Skillful Teaching: Core Assumptions

Stephen Brookfield is out with a third edition of The Skillful Teacher. Only a handful of books on teaching make it past the first edition so to be out with a third says something about the caliber of this publication. He notes in the preface that the first edition appeared during year 20 of his teaching career. With this edition he celebrates 45 years in the classroom. It seems more than appropriate to call the book a classic.

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Stephen Brookfield is out with a third edition of The Skillful Teacher.  Only a handful of books on teaching make it past the first edition so to be out with a third says something about the caliber of this publication.  He notes in the preface that the first edition appeared during year 20 of his teaching career.  With this edition he celebrates 45 years in the classroom. It seems more than appropriate to call the book a classic.

There's lots of new material in this third edition, certainly enough to warrant a purchase even if the first edition has a convenient place on the book shelf.  But what hasn't changed are Brookfield's core assumptions about skillful teaching.  They've stood the tests of time in his experience and that of many other skillful teachers.  As Ruth Gotian notes on the endorsement page, “You are never too junior or too senior to apply these techniques,” and that's why they merit reviewing here.

Skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn.  “At first glance this seems a self-evident, even trite truism—a kind of pedagogic Hallmark greeting card… The problem is that an activity that helps one student learn can, to other students in the same class, be confusing and inhibiting.  So taking this assumption seriously means our teaching becomes more, not less, complex.” (pp. 15-16)  This belief does add complexity to our teaching, but it can also free us from those instructional practices we think we should be doing.  For Brookfield the key question is whether what the teacher is doing is helping students learn?  If it is, then that's what the teacher should be doing.  Teaching is first, foremost, and fundamentally about learning.  It has no reason to exist otherwise.

Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice.  Critical reflection is what keeps teaching awake and alert.  “It is mindful teaching practiced with the awareness that things are rarely what they seem.” (p. 22) Teachers make assumptions all the time—about students, their learning, how well the class went—and that's not the problem.  It's when we act on those assumptions without testing their accuracy.  We assume the activity went well because students were smiling and looked engaged.  Were they?  More importantly, did that engagement promote learning?  Did the activity deepen their understanding of the content?  Did it lead them to new questions?  Those questions are best answered, not by the teacher, but by students who participated in the activity, or by colleagues who observed it from a more objective position than the teacher who designed it, implemented it, and very much wants it to work.  The activity itself should have been selected because it's been used elsewhere with positive results, or because the activity rests on premises that have been tested empirically.  This kind of reflection is critical but not in the sense of endless fault-finding.  It's a stance that re-energizes teaching and keeps teachers learning, growing, and anything but bored.

Teachers need a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teachers' actions.  “We may exhibit an admirable command of content and possess a dazzling variety of pedagogic skills, but without knowing what's going on in our students' heads that knowledge may be presented and that skill may be exercised in a vacuum of misunderstanding.” (p. 22) What Brookfield is describing here has nothing to do with student evaluations.  It's descriptive, diagnostic input that enables teachers to understand the impact of their chosen policies, practices, assignments, and instructional methods on students' efforts to learn.  It's not about what students want or what they like, but discovering what they need to help them learn.  It's about the importance of teachers keeping their fingers on the pulse of the class and responding when that heartbeat changes.

College students of any age should be treated as adults.  That's what students want.  True enough, but often the typical 18-23 year olds don't act like adults or they act like very immature adults. Could that be a reflection of how they've been treated or are being treated? Brookfield writes that students of all ages “don't like to be talked down to or bossed around for no reason, although they may be happy for the teacher to give them direction.” (p. 24) Borrowing from Paulo Freire, they want teachers to be authoritative, not authoritarian.  “They also want to be sure that whatever it is they are being asked to know or do is important and necessary to their personal, intellectual, or occupational development.” (p. 24) College is about preparing people for life, and most of the time adults aren't treated like children in life.

Brookfield is such a fine writer.  His books are warm, engaging, full of anecdotes, good ideas, and references to relevant research.  Despite the fact that most academics are readers, we don't read a lot of books on teaching.  We don't have time and we're hardly able to keep up with what's happening in our disciplines, but our teaching would be better if we did find time and used it to encounter explorations of skillful teaching like this one.

Reference:  Brookfield, S. D.  The Skillful Teacher:  On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom.  3rd Ed.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2015.