In his book The Skillful Teacher, Stephen D. Brookfield writes about resistance in learners and possible ways to respond to it.

Even though college students generally choose to be in school, they might not be very interested in parts of it. In my experience, many students are looking forward to hands-on work in the workshop but show some resistance to the theory part that precedes the shop time.

As people that have chosen to help others to learn, we are often puzzled by the apparent unwillingness of our students to learn or at least the resistance to it. It helps to investigate the cause of the struggle.

Change is hard

Many if not all of us resist change. Even if we have chosen to embark on the path to mastering a skill or a program, reaching the goal will change the world we are used to. We step out of what is comfortable and resistance to this is only natural.

The ground zero of resistance to learning is the fear of change. And learning, by definition, involves change.

Stephen D. Brookfield

We don’t need to go far to explore this idea. Some may find it harder to understand than others but we all experience this uneasiness with change. Even if we know that learning the skill or finishing an assignment or going to class will bring us one step closer to reaching our goal, there is resistance.

Even though I enjoyed reading the chapters in the book, even though I enjoy writing blog posts, I still feel some resistance to completing the task in front of me today.

While I am using my own procrastination as an example, let’s see what I usually do to overcome obstacles like this.

  • My work ethic has helped me countless times in my life. I am fortunate to have grown up in a society where work ethic, rules and doing what is expected from me are strong virtues.
  • Rational thinking helps to a degree. Thinking about the consequences of not completing a task or not learning a skill can be a motivator.
  • Goals and deadlines help most people I know. Even though we often dread deadlines they help us keep track of the work that needs to be done to reach our goal.
  • Rewards help me too. An example of a reward can be pride in seeing the blog post published and others reading it. It can be the feeling of accomplishment I know I feel when I complete a task or learn a skill.


Our students may have other reasons they resist learning.

Some of my students come to the program with a very low self-image of themselves or their abilities. Our program introduces women to different skilled trades to make it easier to make an informed decision for a career path. For a woman to choose a career in the trades is still very unusual in our society. From the very beginning women feel they have to prove to everyone and themselves that they have a right to choose the career they want. That they are at least as capable as their male counterparts.

Because of this the women in our classes often start out with a very low expectations of their abilities and will need to work hard on overcoming this obstacle. This goes back to the fear of change – changing how you see yourself is a big step!

Teaching self-esteem is very important to me. It is important to make my students realize that they accomplished a step or that they mastered a skill. It is even more important to help them realize that they can accomplish something they didn’t think possible. Even discovering that one trade we learn about is not a good fit for an individual student needs to be celebrated as a success rather than a failure.

Encouraging my students to overcome their perceived limitations and helping them build their self-esteem is my most important goal.

At the beginning of a course, some students are reluctant to share what they don’t understand or to ask questions because they are afraid of looking foolish. Whatever the reasons for this, it is crucial to building a class environment where no one has to feel self-conscious. A classroom where students feel safe to express themselves will have less resistance and a more supportive atmosphere.

Brookfield wrote about a very helpful way to create the right tone. He suggests having a failure-proof task for students to do in the first class meeting. He says “success is addictive, failure demoralizing”. I like this idea a lot and will come up with these win-win situations at the beginning of every section of future courses.

Irrelevance of a learning activity

I chuckled when I read the section about resisting learning something that seems irrelevant because it reminded me of a conversation I had on social media recently.

One of my friends posted a picture like this and we have all seen similar ones.

What made it funny to me was that I had just completed a carpentry section with my class where understanding parallelograms was essential.

In adult education, we should always know the reason why we are teaching a skill. If we don’t know why something is in our curriculum, we should learn the background to understand why it is included. Leaving something in the lesson plan that has no relevance to the program or the future of our students should not remain.

Explaining the relevance of something we teach will eliminate a lot of the resistance in our learners.

Culture and learning preferences

As an immigrant, one of the strongest attributes I see in Canadian culture is multiculturalism. It is what sets us apart from all other societies I have experienced. As a multicultural society, we should be able to accommodate and appreciate each other’s uniqueness and strength. We have the opportunity to explore and learn about the differences between Indigenous cultures as well as what other settler cultures bring into the mix.

These different cultures bring different perspectives with them. In our classrooms, we meet people that were socialized in Indigenous culture with a much stronger sense of community and heritage. We have students from Asian cultures that have a different relationship with the teacher as a figure of authority. And each class may have many more backgrounds we need to explore to understand where resistance to learning may be coming from and try to adjust to it.

Photo by Alex Knight on

I may be stretching this a little but I perceive another cultural difference that may be more visible in a trades education environment than elsewhere. I see an increasing difference between students that embrace the changes technology brings into our lives and others that struggle with this change. Some students are very adept at looking things up on the internet or using apps on their phones. Others seem to be overwhelmed by this.
Some of our students choose the trades because of their assumption that there are fewer technological and other academic skills involved than in other occupations. While this is true, it is important to explain to these students that tradespeople increasingly rely on technology to do their job better and more efficiently.

Lastly, different learning preferences come into play. Some people learn better if they read a text, while others absorb the material with videos. Some can follow lectures more readily while others thrive on self-discovery. It is important to recognize this and to strive to build different modalities into our lessons. Even though we might prefer one way of teaching over the other, offering different ways of learning the material can be a big step toward students’ success.

Keeping the finger on the pulse

There are a lot more reasons that can cause resistance and if we keep searching, we will probably find more all the time.

The most important thing for effective teachers is to keep exploring what these reasons are. The better we know our students, the better we can help them learn the material they need to know and enjoy the process of learning it.

As Stephen Brookfield keeps pointing out in his book, one of the best tools for learning how our learners are experiencing our course is using frequent, anonymous evaluation sheets, evaluating the outcome and communicating to our students what we learned and how their input will affect change.

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2 thoughts on “Resistance”

  1. Wayne Broughton

    Great post! Relevance of the curriculum is especially important to keep in mind when teaching math. 🙂 And your observation of how multiculturalism is such a big part of Canadian society compared to other places is very interesting — I often take it for granted and forget that the rest of the world is not necessarily like that.

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