In one of our my first few days of studying towards my Masters of Adult Education at St. Francis Xavier University last year, our instructors asked us to pick an article out of a big binder and to prepare a presentation on it.
At the time, I was still feeling skeptical about the merits of studying educational theory, so I chose an article on this very subject by a guy named Stephen D. Brookfield. Entitled Storming the Citadel, the article was a chapter in his book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. In the article, Brookfield outlined five reasons why teachers need to read theory. Theory can help us see the big picture, it can help us think outside the box, it can help us label our challenges and affirm our insights, and it can also be a sounding board provided by contrasting perspectives.
The article blew away my long-held assumption that I didn’t need to understand all the machinations occurring in the background of my classes because I could always ask a colleague how to target anything that needed improving or fixing. You can view the presentation I gave to my class here or view the Slideshare presentation below.
Brookfield easily convinced me with his easy-to-read prose and his simply constructed arguments that I was being short sighted. So when I returned home to begin my independent studies, I was keen to read more of his work.
Yesterday, I read The Skillful Teacher, a survival guide to help educators navigate the recurring challenges that we encounter in our classrooms. What I like about this book is that it provides more than the theory behind dilemmas such as how to deal with resistant learners and understanding what students value in teachers. It also provides practical exercises and protocols to employ with students to address these problems.
Brookfield defines skillful teaching in three parts:
- It is whatever helps students learn.
- Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance towards their practice.
- It involves having constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and how they are perceiving teachers’ actions.
The first point is fairly straightforward. The second point means that teachers must constantly evaluate and research the assumptions that form our teaching practice. To do this effectively, we need to look through the eyes of our students and our colleagues as well as through the “lenses” of literature and our own autobiography.
To evaluate our assumptions through the eyes of our students, we need to understand how our students are learning and how they perceive our actions as teachers (see point three above). Brookfield provides a number of ways to do this, some of which I will certainly apply.
One method that he spends some time focusing on is the Critical Incident Questionnaire (aka CIQ), a single-page form that he hands out to students once a week at the end of the last class. It takes students five minutes to complete and it asks five questions asking about events or actions that happened in class that week. The questionnaire is anonymous. Here are the questions asked:
- At what moment in class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
- At what moment in class this week were you most distanced from what was happening?
- What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
- What action that anyone took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
- What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be about your own reactions to what went on, something that someone did, or anything else that occurs.)
Brookfield says it takes about 25 minutes to read all the questionnaires from a class of about 35 students. He follows up the following week by responding to the most common and/or provocative comments made by students.
He says the CIQs can alert teachers to problems before they become “disasters,” they can encourage students to become reflective learners, and that they build trust between students and teacher, among other uses.
Brookfield provides many other tools for other needs and challenges, including some innovative lecture organizing techniques and classroom discussion protocols to encourage more open student discourse.
I could describe these to you, but this blog is already well over my self-imposed 600-word limit. More importantly, I’d like you to take the time to read the theory so that you can not only address your classroom challenges but you’ll also understand why they are happening.
If you buy the book, you’ll be supporting Brookfield, the teacher who has taken the time to share his wisdom with us and to explain it in simple, easy-to-understand language (no dictionary required!).
And who knows? Maybe he’ll make a believer in the need to study educational theory out of you, too.