Monday, 11 June 2018

what is critically reflective teaching?

Brookfield, S. D. (2017). What is critically reflective teaching? In Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 2nd ed, p 1-19. San Francisco: CA, Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. pp xvi, 286.

I started reading this book a few weeks ago and will be blogging each chapter as I work through it.

From the preface, it appears that his first edition from 30 years ago was wildly successfully speaking to many people. This 2nd edition has been entirely re-written taking into account the impact of social media on teaching. He advocates for using four lenses to critically reflect on our teaching praxis: students’ eyes, colleagues’ eyes, theory, and personal experience. What I am going to find interesting is how critical reflection will apparently reveal whatever assumptions we hold about ourselves and our teaching and also what ideas in our environment/culture hold hegemony over our thinking, actions, and teaching. As a result, he apparently will help the reader avoid cultural suicide by inadvertently threatening colleagues as a result of challenging the culture and hegemony of current teaching practice. This is something I believe has been happening to me this past year as I continually challenge the hegemony of the lecture and passive learning. I have been experiencing this with my colleagues but of course also with my students - the instructional strategies I implement in the classroom challenge the hegemony of the lecture in students’ understanding of what it means to learn and be taught.

What an interesting 1st chapter. I started to become elated and uncomfortable at the same time. Elated, because I began to recognize issues of hegemonic thinking in my own employment as a university professor - I recognized what Brookfield was analysing. But also began to become uncomfortable at the same because, well, for the same reasons I became elated at being able to recognize in myself the issues he was describing: the hegemonic power of seeing teaching as vocation and how that creates a sense that as instructors we have to say yes to our students, say yes to service requests, yes to publishing another chapter, article or book, yes to another conference presentation. This hegemonic assumption of teaching as vocation takes over our lives and we begin to think that unless we are exhausted at the end of each and every day, then we have not attended to our teaching vocation as much as we could have and thus have let down ourselves, our students and our institutions.

Of course, Brookfield is advocating that we critically reflect on this hegemonic assumption. Is the assumption of teaching as vocation good for our students? Good for ourselves? Good for our institution? In his experience, being slaves to the hegemony of teaching as vocation leads to burn out and collapse or becoming dulled to the needs of our students, ourselves, our friends and family.

I wonder if this is specific to Western culture, in particular, North American culture or if there would be a different understanding of teaching in Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. My suspicion having spoken to colleagues teaching in other cultures is that teh USA and Canada are different and this may arise from what Brookfield identifies as the dominant ideologies of the US: positivism, democracy, militarism, capitalism, white supremacy & patriarchy. I am unclear how these would lead to teaching as a vocation, but it feels right to me. I have to think about this some more.

So that is what jumped out for me in this chapter: the hegemony of teaching as a vocation and how that co-opts our best intentions for students that ends up being what is best for the institution and not for ourselves and thus not for our students. If we don't take care of ourselves how can we care for our students?

This examination of the hegemony of teaching as vocation models how Brookfield wants his readers to understand critical reflection. Critical reflection examines the nature of power and hegemony and that is done best by considering our actions and thinking through four different lenses: our personal experience, students' voices, colleagues' voices, and theory. These different points of view or perspectives help to triangulate the issue being examined to reveal the underlying issue that is producing a particular behaviour or way of thinking.

The other thing that Brookfield considered while discussing the ideology of positivism in American culture is that it manifests itself in our teaching when we apply rubrics during our marking and grading of student work. Some things in student learning are not measurable in this way and are why I have so much trouble using rubrics. It is difficult to produce a rubric that really captures everything that you are looking for students to achieve and accomplish in the assignments we design to facilitate students' learning. Part of it I think is that students are able to surprise us with learning something valuable and insightful that we didn't plan or anticipate. This is what makes teaching and learning such an interesting and exhilarating process - there is always the possibility of students surprising us and teaching us, the teachers. Such fun!

Sometimes when students ask me for the guidelines for what they need to accomplish on an assignment or exam, what I really want to say rather than giving them the rules is - surprise me! I want students to cultivate their own curiosity and creativity. How does a teacher do that? I am hoping that developing my ability to be a critically reflective teacher will help me develop that instructional ability in myself.

One last thing to consider from this chapter. Critical reflection enables us to tease apart and examine the assumptions that we carry into our classrooms and I appreciate how Brookfield catalogues three different types of assumptions: paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal. Paradigmatic assumptions are those that essentially form our worldview. I think these will be influenced by hegemonic ideas of our prevailing culture. These are foundational assumptions. Prescriptive assumptions are all of those that include "should" in the statement. These are the assumptions we think we should have and enact but do not necessarily arise from our worldview but rather may be externally imposed (e.g. professional conduct). Finally, causal assumptions are those ideas of how things are achieved: if I do this, this will happen. If I teach this way, students will respond in this way. I think this will help me to better identify what my own unstated assumptions are coming to bear on my own teaching.