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Influence and Coercion in Learning

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

The influence of people, places, and objects of interest will always be at the core of our experiences in learning. The social acceptance of what and how we choose to learn will always be at the core of our social and emotional development, coercing our decisions through subtle social or familial pressure to behave in certain ways. There will always be some degree of influence and coercion in our lives.

The key to this conversation is in the degree to which influence and coercion is applied to new learning for individuals who have been raised with a variety of different experiences.

A Range of Influence and Coercion in Learning

The image shown highlights nine example scenarios which by no means is exhaustive but illustrates a particular range of beliefs toward how a person might be allowed to learn.

The up-down (y-axis) range of influence on interests represents degrees of passive influence on learning. The left-right (x-axis) range of power or force to persuade represents active coercion on learning. Both are described below.

The Influence on Interests aspect of this image considers the passive influence a person may experience with regards to what and how they learn. To have no influence is not to say a you wouldn't be influenced by what you see and hear around you but will not be influenced by the demands of another person with regards to what and how you learn. To experience minor influence is to have suggestions for what and how you learn but ultimately make your own decision about whether you want to learn what was suggested, and/or whether you want to learn how a person may have suggested you learn something. To have major influence is to have your world shaped around you in ways that suggest skills and concepts be not only learned but also valued by you.

The Power or Force to Persuade aspect of this image considers a more active coercion a person may experience with regards to learning. To have no coercion is to have full agency of your decision to learn what and how you wish. To experience minor coercion is to be exposed to dilemmas which introduce learning as a task to be bargained with emotions as bargaining chips - modest use of guilt and shame are emotions most commonly manipulated to coerce learning. In rare cases, major coercion is used to get you to learn in a specific manner through the use of threats e.g. confiscation, limitation, or public ridicule.

There is an important distinction I feel is important to note here. The context of learning is far different than specific scenarios in which you might be kept from hurting yourself. Learning how hot a particular surface might be to touch with your finger is different than learning how damaging it would be to place your hand into a roaring fire. Take this into a classroom setting and you find that the learning which is expected to occur is far from equal to bodily harm and that the use of major coercion is unfounded and unnecessarily cruel, and not always for your benefit as the learner but more for the person responsible for coercing you to learn.

Comparing Influence and Coercion in Learning

Adults often imagine their most recent experience in education as their bellwether for what is appropriate for all levels of education. For example, parents may recall their most recent high college or college class; teachers may recall the last grade level they taught; students may recall the last class they took. Each of these examples share one thing in common: each places a focus on preferences for learning in context of the individual's experience. This herein lies the challenge because the experience of each individual is just as important as any other individual's experience. This is because learning is inherently an individualized experience and any claim that learning can occur for multiple people in the same way on a schedule maintained by another person will not be without minor or major coercion and influence.

My own recent experience in education was an online program on leadership in social-emotional and character development. While much of the information was not new based on my prior experience in the topic, some new information was useful to me and other information not so much. The actual learning that took place, however, was not what my passing grade was based on. Completion of tasks as a form of accountability allowed me to receive a confirmation that I had received the teaching of this particular online program.

In my case, there was minimal influence (somewhere between none and minor) on what or how I learned since I chose to participate in a class to learn more about specific skills or concepts. Yet, I experienced major coercion in completing and submitting tasks out of fear of being reported as failing to have learned. Whether I submitted the tasks or not, whether or not I received a passing grade, the degree of mastery I achieved would be illustrated in my work as a professional. The credentials I received in return for submitting to such a traditional coercive form of accountability simply allows me to use this earned credential as a token, as a form of currency, which can then be interpreted by others as either valuable or not, but will still not communicate the level of mastery or proficiency resulting from my involvement with that institution.

Now compare my experience to that of a middle-school student in a traditional school. While I chose to enroll in an online course by a particular institution, a middle-school student has no such agency. While I chose to complete the tasks that benefited me and dismiss the tasks which did not (as the final grade was not to be made part of my professional transcript), a middle-school student will suffer limitations according to the compounding grade-level marks received throughout their schooling experience. The influence and coercion involved in the schooling of a K-12 student is far different than that of the influence and coercion involved in higher education or the professional world. The degree of compliance rooted in higher levels of influence and coercion will not exist once they leave that schooling environment - they will have more freedom to choose what and how they learn. The question becomes whether they will have had any meaningful experience in directing themselves within such freedom.

It isn't so much that influence does or does not exist in a school system. It is more about how much influence exists in a school's classrooms and the impact this has on student learning.

Re-balancing Influence and Coercion in Learning

Spring of 2020 saw the sudden overhaul of school from in-person to distance-learning. This came with a partial fallout in student participation because the coercive element of traditional accountability measures for learning were removed. Many people saw this and concluded that a grade (coercion) is required for learning to occur. I would argue that it is not so much that grades are required as much as a student's desire to learn has been treated as one would treat a horse in a manège to be trained. Major influence and coercion dismisses the relevance of learning to a student's environment, dismissing the value of learning within the context of a student's current social and societal structures. Instead, we use grades as a coercive form of academic currency and base those grades on the completion of tasks rather than the quality of understanding and connection to skill and concept progressions.

This has led to an imbalance of influence and coercion in school-based learning.

Offering minor influence to students with regard to what and how they learn requires students to know what and how they want to learn. A student who knows only to learn from explicit direct instruction on topics presented to them will struggle with learning in more collaborative environments and more open-ended topics (and vice versa).

To some, it might seem like coercing students into experiencing new forms of learning can benefit students. This is where the distinction of influence and coercion plays such an important role. Providing opportunities for students to learn in new ways is different than presenting ultimatums which give students a choice of submission or retribution. You do not have to say "do this or else..." for the same intention to be applied in other coercive forms. Do this or you will receive a failing mark is coercive when that failing mark carries with it a high enough value to that student's family and community. Figuring out what a person values and using that to pressure them into a behavior is how one might approach life-threatening behaviors in order to protect others - not to persuade someone to love learning. It is in such major forms of coercion that students develop a compliance-based sense of submission to school and a devalued sense of learning to learn.

Knowing how influence and coercion overlap can help communities untangle and rewire policies and practices to be more in line with a community's desires for student learning, even if those policies and practices involved in doing so may seem challenging.

It is likely that schools who sought to develop in students a sense of self-motivation and self-management towards becoming life-long learners may have found themselves entrenched in major coercive systems for getting students to complete academic tasks solely for reward or fear of discipline. For these schools, their philosophy and vision is likely still on-point but their policies and practices have become misaligned. It may be reasonable for schools to offer suggestions and opportunities to influence students to learn increasingly challenging academic topics. While this may still be part of a school's mission, the means for achieving that end could require major changes if certain modes of coercion have become the only means of ensuring students become life-long learners. These changes will not only need to take place in how teachers approach student learning but also in how administrators coach their teachers, how all staff communicates with the surrounding community, and how the community communicates with their school's state and local leaders in education.

It may be that generations of families have obtained an education through more coercive traditions and the effectiveness of such an approach is simply part of their core beliefs about education. In such cases, it is important to realize that change may happen on a generational scale but that it is no less important to address in areas where coercion may be damaging to larger societal goals for an educated populace.

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