“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.
“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: GitHub.com
“The ground zero of resistance is fear of change.” – Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher.
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
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.”
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:
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.”
lovely metaphor on how to approach teaching with a room full of young adult
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.
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.
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.
(2017) Teaching in Higher Edpodcast
#171 guest speaker on Why
Students Resist Learning. Professor of Behavioral Science at Utah
“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
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
“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.
Brookfield, S. (2014) The Skillful Teacher: On Technique,
Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom. Wiley.
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.
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.