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Are you aware of your PDO? If not, you could be hurting your kids.

During my first semester at the University of California at Berkeley, on the first day of classes, a professor introduced himself to the class, and explained his expectations for the course in a manner that made me very anxious. He told us to call him by his first name, and then said, “A significant portion of your grade depends on your willingness to engage, discuss, and even disagree with me, and each other, publicly, vocally.” I sat there quietly, trying to process what was saying. He continued, “I am most impressed by students who will engage in combat with me verbally. I most respect students who argue with me. If you think I am wrong, I want you to say so. Try to change my mind. Persuade me. Push back. Fight for your position.” He then confessed, “I must admit that I tend to gravitate toward students who can articulate themselves well, students who are willing to disagree with me. I don’t know. There is just something about those kinds of students that I just love!” 

While almost all of my European-American and Asian-American classmates were used to that kind of interaction with their teachers, it became painfully clear to me that I was at a disadvantage academically. There was no way I would be able to disagree with him publicly; and, there was no way I would ever call him by his first name. Doing so would have caused me to violate some of my deepest convictions about teacher-student relationships. Most of my teachers, in high school, college, and graduate school, have had a low-power-distance orientation that made school very difficult for me, and as I look back, that may have been one of the factors that prompted me to drop out of high school. 

While some of my difficulty in school may have had a little bit to do with my lack of self-confidence, I am convinced that a lot more of it had to do with power distance. What exactly is power distance?

Power distance refers to the emotional distance between subordinates and their superiors, or more specifically, to the dependence relationship in a country between those who are in charge and those who are under their leadership. Hofstede (2010, p. 61) defines power distance as is “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” In other words, people from high-power-distance cultures subscribe to the belief that inequality exists between leaders and followers. Superiors believe that their subordinates are essentially different, and vice versa.

One’s power-distance orientation begins at home. In low power-distance homes, parents teach their children to ask questions, to argue, and strive toward independence and self-sufficiency (Hofstede, 68).  In many North American schools, this low power-distance orientation gets reinforced by curriculum and teachers: 

 “In the small-power-distance situation, teachers are supposed to treat the students as basic equals and expect to be treated as equals by the students. Younger teachers are more equal and are therefore usually more liked than older ones. The educational process is student centered, with a premium on student initiative; students are expected to find their own intellectual paths. Students make uninvited interventions in class; they are supposed to ask questions when they do not understand something. They argue with teachers, express disagreement and criticisms in front of the teachers, and show no particular respect to teachers outside school.  When a child misbehaves, parents often side with the child against the teacher...” (Hofstede, p. 69ff).

In low power-distance homes and schools, children are encouraged to argue, express themselves, to “push back,” and achieve their own intellectual independence. 

Children who grow up in high power-distance homes and schools are culturally very different from ones who grow up in low power-distance ones. In high power-distance homes, children are not encouraged to become independent or self-sufficient. Instead, they are encouraged to submit to their parents for a lifetime. Their families socialize children to know their place in the hierarchy that exists in the home and in the family. Status is ascribed based on age and other facts (Hofstede, 2010, p. 67).  

According to Hofstede, this hierarchy at home is reinforced in school, whereby the student sees the teacher in the same way he or she sees his or her parents (Hofstede, p. 69): 

“In the large power-distance situation, the parent-child inequality is perpetuated by a teacher-student inequality that caters to the need for dependence well established in the student’s mind. Teachers are treated with respect or even fear (and older teachers more so than younger ones); students may have to stand when they enter. The educational process is teacher centered; teachers outline the intellectual paths to be followed. In the classroom there is supposed to be a strict order, with the teacher initiating all communication. Students in class speak up only when invited to; teachers are never publicly contradicted or criticized and are treated with deference even outside school.  When a child misbehaves, teachers involve the parents and expect them to help set the child straight...” (69)

I share this with you because unlike those who come from low-power-distance homes, students who come from high-power-distance homes experience a serious culture shock when placed in schools that reinforce low-power-distance cultures, and which have teachers with low-power-distance orientations. The people, policies, practices, and purposes in most American schools all work together to create an environment in which low-power-distance norms are often reinforced. Together, these things help to cultivate students who are independent thinkers and self-sufficient. While this is ideal, it can create significant challenges for students who come from from high power-distance environments.

But I have gotten a little ahead of myself.  For now, I just want you to think about what your “power-distance” orientation is.  Do you come from a high power-distance home, where you were taught that kids are meant to be “seen and not heard?” Or, did you come from a home where you were free to argue, disagree, and participate in adult conversations?  In any case, your orientation definitely affects how you relate to others.  

High power-distance people tend to see low power-distance people as disrespectful, whereas low power-distance people see high power-distance people as bossy and dictatorial.  

Let me tell you about an encounter I had with a young middle-school aged white kid in my neighborhood. Shortly after I moved into the neighborhood, I was driving home one day, and I was passing by him. I slowed down, and said, “Hello, sir. How are you?” He responded with a very informal, “wassup?”  Even though I usually talk with my friends and my peers that way, I must admit that that young kids response to me took me by surprise.  I couldn’t believe that he was so comfortable talking to me, an adult, so informally.  At first I felt disrespected, and wanted to stop the car and give the young man a lesson on how to talk to adults with respect. Then I realized that it is quite possible that either that young man had not been taught any manners, or that he was being raised in a low power-distance home where he talks like that with his parents and relatives.  

The more I have gotten to know that young man, I have come to see that he is actually a very friendly, helpful, smart kid who just happens to live in a home where they have a very low power-distance orientation.  This realization has forced me to think twice whenever I encounter someone who comes off to me as disrespectful or too informal.  

I share this with you so you can take a closer look at how your own power distance orientation might affect how you see, teach, and interact with others. 

Power-Distance is just ONE of at least 12 variables that you need to be aware of if you are going to be your best as a teacher.

The good news is I'll be teaching these and so many others at R.E.A.C.H., the live events I'll be hosting around the country. Click the link to learn more.

-Manny