Following hot on the heels of my comments on Chapters 1 and 2 of the third edition of Brookfield’s “The Skillful Teacher” book, something struck me in Chapter 8 (Chapter 9 in the second edition), wherein Brookfield addresses some of the issues around teaching to a non-homogeneous group of students, that I just couldn’t let go: the casual mention of “learning styles” (Brookfield, 2015, p. 104).
I’ve already harped on the problems with the concept of ‘Learning Styles’ in a previous post so I won’t entirely reiterate the issues I have with it here. What I would like to address to Brookfield’s credit is that he does propose that mixing modalities – using different techniques and attempting to engage as many senses as possible during learning – as “the most obvious response to encountering educational diversity” (2015, p. 105). While I might not agree with his reasoning as it relates to the assumption that “learning styles” are a Real Thing, his suggestion to mix many different techniques and try to access as many different modalities/senses as possible when teaching is something I try to do in my own classrooms.
When I first started teaching I relied heavily on the influence of my own instructors, and was primarily lecturing to students, with lots of words on my Powerpoint slides. I have however been moving towards including more group work, adding more images to and removing more text from my presentations, and including more exercises in which students produce visual representations of major concepts. The possible danger I see now is that I enjoy some of these so much that I may be in danger of tipping the scales too far in the other direction! I find myself trying to balance group and individual work, oral and visual information and exercises, experimental or experiential and observational activities… I’m not sure there is a perfect ‘balance point’ to be found, but I have the impression that as long as there is a mixture of approaches and activities to be had in class that students who particularly enjoy one or another approach can adapt the material presented to their preferences on their own as well. Based on student feedback, some students certainly like some activities more than others, but on the whole as long as there’s something for everyone the students seem to recognize that it’s all done for their benefit and they’re generally game to play along.
Which brings me back to waaaay back in Chapter 2, where I noted that Brookfield identified the importance of instructors being trustworthy, respectful and honest with students. While presenting material in a variety of ways may be helpful and conducive to learning, such variety won’t be of much use if students don’t see the utility in it, or if it isn’t done in a respectful and open way. Although apparently lacking from the third edition (!), in the second edition of his book Brookfield in Chapter 9 (“Teaching in Diverse Classrooms”) does link these ideals with addressing the issues around diversity by recognizing that, for example, having students occasionally speak out loud in class so that they are “listened to and responded to seriously by a teacher” (Brookfield, 2006, p. 168) shows respect for students, while fostering trustworthiness in the classroom can be done in part by providing clear directions whose justification is apparent to students (Brookfield, 2006, p. 170), and/or by providing teacher demonstrations that model expected behaviour (Brookfield, 2006, p. 165).
The main point of all this for me is that a diversity of approaches in the classroom is great! But that diversity should be accompanied by thoughtful rationale. Pursuing variety just for variety’s sake risks the loss of student trust to a needlessly eccentric instructor. Instead we should aim to censure that students understand right from the start the point of all this variety and ‘mixing modalities’ in a classroom, so they’ll be most willing to participate and ultimately get the most out of their instructor’s attempts to help them learn.
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.