Music – a super-stimulus for the brain

Gracia Seal (centre) and St. Andrew’s Regional High School students Jessica Coady (left), Claire O’Neill and Mari Chambers on percussion, practice with the Voices in Motion dementia research project.

On learning something that scares you

“Volunteering to learn something that scares you and then observing what helps you through this experience, or what makes it worse, can provide excellent insights into what your own students are feeling.”

A quote by Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher, taken from chapter 20 on Staying Sane: 16 Maxims of Skillful Teaching. This quote is from Maxim #6 – Regularly Learn Something New and Difficult.

In 2019, I was tasked with organizing a public event that demonstrated some of the leading research happening within our faculty. The School of Nursing, one of the largest schools on campus (second to Engineering), has been making international news thanks to the work of Dr. Debra Sheets, a nursing professor and researcher who is studying the effects of choral singing on people living with dementia.

She and her research team wanted to find out if brain health could be improved for those diagnosed with dementia by encouraging them to sing in a community choir with their care providers, as well as with local high school students who wanted to join in the fun.

The results are amazing: the team has proven that cognitive health can be improved through singing. Participants also enjoy themselves, make new friends, and interact with young people.

At our event held during UVic’s 2019 Ideafest celebrating academic research, we arranged for the research team to share their findings and for the choir to sing for the audience in attendance. This was quite an experience for the 150 people who attended. With three short lectures on how health had markedly improved for all, followed by a trio of three Beatles’ hits, the event closed with a standing ovation. Many were in tears; those in the audience as well as those in the choir were collectively moved by the event.

I realized that all of us were so grateful for this learning, for the evidence, for the improved wellbeing and heightened quality of life. I think, too, so many were turned on by seeing something as challenging as coping with a dementia diagnosis enjoying life in a meaningful way.

Singing is free, participation is free and the testimony of dementia patients, their caregivers, the high school teens and their families all point to how free access and participation was part of the beauty of this project.

When the pandemic hit, many expected the choirs to stop operating. The research project has expanded and there are now nine choirs in Victoria alone. But the research team moved the rehearsals and performances online. The results have been overwhelmingly positive.

It turns out, whether rehearsing in person or online, this choral community can still combat the stigma of dementia. Stigma leads to social isolation, which elevates stress and inflammation and increases risk for other diseases. By contrast, and even compared to singing alone, singing in a choir activates social connections and enhances brain activity. Social singing increases oxygen flow in the brain, and releases neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that enhance contact, coordination, and cooperation. Their research also shows reduced agitation for dementia patients and significantly reduced distress for their caregivers.

Music also acts as a so-called super-stimulus: it draws on areas of the brain unaffected by dementia including procedural and emotional memory systems. That allows people living with the disease to participate as fully as others in the choir, creating an equal experience for all.

“The choir is still joyous, and moving online has made it even more inclusive.,” said Dr. Sheets, truly amazed at everyone’s ability to adjust to pandemic lockdown orders.

Another observation: we were all so impressed at the quality of the choir. The singing was excellent and that, too, surprised the audience who were expecting not as polished a performance. One participant said to me at the reception that followed, “This isn’t campfire singing,” she laughed. “This is hard work.”

After our event, a young man came up to me and introduced himself. He was with Shaw TV and wanted to know if he could produce a documentary on the choir. We organized a process for script development and helped him gather the necessary content for what would become a terrific salute to the power of nursing research.

Here is a link to that documentary film, titled Voices in Motion and posted on the Shaw Spotlight website of feature films produced in Victoria, BC.

All this is my way of saying that I love my job because it teaches me so much every day. Sometimes, I resist that learning but more often than not, I still want to learn more, to try new things, to work through the stress and anxiety and to carry on learning more.

Yes, I am still afraid to learn mathematics but I think even that’s on my horizon as something I really need to do for myself. My math stigma is all about fear of failure but, perhaps like Dr. Sheets, I could turn this learning into a research project where I observe and track what helps me learn and what makes my learning suffer in my attempt to become a more skillful teacher.

Best thank you note ever

On learning how to be edited

“This may sound silly, but I can honestly say the crazy amount of red ink on that first news release I wrote for you has played a big role in me getting to this point. Prior to you, not too many folks critiqued my writing in a really targeted way (*sigh*). So, thanks!”

– Mike Westlock, BAPC class of 2016, is now a senior communications officer with the Government of Northwest Territories. Photo: Shutterstock.

Most credible advice

Visit Matt’s blog. Enjoy a great read. Look for work.

Writing well as a definitive diagnosis

“Skill in writing is one of the things I look for most in hiring because I feel that clear writing represents clear thinking, regardless of someone’s background. The ability to communicate effectively and clearly in written form is not only super important in a distributed company, but I think reflects well on how a person approaches life in general.”

– Matt Mullenweg, WordPress creator. Photo:

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.


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.

Teaching in a diverse classroom

Rohan from Iran, Hillary from Vietnam, Shoshana from The Philippines, and Sadie from Canada. They met in class, achieved considerable success as a supportive team and became friends for life.

Blinded by the white

“Of all the approaches mentioned in this chapter, I feel that team-teaching with colleagues who share different racial backgrounds, personalities and learning styles is the most helpful.” – Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher

My five years of teaching with Royal Roads University introduced me to students from around the world. Intercultural learning is a big part of that university’s offerings. In fact, their learning, teaching and research model is centred on students becoming “citizens of the world”.

International students comprised a large portion of my class population and, for many, English was a language these students were still learning. That said, many of the international students I taught spoke more than one language over and above English and their native language, an intellectual feat rare among North American white folk. Myself included.

The photo above is particularly dear to my heart as these four women from four different countries became a close, fierce foursome, modeling a way to make the most of their education by learning from and supporting one another in my English-speaking and writing classes.

I had the pleasure of teaching these women in two courses as they defined success on many levels including diversity. They delivered terrific work which made their bond stronger and influenced those around them. One was a published writer and therefore a stronger student, yet, she was so affable and generous, she helped and inspired the other three to do their best work.

I take no credit for their success; they found one another in class and figured things out for themselves. From time to time, they reached out to me for support, but the power of their friendship was truly a beautiful thing to behold as an instructor. They all wanted to do their very best work. And I believe their diversity was a contributing factor to that success.

As with Brookfield’s comments on teaching in a diverse classroom, these four were their own “team-teachers”. I was a facilitator who played back-up and I see now how I could not have provided them with the same learning experience as they found within their own group.

Empowering students to break away from people of their own cultural family, especially white students, is a keen desire of mine and yet something I have not tried in the classroom. I don’t speak about diversity, largely because I feel that I don’t know enough about cultural acumen.

Case in point: In my work at UVic, our faculty attracts a high number of Indigenous students and scholars due to the number of degrees and specializations available centred on Indigenous learning. Programs with Indigenous courses include public administration, governance, nursing, social work, child care, public health and social policy. We are also the only faculty on campus with an Indigenous Student Support Centre.

Years back, my Dean and I met with the centre’s two leads to discuss ways we could encourage a higher level of engagement with our Indigenous students. Bottom line: the centre was being under-used and its role and objectives were falling into question.

During this conversation, we proposed possible ways to heighten interest and participation in the centre’s services, when one of the leads said, and I am paraphrasing, “Look, we are not here to be your token Indians that you get to fix and celebrate as your success story. Leave us alone. We have the ability, thank you, to sort this out for ourselves.”

Strong language, to be sure, but the point this Indigenous graduate made was quite clear and one I will not forget.

“Becoming aware of whiteness is the beginning of creating an anti-racist identity for whites.” Brookfield writes in Helping Whites Become Aware of Whiteness. a forthcoming chapter posted to his website, Stephen Brookfield. ”This is because whiteness as an identity is connected to power; in particular, the way that a learned blindness to racial inequality helps maintain a system that exhibits structural exclusion and normalizes brutality.”

There are many examples of this exclusion and brutality in Canada and in the United States and our headlines today are chock full. Today’s New York Times features a story by Nelson D. Schwartz, titled, Working From Home Poses Hurdles for People of Colour, which explains how diversity is at risk in the online workplace.

“With fewer connections and less extensive networks than white colleagues to begin with, Black and Hispanic workers can find themselves more isolated than ever in a world of Zoom calls and virtual forums. Assignments end up flowing to people who look more like top managers — a longstanding issue — while workers of color hesitate to raise their voices during online meetings, said Sara Prince, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey.

“It’s a critical issue, and there is a real risk facing diversity and inclusion in the current environment,” said Ms. Prince, who is African American. “When the leader is looking for someone to take up the mantle, most of them go to the comfort zone of people who remind them of themselves. This is exacerbated by the virtual office.”

“The unmanaged outcome is more isolation, less advancement, more job losses, and a real retrenchment in the progress around diversity and inclusion,” Ms. Prince said.

With these thoughts in mind, I have genuine concern for how university students of colour will fare as they start school this fall, learning online in record numbers. Do educators have this level of understanding to nurture essential connections with and among their non-white students?

More on this issue in my next blog, next week.

930 words


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

Schwartz, N. (2020) Working From Home Poses Hurdles for People of Colour. New York Times, Economy section.

University of Victoria, (2020) Faculty of Human and Social Development, Indigenous Student Support Centre.

 CC Creative Commons License BY credit the creator NC non-commercial SA share adaptations.

When learning is not fun

Learning framed within the context of a student’s experience is more likely to be understood. Photo: The Star, 2009.

Why students crave context

“The only voices they will take seriously are those of former students who themselves were initially resistant or hostile to the learning concerned but who subsequently realized its value.”

Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher, 2015.

Skillful teaching is contextually informed, says award-winning author Stephen Brookfield, in that students perform better when lessons are relevant to their experience and understanding. In other words, a skillful teacher knows that to reach a student, a lesson must fit with the student’s experience in the world. This is one of the key tenets of education theorist, Jean Piaget, that an educator must build on what a student already knows.

As an example, Brookfield invites a small panel of former students for the first day of class, then leaves his students alone with the panel so they can talk freely. He makes a point of inviting students who struggled with his teaching. By doing this, he liberates the students from being under his watch, treats them as adults showing respect, willingly risks being negatively assessed and, if all goes well, he may have a shot at earning their trust. What a great way to kick off a course.


Brookfield’s Core Assumptions of Skillful Teaching are –

Skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn.

Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice.

Teachers need a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teacher’s actions.

College students of any age should be treated as adults.


Students want to learn from other students, and the greater the effort they share in that learning, the tighter the bond they forge, the better. That has been my observation, repeatedly, and Brookfield is plainly on the same page.

A few years ago, I introduced my Professional ePortfolio students to the idea of taking part in a mock interview exercise. I offered to bring in former students, now working in full-time communications jobs, to serve as interviewers. The students liked this idea and invested a surprising amount of effort to rehearse and prepare.

On the day of the sessions, students came to class dressed in their finest work wear. They wanted to make a good first impression. While we all new this was a pretend event, many were nervous, which told me they took the exercise seriously.

 I had assigned each interviewer a small team of students to work with, provided one common line of questions to all. Students could participate as well as watch one another be interviewed within their own group. This was another opportunity for them to learn from one another.

While I had wanted to videotape these sessions, several students declined. So, I asked a few to record only their voices using their phones, so they could hear themselves in situ. The recording, I believe, could have offered students another layer of learning to see or hear themselves in an interview setting, but many were not ready to take that step.

All did gain value through this session, though, based on comments and written evaluations. Each session was an authentic lived experience and, for many, their first interview ever. It was a bit scary for most and the session required considerable energy. Students later reported that the exercise felt real to them and just what they had hoped for and what I had underestimated. I thought they would be too shy to participate, as they were with me in class. I realized, however, that this exercise put students into a situation where they could learn from other students and from graduates directly and indirectly. As such, it was a double whammy experience for all involved.

The feedback students received from their ‘interviewers’ went a long way to help guide them in their professional website development process and to prepare them for the inevitable job hunt after graduation. The student feedback I received on this experiment was very positive and, given the chance, I’d do it all again.

Funny enough, I had no idea at the time we were adding rich and desirable context to the student learning experience. I now realize this real-life kind of engagement is a powerful teaching tool where I don’t teach. I just do the organizing.

As further evidence of the context students crave in their learning, I close this blog post with a link to a story I came across today from Inside Higher Education, written by Peter C. Herman. Published June 2020, Herman explores how the future of online learning was not bright at all, according to students he interviewed. Here is an excerpt –

One student said, “I did not feel challenged like I had been in the first half of the semester, and I felt the quality of learning had gone way down.” “I watched the lectures posted but I wasn’t learning the material,” wrote another. All told, moving online caused “a profound sense of loss”.

The transition from learning face-to-face to online removed the opportunity for students to learn “from other students”. In a traditional classroom, one student said, “there is this level of intimacy that just cannot develop in an online setting. The college experience is truly about making human connections. Schools, one student noted, “are like small towns. There is so much more than just classrooms, and to have classes go online, that takes away so much from the student experience”

Brookfield and Herman have helped me to see, to appreciate that the student perspective is the cornerstone of real learning. They want their learning to be social to some extent and that this context must be central to my practice if I am to become truly skillful.   

Watch Brookfield in this keynote address on Becoming a Skillful Teacher, 2014, recorded at Western University in London, Ontario.


A female moose at home in the deep woods of Yukon Territory. Photo courtesy of Northern Power.

A happy wanderer.

I work at UVic as a communications officer for the Faculty of Human and Social Development. I write web content for the BC Government on occasion and, at one point, I was teaching five courses per year. In 2017, I decided to take a break from teaching communications at Royal Roads University and go back to school. I wanted to be a better teacher.

Freedom is a major personal value for me. I enjoy variety and adventure. This love of freedom influences my professional values as an instructor through constructivism and the theoretical work of Jean Piaget. From him, I learned about teaching students from ‘where they are at’ by building on what they already know.

As for ‘truths’ of teaching, the following items from Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher (page 9) resonate most:

  • I will never be able to initiate activities that interest all students all the time.
  • I need to watch out for my tendency to engage in too much self-deprecation.
  • Making full disclosure of my expectations and agendas is necessary if I am to establish an authentic presence in a classroom.

Lastly, I want my students to know that I care about their learning and their experience with my teaching. I am exploring ways to make that connection so that no one slips into a failing grade or feels abandoned in their studies. I learn a great deal from observing my instructors in VCC’s Provincial Instructor Diploma Program who model an ideal I aim to achieve.

I also enjoy listening to lectures from subject experts, as with Dr. Eugene Geist, associate professor of childhood education at Ohio University, who talks here about constructivism and democratic schools in this 25 minute podcast titled How to make learning fun again.

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