The Core Assumptions of Skillful Teaching

My Comments on “The Core Assumptions of Skillful Teaching”

In chapter two of The Skillful Teacher, author Stephen D. Brookfield explains that he holds four core assumptions about skillful teaching:

  1. Skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn
  2. Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice
  3. The most important knowledge that skillful teachers need to do good work is a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teacher’s actions
  4. College students of any age should be treated as adults

Assumption one “skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn” advises that teachers should adapt lessons and teaching styles to accommodate the ways in which students learn. I could really relate to Brookfield’s experience of having a lesson really engage and resonate with one group of students and then having the same lesson completely flop with a different group.

As dedicated teachers, we all come to class with the goal of helping students learn. The problem is that we cannot meet everyone’s needs all the time, and thus failure is inevitable. Still, we have to keep going. We must bring our experience, skills, instincts and the best practices of our teachers and colleagues to bring the class to life.

As an instructor at British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) students in my courses come from a “bewildering diversity of racial, class, and cultural identities” (Brookfield, 2015).

What’s more, “a significant number of the students speak English as a second language and exhibit widely varying levels in their readiness to learn, their study habits and intellectual acuity, and their previous experience in the subject” (Brookfield, 2015).

I have come to learn that what may be great for one cohort of students may not work for another. Continuous assessment of learning is required to ensure the lessons are resonating with the majority of students.

Assumption two “skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice” states that skillful teaching is informed. We must reflect on our individual teaching practice by not just making assumptions, but by also researching them to confirm with students that we are correct.

Over the last semester, I tried a new exam review process (for the mid-term exam) where students were put in to groups, assigned a chapter from the text book, and asked to create a list of key points. From there, I had each group create five questions that they would like to see on the exam. Each group wrote these on the board which created a “mind map” of the first half of the course content. I took pictures of each and posted them to the course website as a study guide.

I thought I was doing them a great favour in helping streamline the studying, and students said they felt prepared for the exam. This activity also allowed me to see which concepts students put the most importance on, and helped me design a formal assessment that reflected this.

In preparing for the final exam, I suggested to the class that we do the same (great) activity that I was so happy to have designed. To my surprise, many of the students said that they actually didn’t find the activity helpful and would prefer a different type of exam review. They simply wanted meet create a list of what they needed to study.

This scenario surprised me and forced me to critically examine my practice of preparing students for exams. I have come to the conclusion that if I am continuously self-assessing my teaching, and assessing student needs throughout the semester, that should be enough. I use pre and post assessment to find out where students are and what concepts resonate with them or need further discussion. I provide lecture notes and additional readings for them. As adult learners, I must trust that they will take this information and prepare themselves accordingly.

The third assumption is “the most important knowledge that skillful teachers need to do good work is a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teacher’s actions.” It is important for teachers to allow the class to be guided by how the students experience the classroom. To maximize learning, we must aim for a student-centred environment, as opposed to the traditional teacher-centred model.

The catch-22 here is that when a teacher asks a student for feedback on their teaching and instruction, the students may tell the teacher what they want to hear, as opposed to offering critical or honest feedback. We must understand that we are in a power position as we assign students grades; though incorrect, students may believe that the instructor alone has the power to “pass or fail” them.

As such, avenues for anonymous feedback, such as “TodaysMeet”, must be put in place to make certain students can be open and honest in their assessment of the instructor. There must be plenty of opportunity for this feedback to be provided throughout the course, as opposed to one check-in at the middle of the course and the school’s instructor assessment which is completed once the course has finished.

The fourth and last assumption for skillful teaching is that “college students of any age should be treated as adults.” I teach in a business school and although many of my students are young adults between 18-22 years-old with little on-the-job experience, I treat them as I would treat any employee, colleague or peer in the office environment. I expect students to pull their own weight, take responsibility for their learning, self-assess their work, work well with others, submit professional documents at the time agreed upon, and act respectfully in the classroom.

I respect that as adults they have many competing priorities outside of education that may take their time, focus and energy away from the course from time-to-time. I also appreciate my own limitations as an instructor and will try not to get down on myself too much when I have the occasional “off” day, or my lesson isn’t as successful at engaging the students as I would have liked it to be.

A new perspective gained from Brookfield is that students “often feel in limbo, sensing that adulthood means leaving old ideas, capacities, and conceptions of self behind as they learn new knowledge, skills and perspectives” (Brookfield, 2015). I had never really thought of this fact, but it really does make sense. This is something I will aim to embrace and respect as I see such transformations happening in the classroom.

Brookfield, S. (2015). The Skillful Teacher On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Wiley.


About robincookbondy

My name is Robin Cook Bondy and I live in Ladner, BC with my husband and three sons. I am a communications and public relations professional pursuing further education in the area of adult learning.
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