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The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom

By Stephen D. Brookfield
Jossey-Bass
256 Pages
2000
ISBN: 0-7879-5605-8 (paperback)
$25.00

Reviewed by

Ann Schulte

Department of Education
California State University, Chico


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Stephen Brookfield describes his book The Skillful Teacher (originally published in 1990) as a "survival manual" (p. xi). After twenty years of college teaching, Brookfield shares what he has learned about not only how to do things right, but also what to do when things go wrong. He organizes the book around three themes: the experiential, the inspirational, and the practical. Within these themes, he uses real-life examples (his own and others) to inspire the passion of education and provide answers to some practical questions about college teaching.

Brookfield claims that this book differs from standard college teaching texts in that it is written from an adult education perspective and recognizes that college students are experiencing adulthood in many regards. The author intends his audience to be college teachers or even "upper-level high school teachers," but as an educator of elementary preservice teachers, I would contend that many of the ideas and suggestions Brookfield puts forth are extremely relevant for teachers at all levels of schooling. I had the same reaction to Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach (1998), also written from the perspective of a college professor.

Brookfield begins by suggesting that teachers reflect on their own experiences in school in order to gain a better understanding of their personal beliefs about learning. He then encourages teachers to use these reflections to think deeply about what they believe about good teaching. From individual reflection, Brookfield moves to the topic of student interactions. He claims teachers should recognize that students have particular beliefs about learning that have been shaped by their experiences, just as teachers do. He argues that teachers should do more to identify the assumptions their students harbor about education in order to design more appropriate learning experiences.

The middle section of the book contains useful information about various instructional strategies including creative lecturing, discussion, simulations, and role-playing. Brookfield is very articulate about the many variables a teacher might consider when using any instructional strategy. He also recognizes the importance of teaching "in the moment"--using the students' reactions to drive the instruction.

The chapters at the end of the book speak to the need for teachers to develop relationships with their students as well as their colleagues. Brookfield suggests that these relationships can lead to the communication and trust necessary for an effective learning environment. Similarly, Brookfield writes that building relationships with colleagues both inside and outside one's organization can help in navigating the political realities of college teaching. Although his examples are specific to experiences in higher education, advice such as "know your enemy" and "choose your battles carefully" can be applicable to anyone.

Although he does not use the term, I believe Brookfield's ideas resemble constructivist thinking. Constructivism refers to the theory that learners individually and socially construct meaning as they learn. This means that teachers focus on the process of learning more than the subject to be taught, and that there is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner or community of learners. Constructivism is drawn from the work of theorists such as Bruner, Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky.

Over twenty years, Brookfield learned many of the lessons we try to teach preservice teachers when they embark on a K-12 teaching career. This book would be particularly helpful for teachers who have received no formal pedagogical training. Brookfield would want them to learn from his story. The overall tone of his writing is very optimistic and encouraging. It is written in clear, understandable language. He purposely does not punctuate it with "academese" and research citations in every other sentence. This makes it more inviting than much of the scholarly literature about learning to teach.

Brookfield wrote The Skillful Teacher five years before he wrote Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (1995) (which has also been reviewed in this journal). In the latter book, he more carefully explores what it means to be critically reflective about one's teaching practice. Although The Skillful Teacher is interesting, I have found Brookfield's second book to be of much greater significance not only in learning about my own practice, but in preparing teachers to teach as well. If I were to read just one of these books, I would choose the more recent Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

Posted November 11, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2002 by Ann Schulte.

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