Four Core Assumptions of Skillful Teaching

“Good teaching is 1/4 preparation and 3/4 theater.”

This post is one of my assignments for the Instructor course at Vancouver Community College, PIDP 3260. Our assignment is to write about what we learned in chapter two of Stephen D. Brookfield’s book The Skillful Teacher.


Brookfield poses the following four assumptions about what makes a skillful teacher:

Skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn

Especially in adult education, we meet students with very different life experiences, motivations, and educational and cultural backgrounds, including students of different ages and students who struggle with language barriers.
Therefore we need to be conscious of the fact that we are dealing with students that have different learning styles and needs. What works for one of our students might not work for the other. In order to serve everyone in our class we need to offer different ways of presenting our material and we have to listen to our students to find out what works best for them. Frequent formative feedback opportunities offer the students and the instructor the opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of our teaching methods.

Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice

As Brookfield points out, skillful teaching needs to be contextually informed. We need to make an effort to challenge our assumptions and be flexible enough to adjust to the feedback we receive directly or indirectly from the students.

To do this we have to continually question the effectiveness of our instruction. As Brookfield points out, even experienced instructors have to evaluate if their students are learning as well as they are expected. He points out that, as we get more comfortable and experienced teachers, we lose our effectiveness if we don’t assess what our students are learning.

In Trades education, we often have the chance to follow up classroom learning with practical assessments. If the students learned everything they need during the classroom session, they should be able to apply this knowledge in the practical assessment in the shop.

I did this in a recent “Gateway to the Trades” class I taught. I introduced tools and their uses in the classroom and in the shop class later, the instructions mentioned the tools we had covered. I could see if my students recognized the tools in the shop or not. The fact that some didn’t, tells me that I have to change the way I feature these tools in class.

What I learned from this chapter of Brookfield’s book is that we can’t get too comfortable and need to adopt a constant feedback loop with our students in order to know that we are effective instructors.

I love this quote from the book:

If we simply mimic whatever teaching behaviours we endured as students (I suffered through it so now it’s your turn) this won’t produce the results we want.

S.D. Brookfield

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 teachers’ actions

We need to provide various ways for learners to tell us how they are doing. This can be formally done by using a feedback instrument, informally by asking questions, or by reading body language.

It is imperative that we are aware of cultural and personality differences. While it is most direct to ask in class how everyone is feeling, for people from some cultures it may be very rude to voice a critical opinion. In this case, the question does not only render a possibly wrong answer, but it also makes the student uncomfortable.

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Offering ways to give anonymous feedback is therefore the best way to gather accurate information.

College students of any age should be treated as adults

To me, this is the most important statement in adult education and it is the reason I am so passionate about it. Through our children, I have learned that young adults may not be fully mature in every way, but they are certainly adults and should be treated like it. A large part of our role as instructors in adult education is to prepare our students for a life relating to other adults. If we start with the assumption that they are already on the same “level” the rest is much easier.

I also experience that, contrary to high school, students in college want to be there for the most part. Most are eager to invest time and energy into their careers because they see that this is the path to their independence. Yes, some need more encouragement than others, and some need to learn more life and social skills but when we bring it down to the most basic level, all college students are adults.

I start every course with the words “Welcome to adult education”.

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