The unexamined good intentions of teachers are often fraught with ethical quandaries (Credit: Amy J. Ko)

Teaching, power, consent, and paternalism

Amy J. Ko
Bits and Behavior
Published in
8 min readAug 1, 2019


Lately, I’ve been mentoring a lot of teachers. In my role as Informatics program chair, I work with guest faculty from industry and doctoral students who are completely new to teaching. I work with new junior faculty who are new to teaching (or at least new to teaching our undergraduates). This summer I’ve been working with two wonderful undergraduates to teach a group of 19 high school students about how computing intersects with their personal interests. And in my research, I’ve begun to think a lot more about preparing CS teachers, and the research required for us to do that well. Teaching teachers is therefore an increasingly prominent part of my research, my teaching, and my service.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot to know about teaching, and I don’t know much. This summer I tried to capture everything I know by writing a short online book for teachers of our Informatics students, which covers a lot of the basics to teaching (knowing your students, knowing the curriculum, knowing the rules at our university), but also deeper topics, such as what learning is, what teaching is, what assessment is, and how to design courses. So far, the feedback on the book from the novice teachers I mentor has been pretty good; our teachers are saying, “I wish I’d had this earlier,” which is a reasonable praise. So maybe I know something.

What writing this book taught me, however, is that teaching is far more complex than I ever imagined. In particular, it’s led me to reconsider notions about what teaching is. One particular notion of teaching has been lurking in my mind all summer, and I want to share it, to see if it resonates with others. Here’s my best attempt to articulate it:

Teaching is the act of one or more people giving you power over their attention and using that power to develop their knowledge, identity, and beliefs about themselves. In principle, this consent can be taken away and given back at any time, but in practice, the inherent power granted by a teacher’s authority can make it difficult to fully give and withdraw consent. Therefore, teaching is also the ethical use of power over others’ attention, which is inescapably paternalistic. Finally, as much teaching is done in groups, teaching is also the resolution of tensions between the ethical use of this power, the goals of others in the group, and the maintenance of a social context for learning.

Phew! Just reading that makes teaching sound really scary and hard. And it is! Many of the teachers I mentor are rightfully terrified. What the explanation above tries to do is explain what’s behind that terror.

I suspect my definition of teaching above might be unrecognizable to some teachers, especially those who define teaching as:

  • Preparing content.
  • Transmitting knowledge.
  • Facilitating self-discovery.
  • Structuring activities.

Superficially, teaching might entail all of those things, but I would argue that power still underlies all of them. For example, the whole premise of preparing content is that someone will consume it; that presumes attention. The whole notion of transmission of knowledge implies a receiver. The concept of facilitation assumes a person actively attending to discovery in need of help. All of the things that teachers do implicitly assume that someone is there to participate willfully, consensually, and, for lack of a better word, submissively.

I think the power and submission underlying teaching is why so many find it so problematic. What right does a teacher have to compel a student to submit? Is it that learners are often youth that we accept the inherent domination in teaching? Can a child even give consent? Are learners of any age really capable of withdrawing consent if they no longer want to participate? Let’s consider a few scenarios.

Scenario 1. A college student isn’t enjoying a lecture. They’re sitting in the middle seat of a large lecture hall, and they’re required pass the class to graduate and earn their credential. Can they really leave? Sure, they could leave the class, fail to graduate, forfeit the tuition and fees they paid, and find another path in life, but that’s not really a viable choice for most. The only real choice they have is to stop paying attention, pulling out their smartphone, doodling on paper, or daydreaming. And if the teacher prohibits device use or is prone to publicly shaming the disengaged, they might have to do these things secretly, and experience shame for their deviance.

Scenario 2. A high school student is anxious about a class presentation, has a panic attack, and runs out of the classroom in tears, terrified by the racing of their heart, their public humiliation, their shame for being afraid, and their fear of a bad grade. In this case, the student exercised their freedom to withdraw consent, but possibly at a great price. Does the teacher punish the student for not conforming? Leave the class to find the student and console them privately? How does the teacher balance the individual student and their needs against the large group of students waiting for their return?

Scenario 3. A doctoral student is learning a lot from their advisor’s relentless and detailed critique of their writing. They always leave meetings feeling like they’ve learned a lot, but also feeling terrible about themselves. Can the student switch advisors? Probably not, as there are often few good fits on any given campus. Can they communicate their feelings to their advisor? If their advisor hasn’t made themselves utterly vulnerable and open to critique, the student risks resistance or worse, retribution. The only safe choice the student has is to commiserate with peers and survive the abuse.

Scenarios like these reveal that at the heart of every teaching moment, of individuals or groups, is a rich tapestry of ethical choices about how much power a teacher has, how they use that power, and how free a student feels to speak truth to that power about the teacher’s use of it. No teacher can hide from these ethical responsibilities, because no student’s consent is full, permanent, or fully-informed.

Many professions have ethical standards that convey ethical principles to help with these scenarios. Medical doctors have first do no harm. Last year, the ACM (the professional society for computing professionals) released an updated code of ethics, including guidelines like acknowledge all stakeholders, do no harm, be honest, respect privacy. And teachers have some options too, including the NEA Code of Ethics and the Association of American Educators Code of Ethics, which consider many ethical issues, including discrimination, privacy, health, safety, and intellectual freedom. But neither of these code of ethics for teachers say much about power.

In the absence of ethical guidance on teacher’s use of power, here are some of the ethical tactics that I try to use when I teach:

  • Acknowledge my power. Whenever I can remember to, I remind students that I’m in a position of power, that I know I’m in a position of power, that I only have that power because they’ve given it to me, and that they are free to take it back at any time by simply asking for it. In the rare circumstances when they do (often disputes around grading or workload), rather than resist, I enter a negotiation: they can share what they would like the rules to be instead, and I will take their feedback and try to carefully decide how to meet the needs of the group. This prevents anarchy, preserves my authority, but at least gives them agency.
  • Regularly renew consent. Whenever I switch activities in a class, I make space for students to express their consent. I’ll say things like, “This is what we’re going to do next. Before we begin, I want to hear your questions and concerns about it” and then I’ll put up an anonymous Poll Everywhere poll. By asking for both questions and concerns, it diminishes the fear of students who might have concerns from feeling like they’ll be the only one sharing something; the result is often a lot of questions (which I can use to improve instruction) and a few concerns (which I can resolve in situ, which then improve instruction).
  • Offer escape routes. For most of the activities I do in class, whether it’s a lecture, an exam, an exercise, or some other form of active learning, I make it really clear what the expected behavior is, why that expected behavior would help them, but also what alternative choices they have. For example, when I’m giving long lectures, I build in lots of breaks, and tell students they should take those breaks to use the restroom, catch up with friends, take a moment to laugh on YouTube, whatever. And I say that if they think they might need to leave, to sit near the edge of class to minimize disruptions to others. This signals that I approve of their leaving, but communicates how I want to balance their leaving with other students learning goals. Designing activities that have multiple paths and alternatives is hard, but it’s the only way I’ve find of giving students agency.
  • Be vulnerable. To do this, I often say things like, “I don’t know,” “I just redesigned this assignment; I think it’s going to work, but it might fail miserably, and I need your help finding out which its going to be.” or “I’m pretty happy with this class, but there are things I think are really broken and I’m trying to fix them.” Many teachers are afraid that saying things like this might diminish their authority, but I find that it mostly builds trust through honesty. Because honestly, no teacher is perfect.
  • Frame authority as exchange. Rather than use my authority authoritatively, I try to use it transactionally. I’ll say things like, “I’m going to talk to you for 20 minutes about privacy. If you listen, here’s what I think you’ll learn and why that might help you today and in the future.” In this framing, authority isn’t about oppression, it’s about trade, and trade implies that we might not find an agreeable deal. And that’s fair: if my 20 minute lecture turns out to be terrible, they should disengage, as overtly as possible, as that’s the only way I’ll know it was terrible. And this approach even reinforces my authority, because it requires me to present a convincing argument for the utility of what they’ll learn in their lives.

By no means do these tactics always work. But they do all derive from ethical principles of informed consent, which I find to be a rich concept for generating new tactics as I teach (sometimes in the moment).

The definition of teaching I presented above puts the power and ethics of teaching at the heart of the activity and the profession. My intuition is that putting anything other than power at the center of teaching, whether it’s fairness, learning outcomes, assessment, credentialing, or any other values a teacher might bring to their teaching, is inherently dehumanizing and inhumane. And if you can’t see how power is at play in your teaching, it’s only because your students are having dehumanizing experiences that they’re not sharing with you, or they come from a culture of submission to authority. Both of these things have certainly happened in my classes, and it was mortifying to learn how students actually experienced my early teaching. If hope if you’ve made it this far into this reflection, you’ll take the time to reflect on the ethics of your teaching and find ways to empower your students while you help them learn.



Amy J. Ko
Bits and Behavior

Professor at the University of Washington Information School, curious about programming + learning + design + justice. Trans, queer, she/her, parent. Meow.