if granted authority, Student B’s best interest will ultimately be served. 

  • This stage is subject to all the conditions of collaboration described in persuasion.

  • Stage two involves Student B granting authority to Teacher A allowing for less dialogue. Student B empowers Teacher A to direct their course of action without Teacher A having to exercise persuasion at every step taken.

  • Power is granted contingent on Teacher A’s historical alignment with Student B’s goals and values.

Human Example of Authority

Teacher A may be granted the authority to request that Student B argues in a specific manner, adopts a particular audience's perspective, or acknowledges another writer's reasoning, even if these tasks initially feel uncomfortable for the student. Despite the student's initial resistance, the practice of these activities is not subject to avoidance or prolonged persuasion. The student agrees to engage in these activities, even when they seem disagreeable, trusting Teacher A's assurance that ultimately, there will be a positive outcome for the student.

Dog Training Example of Authority :

This example will focus specifically on phase 2, as persuasion is already described above. To achieve authority in which Dog B consents to allowing Trainer A to wield a more unilateral power, Dog B is taught that when a hand is presented in a distinct position, and if Dog B opts to touch the hand of Human A with their nose it will symbolize consent for the following process of initiating a magnet hand. During the magnet hand, Dog B follows the treat presented by Human A in any direction that Human A chooses, and Dog B relinquishes control during the period in which they are following the treat. However, a key caveat to authority is that the actions taken by A must be considered in the best interest of Dog B from their perspective. This requires a history of collaboration and communication in which Dog B’s preferences, goals and values are well established using the strategies outlined in persuasion. Additionally, this process can be modeled for Dog B out of context, such as around the home, before being used in the real life setting to ensure understanding. Therefore, if Dog B has been empowered to control the walk, and has demonstrated a consistent pattern of moving away from unknown dogs, but a path is not immediately visible for escape, they may offer an opportunity for Human A to step in. Using the magnet hand strategy once control has been voluntarily relinquished may allow Human A to guide Dog B through an escape route that ultimately meets the pervasive goal of Dog B in achieving greater distance, that they were unable to find for themselves in the moment. Authority can not be made on assumption, communication that confirms the premise that Dog B would like to move away is a necessity. If Human A were incorrect in their assumptions, and Dog B was actually seeking to decrease the distance between themselves and the other dog, the action taken, despite consent to initiate magnet hand, would be considered coercion.

The author suggests that before teachers can rightfully use their authority, they should work together with students in a persuasive way. However, there's a worry about being accused of asking students to trust blindly, especially when students might not have much reason to believe the teacher truly cares about their well-being. To build trust, it's necessary to have two-way communication and dialogue that establishes a collaborative relationship. The author talks about a kind of authority that cannot be taken for granted. Teachers cannot assume students should automatically grant them authority simply because they are teachers. Personal reasons, like the teacher liking each student also can't be the only basis for authority. Instead, the author imagines a way of collaborating where the teacher shows connections between their life and the students', aiming to generate buy-in to the idea that working together is in everyone's best interests. The teacher is still leading, but there is a foundational relationship and mutual agreement that the teacher's leadership benefits all.

Persuasion incorporates consent and is a step away from coercion. However, ​if teachers solely rely on persuasion, they face a significant challenge in an educational system where existing power dynamics fall short of the equal collaboration needed. Taking a persuasive approach can actually make it easier for the powerful person to influence the learner, requiring them to align with the teacher's thinking and leaving no room for the learner's thoughts and needs, which breeds mistrust. In such cases, adopting a persuasive stance may be seen as manipulative, a common reaction from students in collaborative classrooms.

Discussion Prompts:

  • How can we  balance our desire to promote values through teaching with the fear of contradicting those values, especially regarding the use of power?

  • How do these models of power present themselves in our training and behavior modification methodologies? What about our interactions with our human students?

  • What are the potential challenges in navigating power through fair and equal social dynamics when in the position of trainer/teacher? What about when privilege related to race, gender, socioeconomic statuses, and/or other identities are involved? How can we navigate these challenges?

  • How can we continue to evolve toward mutually beneficial power dynamics in animal training?

  • According to Andrea Lunsford, teaching should be 'nonhierarchical and exploratory'—how can we incorporate these principles into our training and teaching practices, and what benefits might arise from doing so?

  • The author suggests that open discussions about the teacher-student relationship are necessary to build trust and collaboration. How can we prioritize and facilitate two-way communication effectively with animals, addressing concerns about blind trust and creating a collaborative learning environment?

  • In thinking back to our events earlier this month, how do these models relate to benevolent coercion and/or Premack's essay?

Join us on Saturday January 20, 2024 to discuss live over Zoom!

9 AM Pacific

10 AM Mountain

11 AM Central

12 PM Eastern

bottom of page