Nature abhors a vacuum

Nature abhors a vacuum. Human nature abhors a power vacuum.

Idealistic teachers often propose a classroom set up where co-operation reigns over command and control. Whilst lovely in theory, in practice we end up with more of a dystopia than utopia.

A teacher’s decision not to assert their authority won’t result in a classroom of equals. There will be a leader. It just won’t be the adult.

Instead, it will be your most bolshy pupil.

It’s true of adults, too. Think of any group you’ve worked in. Everyone hates being over-managed. But a vacuum of leadership is worse. It sounds seductive, not being told what to do. But even in a group of well-intentioned, motivated adults, the frustrations of decision making by committee soon lead to collapse – unless, of course, a natural, unofficial leader emerges. Lack of certainty is uncomfortable, unsafe and unenjoyable.

So it’s no wonder it’s a calamity when applied to a group of children with less maturity, more competing motivations, and a more acute sense of peer approval.

Humans intrinsically seek belonging and will impress whomever necessary to make that a reality. Make that the most fearsome member of year 9 set 3, and the results are predictable.

Being a leader, telling children what to do, and keeping clear, tight boundaries is the kindest thing to do. It keeps our children safe and allows them to learn. Us teachers should never feel we have to apologise for being the one calling the shots. Anything else is an abdication of our responsibility to keep our children safe, happy, and learning.

2 thoughts on “Nature abhors a vacuum

  1. Elinfa

    Absolutely- and when the control is there, that’s when teaching can be open and fresh approaches successfully implemented- must have the control first….

  2. Nicole

    Hi and thank you for your thoughts. I have today been reading a little about Michaela school and came across your post by this route. I have in the past read and thought at length about power and hierarchy in the educational setting so your piece is very interesting for me. Following on from my reading the work of attachment theorist Gordon Neufield, I agree that humans are indeed wired for hierarchy, and that in the absence of the kind of groupings of the kind for which we evolved (the extended family and the village group of mixed age individuals) you do indeed find highly unstable and problematic power plays. Inevitably a group of peers will create a pseudo alpha, and the chosen (or self chosen one) may not in the least be the optimal choice for the benefit of all. There are several points I will omit by way of brevity but to leap to my current main point about power in the classroom, to my mind, when we understand the role of alpha as fundamentally about liberating others and respecting the various stages of an individual moving from dependency to interdependence (being more healthy than independence), and leaving behind the kind of alpha that primarily dominates their dependents, then we can begin to envisage what that might look like in the classroom situation, even given the unfortunate problem of many peers, one adult.

    Thanks again
    Nicole Tate


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