Brookfield 2: Core Assumptions of Skillful Teaching

So… I’ve been reading through Brookfield’s “Skillful Teacher” book, and am about to lay out in a rapid-fire series of blog posts my thoughts on the contents.  I’ve already commented a bit on the first chapter in a previous post here, but let’s see if I can’t work my way a bit further through the text!

Next up then is, conveniently enough, the second chapter: The Core Assumptions of Skillful Teaching.  (These posts won’t all be presented in chapter order, or cover all the chapters equally, but hey let’s keep things simple initially, right?)  Right away I noticed that Brookfield didn’t choose to title this chapter something like “Nine Characteristics of a Great Teacher” or “The Qualities of Great Teachers” or “Top Ten Qualities of a Great Teacher“.  Instead, by referring to ‘assumptions’ rather than ‘characteristics’ or ‘qualities’, and ‘skillful’ rather than ‘great’, he tacitly acknowledges that (1) whatever he’s about to say is up for questioning debate and testing and (2) there is some level of skill that can be cultivated rather than requiring some form of inherent ‘greatness’.  The cautious scientist in me is intrigued!

In the second edition of his book, Brookfield (2006) summarizes the core assumptions he believes skillful teaching is grounded in as (1) skillful teaching being whatever helps students learn, (2) skillful teachers critically reflect on their own practice, (3) skillful teachers need a constant awareness of how students experience their learning and how they perceive their teacher’s actions, and that this is the most important item for teachers to know.  In the third edition of his book (Brookfield, 2015), he’s added a fourth assumption that “college students of any age should be treated as adults”.  The first point and that last addition are points I’d like to say a little something about…

I’ve looked in another course at John Hattie’s (2009) “Visible Learning” report, in which he examined in an enormous meta-analysis of previous research the effect sizes of a variety of interventions.  The underlying idea seemed to be to determine which interventions in the classroom would be effective in increasing student performance, and therefore worthwhile for teachers to pursue.  One big takeaway for me in reading through that report was that nearly any intervention produced a positive effect on student performance. This suggests then that Brookfield’s first assumption should amount to: “skillful teaching involves doing something!”  But as Brookfield points out, keeping in mind the goal of helping students to learn can allow teachers to become more open to trying new activities or approaches that they might otherwise avoid.  It seems the act of trying anything in the classroom, with the goal of assisting students, can suffice to enhance student performance.  Hattie (2009) suggests that one of the best predictors of student success is whether a student perceives their instructor as credible, i.e. as both competent and trustworthy.  As long as the activities undertaken in a classroom as perceived by students as having some useful reasoning behind their use (establishing competence) and as being undertaken with the goal of helping students in some way or other (building trust), the specifics don’t seem to matter!  New teachers in particular who lack a wealth of experience to help them feel confident about “what works and what doesn’t” can take some comfort in the idea that as long as you’re genuinely trying, you’ll be helping your students learn.

On the last assumption that Brookfield does not specifically state in the second edition of his book but conspicuously includes in the third edition I do have a bit to say as well.  My training is in neuroscience, and especially since I officially became “an Instructor” of adult students, I’ve become acutely aware of research into human brain development (Bennett & Baird, 2006) that indicates that humans aren’t actually mentally mature until around 30 years of age. What then does it mean for someone to be ‘adult’?  I recently attended a workshop led by Ross Laird who holds that most of our students being in their 20s means that they are not fully mature, that they are still vulnerable to stressors and insults (in the physiological sense as well as the colloquial sense of those terms), but can’t be assumed to have fully developed senses/skills of empathy, self-regulation, and the like.  Brookfield (2015) himself acknowledges that to treat college students as adults doesn’t mean telling them that they know as much as the teacher or are on equal footing with the teacher, but rather that they should be treated with respect.  That they should not “be talked down to or bossed around for no reason” (Brookfield 2015, p. 24).  In short, that teachers should be trustworthy, respectful and honest with students while being, as Brookfield (2015) puts it, “authoritative, not authoritarian” (p. 24).

So what’s my beef with Brookfield’s claim?  Where I take exception to ‘treating college students as adults’ isn’t in the idea that we should treat students with respect, nor with the idea that we should work to cultivating trust and honesty in the classroom, but with the idea that this should be unique to college students!  Why would these same principles not also apply to younger students?  There is nothing magical about the transition from high school to college; although there are procedural and lifestyle differences (e.g., once a student is legally considered an ‘adult’ their instructor is prohibited from revealing their grades to their parents), the idea that students should suddenly be treated substantially differently by their instructors seems to me rather absurd.  Instead, I would argue that all students should be treated with respect by their instructors, and that cultivating trust and honesty in the classroom is just as important for students of any age.  The specific methods used may differ – there is no doubt that there exist specific challenges to students that differ between different developmental points – but the inclusion of the single word ‘college’ in Brookfield’s (2015) fourth assumption to me sets up a false dichotomy between learning in childhood and learning in adulthood.

Well that went on a bit longer than expected!  No time for back-editing at least, just got on a roll and had more to say 😉 I’ll be curious to re-read these posts in a week and see if there’s anything about them I’d change… if they still hold up maybe this sort of rapid-fire posting will encourage me to write more often after all!

 

References

Bennett, C.M., & Baird, A.A. (2006) Anatomical changes in the emerging adult brain: a voxel-based morphometry study. Human Brain Mapping, 27 (9), 766-777. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20218

Brookfield, S.D. (2006) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S.D. (2015) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J.A.C. (2009) Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.

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