Power-distance in the language classroom

Image by 정수 이 from Pixabay

If you’ve studied intercultural communication, you’ll probably recall that one of the ways cultures differ is in power-distance, “the degree to which the culture believes that institutional and organizational power should be distributed unequally and the decisions of the power holders should be challenged or accepted (Lustig & Koester, 2010, p. 114). A high power-distance culture is characterized by hierarchy, politeness rules, titles, and people ‘knowing their place.’ In low power-distance cultures, people tend to see themselves as equals, their relationships are less formal, and they are more likely to use first names.

I’m interested in how power-distance is also a feature of different kinds of English language class. Think about how the history of language teaching methods has been on a trajectory from high to low power-distance. Teachers in western countries used to be seen as the authority, the expert, the ‘sage on the stage’ who stood (did not sit) at the front of the classroom; the person who had the right to speak and to whom students had to display deference by not asking questions or questioning their authority. The ‘methods’ era ended with communicative language teaching, characterized by more informality, a sense of equality, teachers saying things like “I have as much to learn from you as you do from me,” and often sitting among students in a horseshoe-style arrangement. That style of teaching has now been quite commonplace for some years.

It is perhaps not surprising that the move toward low power-distance in the classroom followed the protests of the late 1960s, when young people, especially in western countries, challenged the authority of their governments and their institutions, including their universities. The generation that emerged from that period became the next generation of teachers, transforming English language teaching from a model in which knowledge is transmitted from the teacher to the students, to various models in which knowledge is constructed collaboratively with the teacher as ‘facilitator’ of the process.

The evolution of methods was driven by innovations in western countries, particularly the U.S. and the UK, and there was a push to export these methods to other countries, as well as an appetite in other countries for what were considered enlightened teaching methods. Here is where, in many of those countries, the limitations became apparent. A low power-distance approach such as communicative language teaching didn’t sit very well in a high power-distance culture such as Japan, where public school classes were under the strict control of an authority figure teacher. And while many students traveling to the U.S. or UK found the informality of the approach refreshing, some were confused because teachers didn’t assert their authority and expertise, taught informally, and let students’ mistakes go – all low power-distance moves.

If you’re teaching, it’s interesting to reflect on the power-distance relations in your classroom. Do you tend toward a high or a low power-distance relationship with your students? Do students from high power-distance cultures adapt well or poorly to low-power-distance teaching? How did you come to adopt your power-distance approach?

Lustig, M.W. & Koester, J. Intercultural Competence, Sixth Edition. Pearson 2010