Responding to Resistance – is there a magic key?

The picture above is the face of an aircraft instrument designed to inform the pilot about the status of the aircraft in flight.  For instance, when the aircraft banks or turns towards the left, the needle moves towards the “L”.  When the needle and ball are centered as in this picture there is no change, just level flight continuing at the established heading or direction the pilot has pointed the aircraft towards.  It provides no information about altitude or compass direction.  The aircraft may be losing altitude, but this instrument does not inform you about altitude.

What does this have to do with education and resistant learners?  It is an image that speaks to a student being stuck on one path, not being resilient and not being open to learning new things because they are afraid of making a change.  And learning is change. They may be afraid to turn left, or right and get stuck within the constraints of their self image (the person they believe they are), cultural influences, how they fit into their family and social schema and the fear of moving away from the comfort of this established identity.

To be successful as a self directed learner, managing the overwhelming influence that fear brings to the table is critical.  Fear erodes intrinsic motivators that can support a student to achieve a positive outcome and complete a course or program.   Fear is identified as a factor manifesting as resistance to learning in the classroom.

In Brookfield’s “The Skillful Teacher”, 2nd ed., he explores the issue of resistant learners in the classroom. Some of his observations include:

  • Fear of change
  • Student self-image as a learner (and achiever – or not)
  • Practical use of the subject matter (does it make sense, is it grounded in reality)
  • Self-consciousness
  • Personal student cultural norms and their impact
  • Internal conflict related to personal values and education
  • Need for clarity in instruction
  • Internal commitment
  • Freedom to choose – to be engaged or not to be engaged

My list is not comprehensive, but covers the areas that resonated for me. Of these, I think the element of internal commitment is the most critical. This also speaks to the concept of intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is defined as occurring “when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.” (Coon & Mitterer, 2010)” Cherry 2015. It is related to the feelings inside an individual that makes a particular action or achievement desirable.

I think many of us are familiar with the concept of extrinsic motivation — those external influences that compel us to take a particular action or work to achieve a goal. An external motivator may be a paycheque, which positions you to pay your bills or conversely a loss i.e. if I don’t work and earn money, I won’t be able to pay for my rent.

In the context of education, extrinsic motivators such as achieving a professional certification at the end of a program are important drivers. However, I believe an individual also needs to possess the quality of persistence to achieve the goal and strong persistence is fired by intrinsic motivators.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivators affect us across our daily lives. As educators, an awareness and understanding of the role that intrinsic motivation plays in the student experience can help to shift the resistant learner to become an engaged and motivated learner.

I believe there are two important elements that impact intrinsic motivation:

  • Fear
  • Beliefs

In “The Skillful Teacher” 2nd edition, 2006, Brookfield speaks about the impact of education, and says that the learning experience is really about change. Exposure to new ideas and change brings up emotions of fear for a variety of reasons. “The basis of resistance to learning is the fear of change. Learning by definition involves change.” (p214). He also observes, “fear of looking foolish in public” (p221), “betrayal of solid, unpretentious working-class values” (p222), and “if they go past a certain point they will commit cultural suicide” (p223).

What does this mean for a teacher or trainer? My take away from the review of resistance to learning draws me back to personal beliefs that may be held by a student.  If they believe they “can”, they are right – and – if they believe they “cannot” they are also right.  The theory is whatever ever you believe, it is true, because it is what you believe.   Furthermore, the emotion of fear can cast a cloud of doubt that seems to validate your beliefs and further reinforces the individual’s self-concept wherein they believe in their ability to achieve something or acquire a new skill (or not).

A teacher who is sensitive to the emotional dynamics that run rampant in a classroom or learning environment is better positioned to effectively respond to the manifestation of fear and associated resistance to learning. “Fear” wears the cloak of resistance and can fool both student and teacher. Create a safe learning environment, be aware of cultural nuances, and establish the fundamental “cultural norms” for the classroom or learning venue at the beginning. Establish a covenant with the class that is documented and agreed to in the classroom.  Identify classroom cultural norms/acceptable behaviour and foster a respectful environment.  It will spark learning.  This was a key nugget I took away from an earlier course in the PIDP program from Instructor David Tickner. By setting the tone, agreeing as a group on acceptable conduct and reinforcing the boundaries if things were getting out of hand, David supported the class and modelled the kind of behaviour in classroom management that resonates for me today. It was one way he helped the group to develop a learning cocoon to evaporate resistance in the classroom.  It was a safe place and taking the risk to learn was ok.

For other reading on the impact of fear you may be interested in the work of Susan Jeffers, Ph.D and her description of the Five Fears at this link:



Brookfield, S. (2006). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Retrieved February 21, 2016 from By Kendra Cherry Updated December 08, 2015.

Retrieved February 21, 2016 from


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