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Monday, August 30, 2010

Dealing with Pushback

Related to last week's topic of critiquing, I'd like to address the closely related topic of "pushback," when a student disagrees with a critique and actively resists the process. In every CLE-type advocacy course I've taught--especially the shorter courses--the faculty experience pushback. Oftentimes, one or two students seem to present problems for multiple faculty members.

The phenomenon seems to occur much less frequently in a law school environment, where students tend to treat their professors with deference. This is not to say it doesn't occur from time to time, merely that it doesn't occur as often.

I believe there are multiple causes for pushback. Some are related to the student, others to the instructor, and still others to the critiquing method or specific advice being given. Some students, for instance, push back because of the ego threat presented by an advocacy critique. Others may find the critiquing methodology objectionable. Some may disagree with the point the instructor is making, the suggested fix, or the rationale given for it. In some environments, my guess is that the student may question the instructor's qualifications or legitimacy and push back for those reasons. Inevitably there are personality conflicts.

A maxim I try to keep in mind with pushback situations is a saying from Stephen R. Covey: seek first to understand, then to be understood. I think this ties in to some of the comments that Charlie Rose and Tom Stewart made. We have to remember that we are looking for teachable moments, and we also have to assess and treat each student as an individual. My guess is that when students are included in the feedback loop--as in the coaching example Charlie gave--pushback is considerably diminished. I've discovered that in several of the pushback situations I've been involved in, a little bit of understanding can go a long way, as in, "I understand what you're trying to do. Let's work on rephrasing the question to accomplish that." Diplomacy and tact are also important.

Another way to help with pushback--especially in CLE situations--is to have multiple instructors in the room. On more than one occasion, I've felt grateful to have a colleague ride to my rescue, affirm the point I've just made, and tactfully move on to another point. I'd like to think I've done the same for some of my teaching partners as well.

I haven't always managed pushback well. I can think of some times where I wish I'd been smart enough or experienced enough to think of something different that might have made for a better teaching and learning experience.


  1. From the perspective of teaching advocacy through student trial competitions, I've found that pushback often takes a very specific form. Nearly every semester, with approximately 14 to 10 days left to prepare before the competition, one or more students will break down. This may come in the form of snapping at one another, throwing down a pen in frustration, or just a not-so-discreet trip to the bathroom for a private moment/cry. Most often those moments involve some kind of hostility directed at the coach. It is during those moments (and Chris, you are spot on here) that the maxim of "first understand then be understood" is especially useful.

    We must remind ourselves how incredibly vulnerable our students make themselves. They work hard on their skills, privately agonize over each little word, then stand up in front of their peers and hope that it is good. On the other hand, we as teachers and coaches have a far more complicated job than mere cheerleader. We need to explain, correct, encourage, reinforce and motivate all at the same time. In the competition context that task is even more complicated because growth is not always enough. You and the team are striving for objective excellence.

    Now when a student finishes their closing argument that they just stayed up till 3:00 in the morning working on, sometimes all they want is to be told it is “good”. And it may be, but that’s not our job. “Good” they can do on their own. We exist to turn “good” into “great”. But sometimes the relentlessness of our suggested improvements can be just too much to bear.

    So there comes that time in the semester, when you need to take a step back and remind them how far they have come, how much they have learned, and how effective they now are. Tom Stewart nailed it in an earlier post: we can use a student’s highly effective moments as teaching opportunities to both encourage and to explain why they were effective. It’s not just useful. It is necessary.

    Plus, you’ll never get anything done if everyone’s crying in the bathroom.

  2. I don't disagree with Adam, but sometimes a good cry is just what the doctor ordered. I have never coached a team where at some point someone did not completely lose it for a period of time. Every time that has happened the team has done well and a breakthrough occured. It is that moment when the student has a massive come apart that induces learning at the next level. The difficulty is in managing it in a way that is positive, and in not choosing students who come apart because they are either too tightly, or too loosely, wound to begin with. Adam has his finger directly on an issue that always crops up in skills courses. So much of what we do and teach is wrapped up in the personality, or sense of self, of the student and teacher. I sometimes think that one of the reasons that the academy as a whole is leery of skills training is because of the need to expose oneself to truly teach. Sometimes you have to model vulnerability as well as competency - that concept is something that most academics would abhor. When the students see you pushing, reaching, even striving for excellence it makes them hold their breath and pay attention. As a species we are drawn to the high wire act, the thrill of danger - the possibility of impending disaster that is somehow averted at the last minute. An advocate or teacher that takes on the hard task, the difficult task, entrances the audience. We are drawn to disaster averted, and we also like rubberneck when we pass an accident and go "thank God that wasn't me." These human traits make their way into the classroom. When I don't push the student that gives my pushback I always feel afterwards like I have let them down. They were acting that way because they needed something from me as their teacher. I either hadn't given it to them, or they didn't understand what I was saying. Either way I have fallen short of that mark that I set when I first started that particular teaching moment. I have watched Josh go in many times, directly into the face of that pushback. Probing, testing, understanding the human need to pushback and working through it to the problem underneath. Now I am not suggesting practicing psychology without a license. Rather I am suggesting sensitivity to those very human feelings that reside in each of us.

  3. I have to admit that I've fallen off the high wire a couple of times as a teacher. Sometimes pushback lets me know I've failed in my critique and I need to try again. I don't mind admitting to my students that I've gotten something wrong or need to start over.

    I think Adam's comments about pushback under stress are very interesting. I have a colleague who jokingly announces when she is about to have a "high-speed come-apart," which I think is an apt description of what happens to law students under stress. I agree with Charlie that these moments are ripe for breakthroughs and that sometimes it is important as a teacher to continue pushing the resistant student, to keep working in the moment, as it were.

  4. Responding to the pushbacking student is one thing - and all the above thoughts are useful, but there's also Chris'reference to responding to oneself.

    When a judge directs a retort, a criticism etc. ( well founded or not) at us in court then we have a practised response. In my case it was, "If it please your Honour" came out of my mouth while my mind was processing another language entirely.

    But that's not the same as the classroom. One student may be pushing back, but all the students are waiting for your response. So, how come the student doesn't get it? Why didn't you see it coming? Why is this happening right now when I'm tired and verging on grumpy? or, 'Why is this opinionated, arrogant, ignorant and stuck up [***] wrecking my day?

    That insight of 'first seek to understand, and then be understood', I think it's a shorthand for a 3 parter (Charlie R will be pleased!):
    1. understand where you are.
    2. understand where the student/s is/are.
    3. Now seek to be understood with reference to both the above.

    This takes a little while to achieve so perhaps the essential auto-response starter is, "Um,allow me a few moments to consider what you've just said/done".

  5. I agree with what Hugh says, but I tend to just do this - stare off into space with a slight frown, glance upwards, sigh, and then begin. By the time that sequence of events has occured I've sorted out what I want to say and the student is so nervous that if I then do a positive critique they feel as though they have won the lottery! ;)