I had to chuckle…a quick google of “Conversional Obsession” and the third hit was narcissism! “The pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes”(Wikipedia). In fairness, I don’t think they are far removed from one another. As Brookfield says, “if people are determined not to learn something, there is often little you can do to convince them that such learning is worth their effort” (p215). The trap that many of us fall into at some point in our careers is that of focussing our efforts on the learner who is clearly disengaged. We take it personally, “how on earth can this person not be interested in what I have to say, this is MY subject” we hear our overinflated (or punctured maybe) ego proclaim. And then we unleash every teaching and motivational strategy we have in our teaching arsenal, in an attempt to turn this seemingly ludicrous scenario around. This is what Brookfield calls “Conversional Obsession”.
a switch is turned on in your head. It’s as if the students have walked up to you, slapped you in the face with a glove, and challenged you to a pedagogic duel”
(I hope you now see why I found the narcissism search result amusing)
I am brimming with empathy for this subject. One of my first teaching appointments was as an instructor in the Royal Air Force’s Motivational Outreach Team (apologies if you have been subject to my waffling on a this in the past). Our job primarily was recruitment, but we achieved this by delivering workshops to all ages from 11 to 65, that taught the personal qualities that we expected to see in our candidates i.e. communication, leadership, integrity, teamwork etc. We gained good exposure (most of the time) within the public which consequently generated interest in the RAF as a career. It was an immense amount of fun. The trouble was, that most of our work was in secondary schools (11 -16 year olds in England) and colleges (16 -18). Also, we were usually the result of an over enthusiastic teacher who had given their biased opinion to the head of year, about how wonderful our classes were, OR our we had pestered the establishment until they caved and let us in. Either way, we were’t a direct part of the curriculum as far as the students were concerned, which ultimately meant that we regularly had quite the fight on our hands against blank expressions and the generally unenthused (“the great unwashed” as we would say). When I started the job, I took it personally, every time! I was inexperienced in this field, and as a leader in the military, I really wasn’t used to people not doing what I asked of them with a jump. I should point out that at until this point, I had a lifelong aspiration to become a teacher, these were my first steps after a 16 year hiatus, and I was failing miserably (in my opinion), because of the disengaged few. My classes suffered because the disengaged learner would naturally draw my attention and consequently the life from the class. Slowly, my desire and aspiration to teach diminished.
The whole design of what we delivered was upbeat, fun, and challenging, but regularly this was ruined. It wasn’t until a few months in when I realized that something had to change (bear in mind that I had minimal experience or training in teaching). I decided during a class one day “right! thats it, I’m not wasting my time anymore, these other students can gain so much more, and if then they decide to join in, then so be it. I don’t have to explain anything to their parents anyway”…guess what?…Once I gave them the choice to sit out and stopped trying to convert the ‘non-believers’, suddenly they started swallowing their spotty, teenage pride and skulking back into the activity; typically, they also became completely consumed! A few times I had to commend the student and inform their real teacher how great their participation was, like a “most improved player” award. This was a game changer for me, a real moment of realization. The feeling of failure left me because my focus was on the bigger picture, my students gained so much more and often I would end up with a full compliment of engaged and eager students, not always…but often. It was near bliss.
These are the two problems which Brookfield discusses, how “the transformation you envisage will almost never happen, leaving you feeling a failure”…check! And “the legitimate learning needs of the majority of students take second place to you efforts to prove to yourself that by winning over hardcore resisters that you’re a real teacher”…check! Many fear change and learning is a change; a change in our thought process, a transformation. Just because somebody doesn’t want to ‘learn’ doesn’t mean that they won’t learn. As the educator, I think it is key that we don’t force the matter, we have the control of the learning journey. In my experience, if we can indirectly show the learner how they can benefit, show them the relevance we so often talk about, this is a wise approach. Take a look at my students, they saw the life in the room, they felt like they should be a part of it, and then gradually integrated themselves on their own terms; the change didn’t seem as bad after all. Why should the group suffer because of one individual and some pride?
If you get “slapped in the face with a glove, and challenged…to a pedagogic duel” Say No thanks….I’ll be over here, teaching the class some cool stuff!