Tuesday, 28 August 2018

learning from theory

I like using theory as part of my critical reflections. I seem to be doing already what Brookfield describes as scholarly personal narrative (SPN) in his tenth chapter of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. But what I need to do to make it more critical is too actively search and incorporate/respond to theory that contrasts with my own understanding of my personal experience. Currently, I tend to use theory to justify my own understanding of events. Instead, Brookfield advocates to intentionally include alternative theories that help to problematize our own interpretation of our experiences. Doesn't mean that the alternatives will be correct and I will be wrong. Rather, what it does is help me critically assess my experiences and this is the point of being critically reflective. Being reflective is not useful if it simply continues to corroborate our own thinking. We need to use the literature to articulate what we understand but also to examine our experience from other points of view or other understandings of the world. This must be done courageously with an unflinching eye on what is truly happening in our classrooms.

Theory, for Brookfield, is not simply complicated and difficult text. Instead, it is simply another lens to consider our teaching and learning. For people without a critically reflective learning community, the literature can be used in their place. But also, in the context of a faculty learning community, it can help ensure that the community does not simply become mutually reinforcing of hegemony and status quo. Alternatively, it can help to nudge community members into new ways of understanding of what is occurring in our classrooms, with our students, and with ourselves in that particular teaching and learning context.

Scholarly personal narratives embed theory into the personal experience. This is what I have been trying to do with my blog: I reflect on an experience in the light of a particular paper or book I have read. The theory and the experience are woven together in an attempt to understand the experience and learn from it. We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience - to paraphrase Dewey.

Brookfield's discussion of repressive tolerance is something that I have not heard of before but have certainly observed and experienced in retrospect. By giving equal voice to all opinions and ideas, the marginalized and radical remain at the periphery. As an educator, we need to give students a voice, but we do need to rebalance the voices so that the marginal finds space to be at the centre. By tolerating all voices equally, the marginalized remains at the margins simply because their voice gets drowned out by the hegemonic and voices of the status quo. As instructors, we do have a responsibility to bring what we understand to be true to the centre: The majority voice is not always the correct voice. Repressive tolerance is found on news talk shows where journalists bring in contrasting voices to try to produce a balanced discussion even if the alternative view is ridiculous and unfounded.

Where in my classes do I inadvertently practice repressive tolerance?

Something else that Brookfield raises in this chapter is an idea that I have understood for some time. By virtue of being raised in Western Civilization, I am effectively racist and sexist. My upbringing in this culture has embedded in my thinking racist ideas and sexist views of my place in society - examples of hegemonic thinking. All I can do is be constantly vigilant and exercise inclusive thinking with action.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Learning from theory. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, (pp. 171-187). San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand.

Marcuse, H. (1969). Repressive Tolerance. In R. P. Wolff, B. J. Moore, & H. Marcuse (Eds.), A Critique of Pure Tolerance (pp. 95–137). Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

using personal experience

In his 9th chapter of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Brookfield argues that our personal experience as learners can inform our own teaching praxis. The most significant influences on how we teach are those that we experienced as students. Our favourite teachers we want to emulate, our worst teachers we ensure that we never teach in like manner. He provides a number of examples that are readily available to us as learning experiences. Brookfield notes how interesting it is that graduate students who are working as TAs do not apply their own learning experiences in their graduate courses to their TAing of their undergraduate seminars and labs. What we appreciate as students we should consider implementing in our own teaching. The same can be applied to teaching development workshops and conference sessions we attend. In addition to learning content and theory, we can also reflect on how the workshop leader or session presenter is communicating their topic to you as a learner. Are they sharing something of themselves first before they ask that you share something of yourself with the class or with a nearby stranger? In addition, do they explain the rationale for using a particular activity rather than simply speaking their thinking? What is the connection to what they are presenting to what they are asking you to do? Do you do this with your own students? This is an example that Brookfield has experienced at workshops and conferences. The point he is making is to document the situation: Where and when did the experience occur? How did it make you feel? Why do you think you had that response? How can this impact your own teaching? What might your students be experiencing in a similar situation in your own classes?

Finally, a very powerful personal experience that can inform our own teaching is to learn a new skill. This reminds us of what it is like for disciplinary novices to learn our own field of expertise. Brookfield’s analysis is that teachers who have had to struggle to master the material they are teaching typically make the best teachers of that material or skill because they have had to articulate a strategy for learning it themselves. People who have found something easy to learn and master typically do not understand, cannot empathize with others for whom the skills and concepts are difficult to grasp. This gives them insight into their students' feelings and struggles and perhaps an ability to help bridge the novice-expert gap. But, as we age and become more familiar with the material, we can become distanced from what it was like to initially confront the course material. Somehow, we need to occasionally remake our courses, remake ourselves as teachers to bring us closer to where our students are when they first enter our class, enter our course and begin to engage with our material.

As a result of instructor familiarity with the material and thus distancing from novices, peers can become valuable resources for struggling students. I may be the expert in my subject area, but I may be less able to convey ideas about how to master the material. Students who have struggled but persevered may be good mediators of instruction between the teacher (the expert) and struggling student (the novice). This is a good rationale for implementing team-based learning which depends on collaborative teamwork. Brookfield suggests that we need to remember to not always cater to students' preferred modes of learning. We do need to stretch their learning abilities. But the converse is also true - if I am always challenging students with an unfamiliar way of learning (flipping the classroom) students may become fatigued with always being required to be an independent learner.

So is there anything I can do with my own implementation of TBL in my own courses? I could take aspects of TBL and implement them at different times during the term or during a class meeting. I think what many of my students have indicated on my end of term student evaluations of teaching for the last few years is that using TBL all of the time is simply too taxing - they need an educational rest while still participating in the course. This is certainly true for more junior courses. For the most part, students have the stamina and learning ability when they reach their 4th year of undergraduate studies. Even then, I do break up the active learning in our 4th-year capstone course with two or three videos throughout the term - a relatively passive learning experience but one that could be considered to be an educational resting point. I think I need to do more of this in my more junior courses.


Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Using personal experience. In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, p 153-170. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. pp xvi, 286.

Weimer, M. (2017, February 22). When the teacher becomes the student. The Teaching Professor Blog

Weimer, M. (2017, January 25). The benefits of peer learning. The Teaching Professor Blog.

Weimer, M. (2006). The lens of experience: Wisdom of practice. In Enhancing scholarly work on teaching and learning: Professional literature that makes a difference (pp. 53–90). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.