In the Skillful Teacher, Brookfield (2015) takes on a topic that I found arresting at first: ethical coercion. In this intriguing section of his book, he first discusses the work of Ian Baptiste who states that “teachers can’t help but be directive in their actions, despite avowals of neutrality or noninterference” (p. 247). This means that instructors must, at times, impose their preferences and agendas on their learners.
Sometimes, Brookfield continues, instructors should “refuse to do what [students] ask, thereby risking accusations that we are ignoring their requests”. An example that he provides concerns critical thinking – refusing “to comply with their request for the right answer, appearing to contradict the notion of responsiveness” (p. 249).
The intriguing thinker behind this view is Herbert Marcuse: “Marcuse argues that it is educationally crucial that learners be exposed to alternative, often dissenting, ideologies and perspectives, even though they do not see the necessity for this. For [Marcuse] this is the practice of liberating rather than repressive tolerance. Marcuse argues that without knowing the full range of options, viewpoints, or ideologies surrounding an issue, students cannot make a truly informed judgment as to which directions they wish to explore more deeply.” (p. 249). Brookfield then continues: “…this is the only way that teachers can ensure students will be availed of the full range of knowledge, facts and interpretations that exist on any issue.”
Learners need exposure to all available information and perspectives so that they can make informed choices about what to learn. Some of these choices might be unusual, uncomfortable, illogical at first, or completely foreign. Offering these ideas, at times contrarian approaches, and opening the discussion in class to examine these points of view offers a rich educational experience.
I was impressed by these few pages in Brookfield’s book, as I often assign case studies to my B Tech students. They work in groups on complex case studies and present their issues, assumptions, alternatives and recommendations to the class, every two weeks. A set of alternatives is evaluated, broken into components and quickly dismissed by one team; whereas one of these alternatives may be explored to its logical end by another team. I relish the moments when class presentations become heated discussions about the rights and wrongs of a particular point of view (about doing business in China, for example) and everyone in the class joins in, passionately describing why their alternative is the correct one and why their proposed recommendations form the best approach for the case study.
In my introductory courses, however, my students shy away from critical thinking, and like to return to their safe place of rote learning. By providing small examples in class of situations where they have to think beyond what they know, and make guesses (egads!) which we then can re-frame as assumptions, I hope to turn my young learners into future case study enthusiasts. That road is long – and it will take a few years – but already I sense that a few of my young students are keen to explore, to draw a line in the sand, and make a guess about a marketing direction, a business decision, and a path to new products and new successes.
Brookfield, S. D. (2015) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.