The Skillful Teacher: On Technique,
Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom
by Stephen Brookfield
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006
The second edition of a book on teaching usually attracts—and deserves—no particular separate notice. The usual stimulus for revision and republication is the Internet; a new chapter about online teaching (which is still a minority taste for the vast majority of American universities and faculty members) does little to change the overall quality and texture of the book.
But Stephen Brookfield’s new edition of The Skillful Teacher is different. The first edition appeared sixteen years ago. Though he begins by declaring that “I have not altered my conviction that the essence of skillful teaching lies in the teacher constantly researching how her students are experiencing learning and then making pedagogic decisions informed by the insights she gains from the students’ responses,” this volume constitutes a genuine re-vision of its subject matter. And yes, there is a new chapter on online teaching and learning, as well as another about teaching diverse students.
Brookfield is an unusually autobiographical expert; his discussions of teaching are self-revealing. He says that this is a book for difficult days, and throughout it runs the conviction that teaching is hard, that classes often feel like failure, that overcoming frustration is a big part of being a teacher. His preface identifies three motifs of the book: “the experiential, the inspirational, and the practical.” Trying to be inspirational, and announcing that as your aim, is a challenge for any writer. I think Brookfield succeeds.
Admittedly this is not because he has discovered secrets about the college classroom that others have not suspected. When he writes about classroom assessment techniques, they are One Minute Papers or the Muddiest Point Exercise, and he credits people like Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross as their source. He writes about lecturing without announcing a new method for doing it, and the same is true for discussions.
So why should anyone read his book? The first attraction is the humane voice, the real human presence that comes through Brookfield’s prose.
His fourth chapter is called “What Students Value in Teachers,” and (unwittingly, I suspect) it also speaks to what readers value in writers. He identifies the traits students associate with effective teachers as credibility and authenticity. Credibility may be subdivided into expertise, experience, rationale, and conviction; authenticity comprises congruence between words and actions, full disclosure, responsiveness, and personhood.
These criteria make clear that Brookfield values the teacher who openly reveals her experiences as well as her aims for the class. He writes, for instance, that both teachers and students suffer from impostorship anxiety. What is the remedy? Making the phenomenon public. This builds authenticity, as well as removing some of the student anxiety that retards learning.
Faculty members who have accepted uncritically the shibboleth that discussion is all and that a successful class is, always, one in which the students are saying something--anything--might benefit from reading Brookfield’s chapter on "Preparing Students for Discussion" (a step most of us probably ignore), with its set of conditions for “when to use discussion”:
Here, then, is a good list of reasons why to promote discussions; and he follows with the practical, including some inquiry of students about effective discussions and some practical suggestions for starting them.
Years ago I heard Stephen Brookfield speak on the importance, for teachers, of becoming learners from time to time. In his case, it involved taking swimming lessons as a middle-aged adult. His humor, his self-deprecation, most of all his acknowledgement of his own impostorship and anxieties as an adult learner, all contributed to a presentation marked by authenticity and credibility, and this book has the same shining traits.