A class on the defensive, which has developed resistant techniques to classroom practice, are particularly good at reading signs for their own ends.
Dorothy Heathcote, Sign (and portents?)
As someone in a teaching position, what might we do when faced with resistance?
Teachers often want to change behaviour in their students, to 'get them' to adopt certain practices . I have found it useful to believe I cannot change others. John Mason suggests:
It is always possible to resist. The adopting of cultural practices... is not actually action on the individual, but rather the acquiescence of the individual...
The choice to resist, or not to resist, comes from within. We cannot change our students, but we can try to educate a better quality of response, and explain why a better quality of response may be required.
Recurring themes in Heathcote's writing are the 'social health of the class' and 'commitment to work'. In the paper Drama as Education, she suggests various strategies, including:
I work slowly in the beginning. I do not move forward until the class is committed to the work... This is very difficult with a class of poor social health because they do not want to go slowly.
Improving the social health of a class, and thus reducing resistance, requires time, patience, skill, delicacy, honesty. It requires the formation of caring relations between teacher and students.
Watch this film of Dorothy Heathcote working with a class, especially from around 02:00 to 05:00 (and, in particular, the image below):
What strikes you about the way she interacts with the class? How might her approach break down resistance?
Whilst the teacher must care for her students, she must also have a strength, a resistance of her own - the ability to withstand - as Heathcote describes:
As a teacher, I must also have the ability not to be lessened by my students, to withstand them... One of the ways of avoiding being lessened is to refuse to give back what the pupils give you, especially if they are uncooperative. So often, it is easier to play tit- for-tat, and be lessened.
I must have the ability to withstand certain pressures. I must be able to say, 'I respect how it looks from your point of view but I'm not giving in, because I can explain why I want it my way.' It's often easier to let the children get away with it, because it's too tiring to keep battling on. But the real battle is for a higher quality of response.
This does not mean that teachers should be inflexible, or coercive, but there may be, 'A struggle for quality... to demand what children have not yet the courage or organisation to ask on their own' (John Fines, talking about Dorothy Heathcote).
Resistance may come from many places, to many sources of authority, and be of various kinds. We do not know from where and to what students may be resisting, unless we talk to them.
I recently asked some students why they resisted giving explanations and checking answers. Many students replied that just found it difficult to put things into words, or didn't know how to check. Others felt they 'knew their answer was correct as they had followed the process'.
Not necessarily resistance then, just the appearance of resistance. Without talking to these students I might have decided they were just being 'lazy'. Better instead to talk to students, to adopt a stance of confirmation; there may be simple reasons for students' apparent resistance.
When faced with resistance to a demand, we as teachers should be able to explain why such demands are being made. Giving explanations creates a narrative that helps understanding and memory. Checking answers brings our inner monitor into existence.
The source of the demand is often not the teacher themselves, although they may be the person who voices the demand. It may then be useful as a teacher to discuss with students who or what is making this demand for this level of quality.
If resistance is preventing us from moving forwards, we may need to try various strategies to improve the social health of the class. We may have to turn to others for help. I have been working with a colleague who is facing a class on the defensive, and although I do not have the 'solution' to her problems, I hope that our conversations have been helpful.
If resistance is ongoing, we may need to invoke the various authorities that are making demands of the students we teach, although ultimately I feel that we can only invite others to commit to work, we can only put things in place to help students become able to meet the demands being made of them. It is always possible to resist.