…or rather, my thoughts on Brookfield’s (2006) “Responding to Resistance” chapter, wherein Brookfield discusses how to understand and ultimately deal with students’ resistance to learning. How many of our students take – or seem to take – the attitude portrayed in that comic?
And yet something seemingly irrelevant jumped out at me when I read this chapter… Is this what it’s like to have a bee in one’s bonnet? Zeroing on one thing that annoys you at the expense of everything else? My personal bee seems to be Learning Styles, that again here rear their ugly head! In this case, Brookfield (2006) mentions a “disjunction of learning and teaching styles” as a potential cause of students resisting learning (p. 219). But again, thankfully Brookfield ends by concluding that the solution is to use a variety of teaching methods, rather than relying on just one, a conclusion on which we can both agree, even if I find his reasoning for it lacking.
That out of the way, back to the topic at hand! Having tried for a while now to ferret out the potential causes for resistance in my own students, I must say it would have been useful to have the first half of this chapter at the start of my career, wherein Brookfield (2006) tried to walk his readers through some potential underlying reasons for students to be resistant to learning. On the other hand, perhaps reading through all those reasons why students might resist my efforts to help them learn anything would have put me off teaching altogether!
From my current perspective, the most interesting part of the chapter for me was the second half, appropriately entitled “Responding to Resistance”. I do like solutions, after all! I’ll skip over harping again on the reference to Learning Styles in this section too (Brookfield, 2006, p. 228), and instead zero in on the two final pieces of advice, which I’ll admit shook me a bit: “admit resistance is normal” (p. 232) and “acknowledge the right to resist” (p. 233). This returns us yet again to the issue of treating students with respect, that Brookfield addresses throughout his book. It also speaks to the importance of recognizing that our students are for the most part not yet fully developed (e.g., Bennett & Baird, 2006), in that we should recognize that it is also our responsibility as instructors to model how to recognize and evaluate the reasons behind their own resistance, rather than reflexively argue with them. Earlier in this part of the chapter, Brookfield (2006, p. 226) also supports this idea by suggesting that instructors should ask themselves whether the students’ resistance isn’t in fact justified. This requires instructors to be capable of enough self-regulation to not generate a knee-jerk response along the lines of “you should just do what I say”, but rather to engage in self-reflection and assessment of their own ideas, motives, and approaches. I constantly have to remind myself that my students are in an introductory class, and my occasional gut “we’ve been over this a million times!” reaction to some of their questions is a result of me having explained it to many different groups of students; the people standing before me in a given moment may never have heard this information before.
After all, if I truly want my students to be developing skills of critical thinking and expressing themselves clearly to others, they must be allowed to both question anything I tell them or ask them to do, and to talk about it (and, hopefully, through it) with me without fear of reprisal. On my part that means taking some responsibility myself for trying to both understand and overcome the resistance I sometimes face in my classroom. If students are resisting, for example, presenting something out loud in front of the class, are they uncomfortable speaking in public? Is it necessary for them to stand in front of everyone, or would working in a smaller group be just as useful in accomplishing the goals I have set? (With the number of students with anxiety issues I see in my classes, I personally have been favouring having students work in groups of 5-7, rather than insist they speak to an entire room.) Or if a student finds learning a particular process or list of structures particular frustrating, is it because they don’t have the background information I assume they do? Should I provide them with that information as part of the course, should I direct them to the peer tutors available at our institution, or can I develop a ‘background info’ package with independent exercises that uncertain students can use for self-directed review? (I have in fact used both the first two approaches, weaving background information into in-class discussions as well as directing students to outside sources of assistance, and am in the process of developing ‘background info’ packages.)
In the end, if we’re going to challenge students by pushing them to learn new information and develop new ways of thinking and approaching the world, we’re going to have to expect resistance from them. Recognizing the value in their resistance, in that they are questioning the world around them, and nevertheless trying to encourage them to overcome their resistance by providing them with our reasoning for asking them to do so, are both bound to make us more effective instructors and educators. Dare away!
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.
Scott, J., & Borgman, J. (2001, August 31) Zits. Retrieved from http://zitscomics.com/comics/august-31-2001/