Barriers to learning: Diagnosis and motivation are key. A Reflection on an excerpt from Brookfield’s Chapter One

When I was reading Chapter One in Brookfield’s (2015) book two quotes stood out for me. The first one I reflected on in a written reflection for this course (Teaching is a Messy Business) and the second one is the one I will talk about here in this post. The two quotes are:

  • “teaching is frequently a gloriously messy pursuit in which shock, contradiction and risk are endemic” (p.1)
  • “I cannot motivate anyone to learn if at a very basic level they don’t wish to. All I can do is try to remove whatever organizational, psychological, cultural, interpersonal, or pedagogic barriers are getting in the way of their learning, provide whatever modeling I can, build the best possible case for learning, and then cross my fingers and hope for the best” (p. 10).

The first sentence of the quote speaks to the fact that a student has a role in the learning too and that the student must meet the teacher halfway. I remember when I was a novice teacher struggling with a failing student, the experienced teachers would remind me that “you shouldn’t be doing more work than the student. They have to meet you halfway.”   I may wholeheartedly wish that a student succeed and believe that they can do it, but I can’t make the student put in the effort or give them the magic pill that will give them the skills and knowledge they need to pass the course. It is like the idiom “we can bring the horse to water but we cannot make him drink it.”

The second part of the quote speaks to the very complex nature of how to best motivate students to learn and that there are many things that we, as teachers, can do to help. We must be like clinicians, or nurses, as in my line of work, to investigate what the root cause is and address that first, rather than just treating the symptoms. This requires deep inquiry with the student to examine their needs and barriers. Then looking at how these can best be met within the realistic constraints of the organization, a student’s current psychological state, culture, and pedagogical stance of the course and/or program and/or institution. Where is there wiggle room to make the needed changes to best meet the needs of the student? The interpersonal relationship and the psychological barriers seem like the two barriers that may be the easier variables to address, based on the fact that the teacher and student have more control over this aspect.

Here are a couple resources that speak about the barriers to learning (you can click on them directly):


Brookfield, S.D. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


About turnera2014

I am a Nursing (RN) Instructor taking the Professional Instructor Diploma Program at Vancouver Community College in hopes to challenge my current teaching modalities and inspire me to be the best teacher I can be.
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