The Pedagogy of Power

In an age of instant communication, what happens at school can quickly go beyond school. The convenience of mobile phones and email have become part of the teacher-pupil-parent triangle. Absences are logged and text messages sent forth to parental phones. If the homework is late, then email the parent and let them know what’s going to happen. In my experience, mass emailing people isn’t particularly useful in terms of motivation or focusing student interest. I’m a parent and though it’s hard to tell what my teen is actually doing at school, I have to trust that the teacher is managing the day to day situation — and I don’t want or need a running report on the timeliness of homework, nor a text to let me know he’s gone to the loo twice in a day.

The flip side is of course the invasive nature of helicopter and lawn-mower parents. Maybe some of them have too much time on their hands, or remember school with such bitterness and disappointment that they are ready and willing to text and email at the slightest hint that the teacher might be giving the student a hard time occasionally. Anyone who’s been teaching for more than a few years will testify that hard-line teachers (shouting, rule making, punishment issuing, stern face types) don’t have much in the way of power (which they assume is automatic) nor are they building any communication capital where it matters — helping kids learn.

As we are learned from flame-wars and the back and forth of fans and haters in social media, electronic communication is a poor medium in which to attempt to mediate or motivate. While I think it’s great that parents can ‘drop in’ and see what kids are going at school – via their class blogs and other media, I have some concerns about the value or impact of using text and emails as levers of power in the teacher-pupil-parent triangle.

There’s a lot of human value in meeting a parent and showing them their children’s work. Even if that work isn’t the ‘best’ in the group or has elements missing. It’s a place to start a conversation which says we are all important. I’ve been looking for research into the impact of teacher to parent emails and text on student behavior and/or achievement in school and drawn a blank for the most part. The nearest I came was a 2009  study in Singapore of 3000 teachers over 2-4 years in high school. The researchers were interested in whether or not having (not having) ICT competencies hindered the use of email. They found that less than 3% of emails were from teacher to parent (or visa versa) and only 6% was between teachers and students. Some 65% of teachers emailed a colleague more than once a week.

Research studies have repeatedly reported that students engaging in communication with teachers beyond the classroom help develop greater academic and cognitive achievement, intellectual and personal development, career and educational aspirations, and institutional persistence. Interestingly, parents initiated most of the emails to teachers and teachers used email mostly to report problems with behavior.

I find this quite interesting from a social and cultural perspective. Email seems to be used primarily to reinforce existing power-relations and maintain cultural reproduction of knowledge and power within the teacher context. Personally, I am not a fan of emailing anyone that I can reasonably have a face to face with about important things. I don’t mind emailing companies to get prices or make some arrangements due to being geographically challenged or time poor, but to me, there is no evidence to suggest the education and socialisation of children is improved by sending out emails and texts to parents. Maybe someone is researching this and I haven’t found it … but I wonder if this is a growing trend in schools?