In Chapters 16 and 17 of “The Skillful Teacher”, Brookfield creates a taxonomy of reasons for students’ resistance to learning, and then presents some approaches that instructors may take, to overcome the resistance.
Some of the factors for resistance are innate to the learners, but others are caused by the instructors’ presentation and manner in the classroom – and can easily be remedied by adding more context, slowing down, or reviewing at the volume of material that is presented in a class and cutting away the excess. I’ll present the lists here and comment a bit more below.
What can cause fear of learning? Some possible reasons why students resist learning:
- Fear of change
- The teacher is unqualified
- The learning was prescribed without any attempt to justify how acquiring that knowledge would be in the student’s own best interests
- The learning is a waste of time
- The learning is taught by an incompetent fool
- There are unreasonable demands from the part of the instructor, with
- …pedagogic misjudgments
- …broken teacher promises
- …and clear incompetence
Brookfield then lists the possible reasons why students are resisting learning:
- Poor self-image as learners
- A fear of the unknown
- A normal rhythm of learning
- A dis-junction of learning and teaching styles
- Feeling that the learning activity is irrelevant
- The level of required learning is inappropriate
- Fear of looking foolish in public
- Cultural suicide
- Lack of clarity in the teacher’s instructions
- The students’ dislike of the teacher
- The material is going too far, too fast, too soon
How can an instructor respond to this? Here are some steps that the instructor can take, when students are not taking seriously the learning that the instructor is sharing:
- Sort out the roots of resistance
- Ask yourself if the resistance is justified
- Research the students’ backgrounds
- Involve students in educational planning, when appropriate
- Use a variety of teaching methods and approaches
- Assess learning incrementally
- Check that intentions are clearly understood
- Build a strong case for learning
- Create situations in which students succeed
- Don’t push too fast
- Admit the normality of resistance
- Try to limit the negative effects of resistance
Of all the approaches, I think (5) rings most true for me. I have found that, in my 13 years at BCIT and my new instructional engagements in other universities, that “class culture” always varies. I might be very lucky, and find myself in a classroom where all my students are actively engaged in the subject matter, and they ask good questions, and engage with one another during class with points and counterpoints. This was the class that I just finished this week!
But in other classes, my students are quiet …too quiet. And they are polite, and listen carefully – but when I ask if there are any questions, …more quiet.And so I put them into groups, and assign little problems for them to work on, and all of a sudden my class is abuzz with activity and focused chatter.
The recommendation that makes me least comfortable, in Brookfield’s list above, is researching the students’ backgrounds. I don’t want to ask, I don’t want to pry. I share, a little, about myself in my classroom – and am delighted when some of my students share, a little, about themselves as well: a new part-time job, or something funny that their parents said to them. I can gather so much from their little stories. But to research the backgrounds? This goes far beyond what I feel comfortable doing, or even asking “tell me about yourself, what brought you here”. I am here teaching adults. Pushing that boundary, wanting to learn more about their context or more about their life outside of school – for my younger students as well as my oldsters – just does not feel right to me.
The key to overcome resistance to learning is to be flexible, and do what works. And if that doesn’t work – then try something else. I want my students to succeed in what I teach, I would like them to come away having learned from the 40 hours that they have spent with me in my class; and I hope that enjoyed some if not most of the proceedings.
I know that I will never be able to reach ALL my students equally, but that does not fault me from trying. I believe that creating small successes, providing clear feedback – and encouraging feedback – helps build up my students’ desire to learn, and open them up to a lifetime of learning. After all, they are in my class, that’s a good first step. And when they return the following week – that’s a good second step. My ultimate goal, in the end, is to not only foster their enthusiasm for the management of technology and marketing courses that I teach, but to foster in them a desire, a lifetime desire, to keep learning and upgrading their skills – and sharpen their sense of curiosity.
Brookfield, S. (2015). The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.