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Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults


by Mev Miller — April 28, 2014


In Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults, Stephen Brookfield offers specific and detailed methods for educators and trainers working with adults in various types of learning environments, such as college classrooms, corporate professional development, basic education, social movement building, and community group facilitation to name a few. Specifically, though, these methods are not simply about “what works” but rather those that address the complexities of power dynamics always existing in adult learning situations. Brookfield asserts clearly that the audience for this book will be anyone interested in teaching with the understanding how power works in the classroom. This book is for those who support empowered learners and embrace the view that teaching/learning involves critical thinking and democratic purpose.


Brookfield lays the groundwork for specific methods in the first chapter as he straightforwardly outlines the various types of power circling in the classroom. In connection to power, Brookfield also examines what it means to teach adults in various venues and broadly states that teaching is “to help someone to learn” (p. 14). His role as a teacher involves thinking about “which approaches and activities will best help that happen” (p. 16). He then explores how teaching adults is distinctive as compared to children or adolescents. These points are critical especially when he moves on to delineate the four elements that comprise powerful teaching techniques, namely power dynamics, claiming empowerment, how power works, and transparency and critique. Subsequent chapters then provide specific examples of the techniques organized through several instructional focuses: critical thinking, discussion, self-directed learning, democratic classrooms, teaching about power, and creative arts.  


In the final chapter, Brookfield explores the teachers’ own emotional landscape. Using these powerful techniques in a critical manner involves the teachers’ willingness to continually explore their own positions as embodied workers but also continually reflect on their practice. By doing this, teachers emotionally (as well as intellectually) acknowledge their power as they make their agendas and remain authentic instructors.


In the preface, Brookfield recognizes his “authorial power” and his “amassed…cultural and economic capital” (p. xi). He believes this allows him the leeway to write in the first person, use personal anecdotes, and keep citations to a minimum. Throughout the book, he offers many examples from his personal teaching experiences, especially how he presents himself to his students as a learner in past situations. The pronoun “I” is used multiple times on most pages throughout the book, and in the last several paragraphs, he again reminds us (the readers) of his authorial position and asserts he has tried to use this position for the good. Also in the preface Brookfield writes, “I hope that as you read the book you’re in a sort of conversation with me—though I admit, it’s a weird sort of conversation where one person holds forth and another only listens” (p. xi).


And so it is in this spirit that I’d like to shift from objective review writer to a more personal conversation with Stephen.  Early on, He mentions that Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults is the workbook for The Power of Critical Theory (pp. 24-25). I’m glad he brought this up. I once used Power of Critical Theory as a professional development book group text with adult basic education teachers who found it exasperating and impenetrable. Was it beyond their ability to read or think critically? I don’t think so, but the question of HOW to put theory into practice proved challenging. The early chapters of this new book provide a more accessible synthesis of the earlier book.


In my experience, teachers always want to know the how of instructional techniques and may not often take the time necessary to ponder the theory or reasoning behind what they do. However, while there will be many points for critical dialog (that I will address later), in this new book Stephen pretty consistently offers each technique within the context of an analysis of power or some dimension of critical practice. In order to avoid the trap of reducing these techniques to a “methods fetish” (Bartolomé, 1994), I would recommend that teachers using this book work with few colleagues, to support both professional development and reflective practice, and explore their own power positions as teachers/educators, and discuss how these techniques might best work in their own contexts and students. He presents examples of teacher-student power and resistance in examples such as those of b. hooks (pp. 31-32) and D. Ramdeholl and R. Wells (pp. 149-150).


In fact, there are many techniques outlined here that teachers/facilitators may already know, perhaps used by different names or slightly different adaptations for various settings.  Chalk Talk (pp. 83-84) reminded me of mind-mapping. Letter to a Second Self (pp. 108-109) and Letter to Successors (p. 116) may sound familiar to adult literacy teachers who use writing portfolios or student writing publications in their curriculum from one group of students to the next. Activists working in popular education settings may resonate with many of the techniques in Chapters Six (about power) and Seven (democratization). Many readers will recognize the CIQ (Critical Incident Questionnaire, pp. 107-109). It’s interesting to see how Stephen’s own practice has evolved over the years. His description for using the CIQ now is much different than my experience of when he used it in our Critical Pedagogy Doctoral program. The last chapter on emotions (soul-work) will be recognizable to those who have entered into the discourse of reflective practice and spiritual dimensions of adult education. There are many more examples of techniques instructors will recognize. Perhaps what makes the outline of these techniques so rich is how Stephen has included a breadth of current references (within the past 10 years) of writings, authors, and sources he referred to throughout the book. As an independent scholar without access to an academic library, it’s great to have this compendium of resources to look into.  The bibliography alone offers much to explore.


Using this book should not be a simple follow-the-recipe-exercise. As I mentioned, there are some critical questions for further dialog in Stephen’s book that will compel readers to consider how best to use the techniques in ways to make available the potential power, transformation, and democratization those procedures might have. For example, Stephen makes it clear that these techniques can be used in any kind of adult learning situation and refers broadly to what is means to teach in various contexts and social relations (p. 17). But I often found it hard to remember this as he spoke often of classrooms, a term that, for me, conjures a formal academic space. He often refers to large and small gatherings of students and many cases referred to grading, student reviews of teachers affecting tenure, or multiple sessions or reference of formal university spaces. I had to consistently remind myself that I (a professional developer, organizer, one-meeting discussion facilitator) could also successfully use these techniques. More explicit examples of using the techniques in settings outside the academic classroom could have been helpful.


Additionally, these techniques cannot be generalized to all situations. It becomes very important then, for educators, especially those without access to adequate spaces where whiteboards, elbowroom, and general supplies are consistently available, to design the techniques relevant to our own contexts. As educators know, not all activities will easily work with all groups. And “what worked” this time, may not the next. Position, condition, context, and many other factors affect how we approach different teaching/learning environments. Also, how does process intersect with content? How might these processes work differently depending on the issue or community location? Are some techniques more recommendable for use with medical students, nurses learning about new medical advancements, CNAs developing additional skills, patients managing their cancer, or community activists opposing toxic waste in their neighborhood? Most importantly, how do power dynamics adjust according to the positionality of the teacher and those of the learners? Certainly, social factors such as race, language, gender, and so remain critical but what also what about when a teacher is an outside hired consultant, or new hire, or recognized expert, or peer-to-peer or neighbor-to-neighbor community group facilitator?


I have come to appreciate my needs as a visual learner who understands better when I can see charts, graphs, and illustrations. There were times reading the book when I could have used a grid (and it would be great if someone could take this on) that outlined all the techniques Stephen includes in terms of whether they were intended for individuals, small or large groups, what kind of settings Stephen had used them in (inside/outside traditional academy), multiple session or one-time use, and other factors. These would provide useful cues and guidance to support the critical teaching/planning preparation.


Similarly, many pages cover the power of the teacher and the power of the students. Unfortunately, Stephen only briefly acknowledges the sovereign power of the institution or organizations affecting the teacher-student power dynamics. While he acknowledges this in an overarching way, it’s not always clear when he’s talking about specific methods in what ways sovereign or disciplinary power exerted by institutions impact or affect how the methods might be adjusted accordingly. While these activities may address the power dynamics in a learning space between teachers and students, how can they or when should they also present a challenge to the hegemonic institutional space? How does the democratization or empowerment within the classroom move to address systemic issues? These are still open questions for me.


Overall, I think the powerful techniques presented in the book hold promise, but only if educators honestly grapple with power dynamics and critical thought. For example, in outlining what teachers think of power (pp. 8-11), I wanted to know why Stephen took such strong reaction to the concept of empowerment, especially as he talks about loud-mouthed students (I’m sure I was one of those) and the power students choose to claim may not always be desirable. My experiences with empowerment, as a feminist educator working with women students in basic education, involved those who have traditionally be marginalized, who, when given the environment to do so, can claim their own self-agency and exercise their own sense of power.  He does talk more about and use techniques to support empowerment through the learning environment, but I wanted to take more time to explore these issues, and I hope users of these techniques will investigate how power and empowerment may be challenging. What looks undesirable to a teacher may not be morally bad but could be a healthy challenge to authority. Knowing the difference may be in dispute.


Also, Stephen talks about using stories to assist students to clarify understanding about the basic concepts of critical theory. He created a story from his own experience and plans to write additional stories, presumably from his own experiences (p. 174). I would challenge Stephen to encourage his students to write their own stories and see how they might find understandings about the theories in their own experiences. Or perhaps look to short stories by a diversity of writers to illuminate the theories. I’m confident there are many teachers of literature or social sciences who have already found these examples. Though Stephen tries to be transparent about his own power, I wonder if continually using only stories of his experiences makes the learning environment too Stephen-centric. For me, this is similar to my own experience in the doctoral program where we read critical theorists discussions about Gloria Anzaldua’s work on border crossing, but never actually read her own writing on the topic!


Finally, in the end, I was perturbed by Stephen’s final claims of power. At some point in my reading of the full book, I sometimes appreciated and admired this self-disclosure, but after awhile, I also became annoyed by how it came to feel pretentious, disingenuous, and even smug, especially in the final closing summary. His final sentence is almost confrontational, like the powerful schoolyard bully who has worked his way to being the most powerful daring us readers to take him on! I sincerely hope this was not his intent; I suspect he’s modeling how to be transparent and clear about ones power and how to use it. But it only served to anger me. He claims his authorial power because of the number of books he’s written and sold. He uses his position to claim he’s doing “good” (by writing this book in this style for the rest of us), but I do not perceive he is challenging the commodification of education or tenure/market-driven organizations, places where adults access institutional learning.  So I am distrustful. Perhaps, in this context, I would challenge Stephen to consider what is the hegemonic power you have? Where did it come from? At whose expense? And is it truly legitimate? There are many teachers out here in the field working very hard on the day to day, most who have no where near the authorial power claimed by Stephen, but who will have much to say and offer about Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults. It’s a provocative book, and one I hope will get dog-eared and discussed by teachers of adults wanting to work with and through the power dynamics in their teaching-learning environments.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 28, 2014
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17518, Date Accessed: 10/19/2017 8:46:45 AM

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About the Author
  • Mev Miller

    E-mail Author
    MEV MILLER, Ed.D. is the co-editor (with Kathleen P. King) of Our stories, ourselves: The emBODYment of women’s learning in literacy (2011) and Empowering women through literacy: Views from experience (2009), both published by Information Age Publishers. Her new article, “Creating a Community of Women in Literacy,” is available the collection Decentering the ivory tower of Academia, a journal issue of New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education (139, Fall 2013). In 2003, she founded WE LEARN (Women Expanding Literacy Education Action Resource Network), an organization still moving along (see welearnwomen.org). She currently works as a Community Resource Coordinator for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and work with the Social Equity Action Committee on the Sustainable Communities HUD grant in Rhode Island. She remains active in many feminist and lesbian community activist work.
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