To resist learning is common; to understand resistance is rare.

Finding the right road

“The ground zero of resistance is fear of change.” – Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher.

In preparing to teach at Royal Roads University, I met up with an old friend who had been teaching first year undergraduate students for several years. I wanted his best advice. Instead, he shared his thinking when addressing his first class. I will never forget what he said.

“I look at those kids at the start of every school year and think about who I was at that age.”

He described his younger self to me as a troubled young man, riddled with doubt, still ‘in the closet’ yet thinking everyone knew he was gay. “I was so terrified of being found out, of being humiliated. I was sure I would fail or be thrown out.”

This is an accomplished man I’ve known since high school who went on to build an impressive career and then became an assistant professor at one of Canada’s top universities.

“I don’t understand,” I said, totally taken aback. “I mean, look at what you have accomplished.”  

“Yeah,” he smiled. “That’s just it. I didn’t know I had it in me.”

A teacher never really knows what going on in their students’ lives, what challenges they are dealing with, what trauma they’ve endured before getting to this place, and the resulting opinion they might hold of themselves. So, as my friend advised, I began my first day of teaching as if I was teaching myself on my first day at university.

I told my students how the first day jitters are inescapable for me. I mentioned how I get too excited to sleep well then I show them my sweaty palms. We have a laugh and that helps calm us all down a bit.

It’s not an act, not a gimmick. I truly do have a racing heart in that first half hour of teaching a new class. “Anyone else feel this way?” I always ask.

Sometimes I am met with silence or a few nods. I talk about deep breathing as it helps regulate the heart. Then I talk about my coaching style, my background, my accessibility, and basic housekeeping stuff as I handout the course overview and assignment descriptions.

This approach is not intended to resolve resistance to learning. It’s about setting a tone, sending a message that I’m human, too, and that to be anxious is normal at the start of something new and challenging.

As Brookfield describes his wife teaching him how to drive, he explains thoroughly how layered and complex resistance to learning happens at a place where “several factors intersect.” His antidote, which comes with no guarantees, is worth devoting to memory:

“She didn’t push me too fast, she broke a complex skill set down into a series of small, incremental chunks, she gave clear instructions, she praised frequently those things that were done well, and readily admitted when she was learning to drive she had all the fears and anxieties I was experiencing.”

Such a lovely metaphor on how to approach teaching with a room full of young adult learners.

Yet even if I were to follow Brookfield’s idyllic learning scenario of appropriate disclosure, sequenced instruction, and sufficient scaffolding right at the start, I may still experience some students who resist my learning.

“In my experience,” writes Brookfield, “resistance is the constant hand on your shoulder as a teacher, your ever-present companion.” The best you can do, he says, is accept it.

I agree wholeheartedly with Brookfield’s comments as an experienced teacher who did not understand, nor was taught, that resistance happens no matter how hard you try to help, coach, support and prevent it from re-occurring. His advice resonates clearly in describing pretty much every experience I’ve had with students who simply do not want to learn what I have to teach.

Just reading his descriptions, and the rationale he offers as possible culprits behind certain student behaviours, is like finding the medicine I needed to heal my own wounded pride.

While frustration with my own teaching experiences was the catalyst that drove me to enrol in VCC’s Provincial Instructors Diploma Program, dealing with the resistant learner remains my greatest fear.

Which is why Brookfield’s Chapter 16, Understanding Students’ Resistance to Learning, was such a panacea, a most welcome relief. “Trying to understand why and how students resist learning is probably something I’ve spent more time pondering than any other facet of my life as a teacher.” This is Brookfield’s “most troubling” experience in teaching, as it was certainly for me, too.

Just as my accomplished friend confessed not knowing what he was capable of, I see my younger self absolutely blocked when it came to learning mathematics. I remember one teacher writing the word ‘balderdash’ on my failed test paper when I told him, in a one-on-one, that I could not learn math because I was not smart enough.

I was so resistant to learning because I was being pushed into something I didn’t want to learn. It was too hard, too abstract and not part of my career plan.

“Resistance to learning is often principled and justified,” says Brookfield.

The truth was that my family and I had moved a lot. Being repeatedly taken out of one school and placed in another took a toll and I missed key learning. I might have taught myself or asked for help, had I the will, but the risk of trying and failing was too much for my undeveloped psyche to bear. I was more focused on fitting in, which I found exhausting.

Failure is something I am familiar with and coming to terms with that has taken a lifetime to sort out. These thoughts, along with Brookfield’s crystal-clear insights and the learning from this program, has given me the courage to give teaching another try.

A complimentary piece to Brookfield’s writing is the following podcast by Alan Tolman, Professor of Behavioural Science at Utah Valley University, who says “resistance to learning is part of teaching” and that teachers should prepare for it. I was impressed to learn that his book on the same subject was co-written by seven of his graduate students. Collectively, they define resistance as a signal some students put out, often unwittingly, calling upon the teacher for help of some sort.

Both Brookfield and Tolman stress that resistance can be an extension of systemic social issues. What I value most, though, is their evidence and experience in support of new thinking; the student is not wrong by resisting, not a behavioural problem, not a nuisance, but a frustrated learner who is stuck in some way. A skillful teacher can see this and, with practice, might be able to help set that student on the right road.

REFERENCES

Brookfield, S. (2014) The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom. Wiley.

Stachowiak, B. (2017) Teaching in Higher Ed podcast producer and host, Dean of Teaching and Learning and Professor of Business and Management, Vanguard University of Southern California.

Tolman, A. (2017) Teaching in Higher Ed podcast #171 guest speaker on Why Students Resist Learning. Professor of Behavioral Science at Utah Valley University.

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