What is Learner’s Resistance All About?

What is Learner’s Resistance All About?

We have all had them in our classrooms or workshops. That dreaded group or individual that doesn’t want to be there.  They are most likely going to be disruptive and make things difficult. Something has to be done and done quick!

First thoughts and actions are to win them over and quickly. So we focus on this and start using all our classroom engagement strategies, nifty jokes, humorous stories until we exhaust our toolbox. Nothing is working so we focus more attention on the students because it is paramount that they come over to our side. Soon all energy is focused on those few students who are creating the opposition instead of the rest of the class. Now we have a bigger disruptor that those resistant students. It is us! We have sacrificed the rest of the class for this small minority. There is word for this! Brookfield calls this ‘conversion obsession’. “Conversional obsession is what happens when you become obsessed with converting a small and easily identifiable minority of hardcore, resistant students into becoming enthusiastic advocated for learning” (Brookfield, 2015, p. 215). He also warns that to try to win over the resisters puts your own self-confidence and identify as a competent teacher at risk (Brookfield, 2015). This is one of the hardest places to be as a dedicated teacher. We all can agree.

So what do we do when we are faced with resistant learner? Brookfield states, “The ground zero of Resistance to Learning is Fear of Change” Brookfield, 2015, p213). So we need to approach resistance a very different way. Understanding that resistant behaviours are a cover up for a variety of issues. There is no one-way to address resistance because it is personal and private. We will never know what is going on for another person. As instructors we see the only tip of the iceberg of someone, what they choose show us. It is important to remember that there is so much more going on below the surface of each student.

“Resistance is multi-layered and complex phenomenon which several factors intersect:

  • Poor self-image as learners
  • Fear of the unknown
  • A normal rhythm of learning
  • A disjunction of learning and teaching styles
  • Apparent irrelevance of the learning activity
  • Level of required learning is inappropriate
  • Fear of looking foolish in public
  • Cultural suicide
  • Lack of clarity in teachers’ instructions
  • Student dislike of teachers
  • Going to far, to fast”

(Brookfield, 2015, p.219)

Each encounter of resistance will require a different approach. Understanding that resistance to learning is not about bad behaviours but about fear or struggle frees us up to be empathic and responsive to solutions rather than judgemental and reactive. Remember that resistance to learning is complex and personal. Therefore the strategies to address resistance will be just as complex as the individual.

I highly recommend you read THE SKILLFUL TEACHER On Technique, Time, and Responsiveness in the Classroom by Stephen D. Brookfield. Brookfield shares his wisdom and frank account of how he has struggled and what he has learned from his years of experience


Brookfield, S. D. (2015). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom. Hoboken, NJ, United States: John Wiley & Sons.


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