Authority vs. power

We read often about the teacher-centered and teacher-controlled classroom, how that teacher exerts power in the classroom. As Fiske in his social relational models theory notes, power is not the same as legitimate authority. Power is an asocial relationship while authority is social, because authority is agreed to by those involved.

Alhtough authority may be granted in most areas, it can be challenged in others. ESL students with expertise have been known to challenge teacher corrections of content. In my own class, a student once challenged the course focus on argumentation, suggesting that the course should work on all English skills, including conversation.

More interestingly, authority may operate among students in some cultures. In my classes, I have noticed that Chinese students generally defer to the eldest among them, whether male or female, and usually, in whole-class discussions, the eldest would be the one who might speak. Apparently, the eldest in a Chinese group, holds a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group.

Most teachers try to have all the students participate equally in a class, but should we when such participation goes against cultural expectations of social relationships? Is there a balance that needs to be recognized?