Sunday, October 13, 2019

Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching

Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching Unmasking Power Stephen Brookfield in the Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching, OUP Maidenhead 2005 Brookfields chapter on the unmasking of power leads him immediately to consideration of the French theorist, Michel Foucault, by whom he was first introduced to the concept of regimes of truth: the types of discourse which it (society) accepts and makes function as true (Foucault).   Regimes of truth operate to lull teachers into believing they are operating in a power free setting.   Brookfield uses Foucaults description of power to explore the paradox that apparently emancipatory adult education practices can contain oppressive dimensions. Brookfield rebrands Foucault as a critical theorist on two grounds, firstly that he focuses, in a Marxian fashion, on how existing power relations reproduce themselves and secondly, that he is self-critical about his own theoretical formulations of power.   I quote Marx without saying so. (Foucault).   However, Foucault did not see power only as being imposed from above by a dominant elite.   Using the analogy of the connections made by synapses, power is seen as flowing throughout the social body.   We are all implicated in the exercise of power, even we do not believe we possess it. Fundamental to Foucaults analysis of power is the idea of disciplinary power which is malevolently attentive to our every move and which is constantly exercised by means of surveillance exemplified by a panopticon. Brookfield balances this analysis of power with what Foucault sees as its necessary corollary, resistance.   Like power, resistance can be found in multiple places and can be integrated in global strategies.   One example given of this is how oppositional groups can use the internet to organise effectively.   Foucault himself was deeply involved in contravening the status quo because he believed in essence that theory is practice. Looking at the world we now inhabit, it is clear that the all-seeing operation control centres in new prisons are replicated in many other areas of our lives including education, social services and workplaces.   Foucaults concept that surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action, strikes a very sombre chord, particularly as we are voluntarily submitting ourselves, more and more, to such surveillance through the use of social media.   Images and comments from decades ago can be retrieved with ease.   We may have moved on, but what we did or said is frozen in time, ready to be immediately defrosted at a touch of a search button.   Within education, opportunities for asynchronous learning through virtual learning environments can in fact be perfect weapons of surveillance used to assess the apparent engagement of the learner with the materials provided. The idea that we can derive pleasure from disciplining ourselves is disturbing, but it rings true.   Brookfield makes an association between this and Gramscis notion of most peoples willingness happily to embrace ideas, value and interests which actually work against our freedom. Brookfield applies Foucaults ideas across a number of staple items in the adult educators toolkit: learning journals, learning contracts and discussion groups, and shows how such techniques, which we adopt unquestioningly, can inadvertently reinforce the discriminatory practices we seek to challenge. The effect of disciplinary power on education resonated with me.   Far from the mutuality that pervades the relationship of a voluntary tutor with a 1:1 student or the collaborative learning in small groups, the drive for perpetual assessment and indicative content of courses drives tutors to assign individual projects so that collaborative projects are seen as a plagiaristic diversion of the intellectually weak.   Similarly the discrete tests which make up the awards system serve technological rather than educational ends.   That simply is not the way learning happens. Brookfields example of changing seating practices made an impression on me.   Despite the unquestioning belief on the part of many adult educators that it has an equalising effect, in fact such actions do not magically do away with power, but rather displace it and reconfigure it.   Circular seating can be intimidating, too open and too exposed and thus not necessarily less oppressive. Word count: 653

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