The Importance of Critical Reflection in College Teaching: Two Reviews of Stephen Brookfield's Book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher

by Rosalyn M. King and Eric P. Hibbison

from Inquiry, Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 2000

© Copyright 2000 Virginia Community College System

Return to Volume 5, Number 2


Abstract
King and Hibbison review an essential text for personal and professional faculty development.

 

Stephen Brookfield’s book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (1995), models his own growth and evolvement using the reflective process.  While the book is somewhat verbose and lacks careful organization in sections, Brookfield does make excellent points about the importance of critical reflection and its use by college faculty in teaching. He also provides convincing examples from the research literature, case studies, and real-life scenarios to support his assertions of the importance of critical reflection.

The book begins with a theoretical discussion that at times becomes tangential as Brookfield interjects his personal observations and experiences.  He in fact often incorporates  “storytelling” (which is one of his recommended strategies for critical reflection) to interest and convince the reader of the merits of critical reflection.  But eventually, Brookfield moves into an interesting and pedagogical discussion of techniques and strategies for becoming more critically reflective.

There are two additional themes that seem to permeate the book: 1) that teaching is a political process and 2) that teaching can empower or oppress. Through the process of critical reflection, one can discover “the ways in which the dynamics of power invade and distort educational processes” ( Brookfield, 1995, p. 9).

 

The Meaning and Practical Utility of Critical Reflection

Chapters 1 and 2 discuss in detail his understanding of the meaning of critical reflection in teaching, its practical usefulness, and the processes necessary to begin its practice by faculty.  He begins his introduction of critical reflection by stating that teachers teach to change the world and model for their students humane justice, fairness, compassion, and understanding.

 He believes that reflection is based on looking for assumptions to guide the teacher’s thinking and behavior and to give direction, meaning, and purpose to the lives of teachers (and students) using the process. Brookfield defines three categories of assumptions: paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal (2). The paradigmatic assumptions include the conceptual framework one uses to order the world into fundamental categories.  The prescriptive assumptions include our reflective thinking processes about what should happen in specific situations. The causal assumptions include our understanding of the causal relationships and connectedness of world situations to teaching and learning. According to Brookfield, reflection becomes critical when we can begin to think about “how considerations of power undergird, frame and distort educational processes and interactions” (8)--and when we can question the assumptions and practices that may seem to make our teaching lives easier but may be counterproductive to our efforts in the long run. Brookfield calls the latter type of assumptions “hegemonic.” He believes hegemonic assumptions “are constructed and transmitted by powerful minority interests to protect the status quo that serves those interests” (15).  These hegemonic assumptions are easily embraced by teachers.  But critically reflective teachers can see them for what they are.  He states specifically: “Critically reflective teachers are alert to hegemonic assumptions.  Ideas about ‘good teaching’ that may seem obvious, even desirable, are revealed as harmful and constraining.  These teachers are able to see the insanity of aspiring to ways of teaching that, in the end, seriously threaten their own well-being” (15).

Examples are provided of erroneous assumptions and hegemonic concepts contrasted with the difference in the thinking and perspective of teachers who use critical reflection. One such example of a hegemonic concept cited by Brookfield was “vocation” which can be interpreted as suggesting that teachers should squeeze the work of two or three jobs into the space of one and how this ultimately may work against their best interest. He believes critically reflective teachers can counter such hegemonic assumptions because they are more realistic, practical, and have a wider perspective and therefore are capable of making distinctions between being overly dedicated to students to the point of being a “self-destructive workaholic.” 

Another example offered is termed the “Perfect Ten Syndrome” where teachers may become demoralized after receiving student evaluations that are less than perfect. Critically reflective teachers know that it is an error to assume that good teaching is always signaled by receipt of uniformly good student evaluations and these perfect scores do not always serve students’ interests. Brookfield believes that administrators and professionals who use the “Perfect Ten Syndrome” do so to make life easier for themselves, but it has no significant value except that of rating teachers who have the highest scores. He believes this turns professional advancement into a contest in which the winners are those that get the most students to say they like them. The contest for winners of the most favorable student evaluations is an interesting observation that indeed is the case in many institutional settings.  Moreover, we could also add the contest for course enrollment numbers, which mistakenly can be equated with good teaching. Brookfield adamantly states that administrators who use this model are “tired and burned out from making an unworkable system appear to be working” (18).

Another erroneous assumption made by many teachers is that good teachers meet all students’ needs all the time.  This is bound to leave the teacher feeling incompetent and demoralized. Brookfield believes that students do not always know their needs or have “a dangerously narrow view of their needs” (20). Some students never venture from their comfort zone of thinking, acting and learning and, as a result, are not always in the best position to judge what is in their own best interest. Critically reflective teachers know that, while it may sound compassionate and student centered to want to meet everyone’s needs, it is “pedagogically unsound and psychologically unhealthy” (21).

For Brookfield, critical reflection is important for some of the following reasons:

1.    to increase the probability that teachers will take informed actions – those that can be explained and justified to self and others;

2.       to enable  teachers to provide a rationale behind their practice which  can be crucial to establishing credibility with student;

3.       to avoid self-laceration - believing that the teacher is to blame if students are not learning;

4.       to ground teachers emotionally;

5.       to enliven the classroom by making it challenging, interesting and stimulating for students;

6.       to increase democratic trust as a result of the examples and modeling conveyed by the teacher, thereby allowing students to learn democratic behavior and a moral tone.

 

How to Become Critically Reflective and Implications for Teaching

In order to be successful in becoming critically reflective, Brookfield asserts that the teacher must use four critically reflective lenses:

1.                   the teacher’s unique autobiography as a teacher and learner, using personal self-reflection and collecting the insights and meanings for teaching;

2.                   making an assessment of one’s self through the students’ lens by seeking their input and seeing classrooms and learning from their perspectives;

3.                   by peer review of teaching from a colleague’s experiences, observations, and feedback;

4.                   by frequently referring to the theoretical literature that may provide an alternative interpretive framework for a situation. 

One reason offered by Brookfield for relying on the theoretical literature was because “it becomes a psychological and political survival necessity through which teachers come to understand the link between their private troubles and broader political processes” (38).

The implications of critical reflection on teaching are many: (1) it leads to the realization that teaching and curricula are grounded in ideology; (2) it helps teachers discover how to minimize their risk of doing damage to themselves, or at least, keeping it to a minimum; (3) it allows one to see himself or herself as constantly evolving and growing; (4) it allows teachers to create connections between educational processes, students’ experiences of learning and what they feel important concerns in their lives; (5) it contributes to the creation of more democratic learning environments because as a result of critical reflection, teachers are able to create conditions where all voices can speak and be heard in the classroom and where educational processes are genuinely open to negotiation; and, (6) finally, teachers come into their own and discover their authentic voices.

 

Engaging in Critical Conversations About Teaching

In Chapter 7, Brookfield introduces an interesting concept of engaging in critical conversations about teaching.  He believes that teachers should engage in continual dialogue with peers and colleagues about teaching.  He believes that critical conversation can be extremely threatening to many, but, if structured correctly and guided carefully, these conversations can be very valuable. Brookfield indicates that a requirement of critical conversation is a moral and political culture of openness to diverse perspectives and ideologies, as well as a respectful acknowledgment that each person has something valuable to say regardless of status or rank. Further, these conversations must take place in a mutually cooperative environment rather than a competitive one.  Toward this end, Brookfield recommends that teaching professionals form reflection groups.  These would consist of the formation of small but mutually cohesive and supportive individuals who would talk to each other about their teaching.  The establishment of ground rules would be a prerequisite for the launching of such conversations. Brookfield outlines specific ground rules for initiating critical conversations.  To facilitate start-up of these conversations, Brookfield has devised two inventories for getting critical conversations started: (1) a “reflective inventory” where participants take turns introducing themselves by answering six questions, and (2) a personal assumptions inventory, a sentence completion exercise that prompts conversation by reading out two or three of the responses. An alternative exercise is called “Putting Flesh on the Bones” where professionals are asked to think about what is meant by good teaching by answering three specific questions designed to focus on actions that embody good teaching.

 

Using Critical Incidents in Teaching in Critical Conversations About Teaching

Critical incidents are about providing descriptions of high and low moments in the practice of teaching.  These are the details of the significant incidents that stand out in the lives of teachers. In Chapter 7, Brookfield provides scenarios for teachers to reflect on.  These critical incidents include reflections on the low and high points of practice. For example, Brookfield poses the following scenario: think back over the past week or month or semester and choose an incident that made you say to yourself, “this is what makes my life as a teacher so difficult,” or “this is what teaching is really all about,” or “this is a great day in my life as a teacher.”  Not only do we need to look at and analyze the things that are difficult, we also need to celebrate the good things that happen to us and to our colleagues. Brookfield says that “we need to recognize the small victories and unexpected breakthroughs that keep us engaged in this work” (149).

Brookfield also provides strategies to assist with respectful listening, such as the circular

 response, where everyone in the circle is given an opportunity to speak. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how to structure critical conversations using three roles – storyteller, detective, and umpire.  The storyteller or one person is the focus of the conversation, the detectives are the group members who ask the critical questions, and the umpires monitor the conversational process. 

Brookfield believes that critical conversations can be effective when structured and everyone in the group is guided toward effective discussion.  While this is an interesting concept, one would need to be cautious that the activity does not turn into a psychological therapy session.

 

Reading the Literature for Reflective Practice

Brookfield devotes Chapter 10 to a discussion of the importance of reading the theoretical literature. Recognizing that many teachers often do not have much time and energy after teaching, he encourages teachers to draw from the theoretical literature on critical pedagogy, reflective practice, and adult learning and education to enhance their understanding, define their own assumptions, and draw from the practices and lessons of others.  In the literature on critical pedagogy he cites the work of scholars such as Paulo Freire, the Brazilian literacy educator, who for more than two decades has been writing about how to educate the oppressed. Brookfield believes that it is the goal of critical pedagogy to help dispel myths and the false consciousness that some students may possess.  He further believes that “critical pedagogy analyzes education as a process through which dominant social and economic groups impose values and beliefs that legitimize their own power and position of control” (p. 208). According to Brookfield, critical pedagogy becomes the vehicle that assists students in breaking the oppressive barriers, ways of thinking and behaving that have become habitual, but that are the result of values and beliefs imposed on them by the dominant society.

The literature also helps teachers to examine their own theoretical assumptions and practices and can empower teachers.  Brookfield cautions teachers, however, to keep their review of the literature in perspective.  Teachers must remember that it is people like them who produce the literature and that much of the literature represents the particular interests of those who seek to change the world in ways they find desirable.  Thus, all ideological constructs must be carefully and critically scrutinized.

Brookfield highlights the advantages of reading the literature on reflective practice.  He indicates that this body of literature describes the many approaches to practice and helps the teaching professional discover and research his or her own teaching assumptions. Further, this literature provides stories of others’ reflective experiences and processes through which one’s own teaching can be examined.

The chapter concludes with Brookfield’s discussion and overview of the literature on adult learning and education.  This body of literature is critical to understanding the student learner as well as the teacher as an adult learner.  The important role of adult education is “to help people understand and learn from their life experiences” (222). For each of the above-mentioned areas of the literature, Brookfield provides a typology of sources and authors.

 

Can Critical Reflection Be Risky Business?

Chapter 11 discusses the fact that some teachers may view critical reflection as risky or threatening.  Teachers may face political and professional risks and confront personal demons. Surprisingly, Brookfield believes that some teachers will view going public with stories about critical moments in their practice as damaging to their reputations or jeopardizing to their profession – especially if they reveal a situation in which they used poor judgment.

A major drawback or fear teachers may confront is feeling like an imposter; that is, feeling as if they do not deserve to be taken seriously as a professional because, in truth, they feel as if they do not know what they are doing.  This was an astonishing observation for this reviewer.  Brookfield cites several studies indicating that teachers have a general lack of confidence in their ability and a pervasive feeling of vulnerability and fear of being found out.  Oftentimes, this feeling of fear and inadequacy can be easily conveyed or picked up by students. As a remedy, Brookfield recommends the formation of nonthreatening reflection groups of peers that can provide support.

Another threat of becoming a critically reflective practitioner is the fear of being marginalized.  As a result of engaging in reflective thinking, these professionals may raise challenging questions, lose friends, harm their careers, or turn into institutional pariahs. Participation in critical reflection is in fact noticed and the teacher may become extremely threatening to others. “A teacher who is challenging assumptions, experimenting with different approaches, and trying to realize democratic values is an affront to those who have settled for the illusion of control and predictability.  Teachers working critically remind those who are in stasis of their own slough” (236).  Even more surprising was Brookfield’s conclusion that these teachers run the risk of their colleagues seeing them as engaged in an act of betrayal.  Many non-participating teachers believe in not rocking the boat by asking awkward questions or doing things differently.  Some colleagues are bemused and angry at being confronted with new and challenging ideas or practices. Therefore, critically reflective teachers may unknowingly alienate their colleagues. Brookfield describes it this way: “Instead of being seen as ‘one of us,’ they are now viewed as having taken on airs and pretensions, as growing too big for their boots” (237).

 Hence, reflective practice causes teachers to face the reality of the potential consequences and subsequently lose their innocence. But, if this awareness is experienced within a reflection group setting, it lessens the impact.  This loss of innocence, according to Brookfield, is absolutely necessary for the development of wisdom and central to cultivating reflective judgment. But the process of critical reflection, in spite of the risks, is transformational for the teacher and student.

 

Creating A Culture of Reflection

Chapter 12 makes recommendations for creating a culture of reflection.  This can be difficult in some institutions that believe that their mission is solely to educate students rather than to cultivate teachers.  It is reported that many institutions have tolerated critical conversations until they begin to interfere with classroom teaching time. Brookfield believes that few colleges honor and reward critical reflection as a crucial ingredient for a good teacher or scholar.

Unfortunately, Brookfield points out, there is a culture of silence in most institutions. Teachers are bound in chains of silence about the process and meaning of teaching, and very rarely will you find them talking about their teaching in a sustained or serious way. He believes discussions about teaching should include genuine dialogue about such topics as the dynamics and rhythms of classroom processes;  the daily struggle to confront unresolvable dilemmas and contradictory demands; the significance and meaning of teaching for those that teach; the strengths enjoyed or humiliations suffered as part of the teaching process; the moral, social and political undercurrents; and the importance teaching has for the teacher’s sense of self as contributor to the flow of human experience. Brookfield indicates that purposeful, deliberate and extended conversations on the above topics are rare.

Brookfield cites Richert (1992), who indicates that “teachers aren’t heard because they don’t speak.  And they don’t speak because they are part of a culture that silences them by a set of oppressive mechanisms such as overwork, low status, and an externally defined standard of performance.” Brookfield asserts that living in silence reinforces a demoralizing sense of isolation that saps any inclinations that teachers may have to raise critical questions.  Teachers are aware that asking critical questions could result in being excluded from all kinds of networks and conversations.  As a result of this, they perform self-censorship.  If the questioning of conventional wisdom is viewed by professionals as punishment or professional ostracism, then it crushes the critical spirit before it gathers strength.  This causes others to also remain servile while covertly venting their anger and frustration through various kinds of workplace sabotage (248-249). Unfortunately, according to many reports cited by Brookfield and others, this seems to be an accurate description of the current state of affairs in some higher education academic institutions.  Thus, those professionals that currently practice reflective processes are indeed courageous and could be considered “rebels.”

In actuality, the environment that currently exists is one of individualism.  Teachers are usually isolated from one another. Brookfield says that “teachers get the message that collaboration is viewed as evidence of intellectual inferiority” (249).  This is a somewhat pessimistic and negative view that perhaps occurs on some college campuses, but as evidenced by the many collaborative articles and research projects engaged in by scholars in academia throughout the world, this may be an exaggeration on Brookfield’s part.

Brookfield also believes that a reward system should be created that would encourage critical reflection.  This should be included in job applications as a prerequisite, and teachers should be rewarded through teacher-of-the-year awards and other citations of honor for practicing critical reflection.  Moreover, student evaluation forms should be redesigned to include the cognitive and emotional dynamics related to critical reflection. These student evaluations would include measures for assessing the extent to which students believed they were stretched, challenged, questioned, and introduced to alternative perspectives.  Teachers also would be required to submit critical reflection teaching portfolios that would constitute major evidence of their practice and be used in making decisions regarding promotions and tenure.  It is also recommended that institutions use administrators and other teachers as models and guides.  Again, Brookfield perhaps is too quick to suggest radical changes to institutional systems before first educating and convincing teaching professionals and institutions of the merits of critical reflection. He goes a step further by including a sample student evaluation form that includes his components of critical reflection.  Only the most serious and scholarly student would take the time to complete such an in-depth assessment form.  Further, many students would not even know how to do this level of reflection themselves.

Brookfield concludes the book by stating that his ultimate goal is for critically reflective teachers to transform the classroom and the world.  “Being aware that classrooms mirror the structures and inequities of the wider society, [critically reflective teachers] make a deliberate attempt to work democratically.  They create activities, assignments, and patterns of interaction that challenge unfair habits, competitive ethics and destructive expectations that are unthinkingly imported from the outside world” (266).

In summary, the book is an ambitious attempt to introduce new thinking and a set of strategies for critical reflection and dealing with issues related to teaching and learning in the 21st century.  This new paradigm might indeed be what is necessary to meet the needs of the new “MTV” generation of students that seem restless, anxious, exposed to technology and other media, and less interested in education in general and traditional modes of learning in particular.

Rosalyn M. King is an Associate Professor, Northern Virginia Community College, Loudoun Campus, Sterling, VA, and Chair, VCCS Northern Virginia Region, Center for Teaching Excellence.

 

Commentary II

 

Though Brookfield’s work is well grounded in theories of adult education, the practicality of the book made reading it a wondrous and transformative professional experience for me.  At first glance, because the book is so self-revealing and conversational, it may seem like armchairing; but the book is so saturated with practical ideas for teaching improvement that I bought 60 copies and gave them away to faculty whom I could interest in reading it.  This fall, perhaps 100 readers will be invited to exchange their views at a new Blackboard website being hosted by the VCCS as we re-read and try out methods from the book chapter by chapter.  Below is a partial list of some of the smarter ideas.  (Disclaimer: Yes, I see the politics of the work.  Yes, I see my colleagues working overloads to make up for their below-average pay. Yes, I see the silence and separatism imposed by forces external to teaching as well as the fear and trembling of teaching.  But, like Rosalyn, I have been bringing colleagues together for decades now and Brookfield has shown me how slow and sporadic that collegiality has been. I could be more systematic, introspective, and collegial about teaching and faculty development; henceforth, I will be, judging from the ways I’ve started getting at some of the intractable problems of my teaching since reading Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.)

 

Tools for Reflective Collegiality

1.       Conference Logs (55-58):  Do you go to professional development activities, peer conferences, and conventions with a purpose?  Do you reflect on what you’re learning while you’re there and after?  If not, usually you can; if yes, you can do so systematically and come away with something focused to share with colleagues.

2.       Teaching Logs (72-75): Reflect for a few minutes each week on your teaching, but also watch for patterns to emerge over the weeks to see sources of energy and forces of debilitation that act on you in your career.

3.       Teacher Learning Audits (75-77): This is an easy question that can yield potent realizations.

4.       Role Model Profiles (77-78):  If I stop to think about it, several current colleagues and a handful of former teachers stand out as professionals I would like to emulate in some way—and who have already influenced me in positive ways.  The same may be true for most faculty.

5.       Survival Advice Memos (78-79): Since so many of our faculty are retiring, we ought to be collecting these routinely, but all of us could take stock of our current jobs.  What’s essential to know to survive in the current configuration of your job—courses and load, committees, advising, study, club sponsorship, etc.?  What do you do to keep up—what’s your “A” list, “B” list, etc.?  What do you know in your maturity that you wish a wise and experienced colleague had told you when you first started teaching college?  What should your successor avoid in her or his thinking, actions, or assumptions?

6.       Videotaping (79-82):  Shudder! Not my favorite, but consider the information available about a single session of your teaching once you get past the shock of seeing how old you look on camera—what percentage of your class was you talking vs. students talking or writing or thinking? How did you treat the students, how did they treat you and each other?  Brookfield notes that videotaping his class led him to research why students seemed passive, even apathetic, during a class; he has learned that “much resistance is rooted elsewhere” than in factors he can control directly by going into “gestural overdrive” (81).

7.       Peer Observation (83-87): After being retrenched due partly to in-class observation by my division chair in another state, I was afraid to be “observed” in any way that might undercut my career.  During the past year, however, I have learned what good a wise colleague’s perspectives on my best lessons can be, as well as what good I can do by encouraging a new adjunct faculty member to sit in on and participate in as many of my class sessions as she wishes.  Both perspectives have been positively rewarding, collegial benefits—and have encouraged me to make wise changes to increase student learning earlier in my course.

8.       Student Learning Journals (97-101): Just as faculty can learn from patterns emerging from their reflections on teaching, so can students learn from the themes that manifest themselves as students reflect on how they are learning.  Brookfield has his students submit monthly summaries, which causes them to comment on patterns in their learning, and he reads to note such patterns and interesting contrasts, as a mentor or interested colleague.

9.       Participant Learning Portfolios (102-106):  Those monthly summaries and other data lead to an extended statement at the end of Brookfield’s course—with specific illustrations—about the ways students have found they learn best, survival advice for next year’s class, and more.

10.    Communicating Your Rationale for Your Practice (109-113): Brookfield advocates using your syllabus and other methods to keep students alerted to the pedagogical purposes of the activities you ask them to do during a course.

11.    The Critical Incident Questionnaire (chapter 6): Each week Brookfield’s students tell him anonymously (1) when they felt “most engaged” with learning activities, (2) “most distanced,” (3) what action of teacher or classmate seemed “most affirming,” (4) or most “puzzling or confusing,” and (5) what surprised them most. Students keep a copy and give him one at the end of a weekly class, which he compiles before the next class looking for “major themes” to discuss openly at the beginning of the next week. The chapter defines advantages of this important formative data and offers a case study about Brookfield’s perception of how a class went based on the views of a vocal minority and his altered perception based on the written Critical Incident Questionnaires for the week.

12.    The Good Practices Audit (chapter 8):  The chapter is devoted to explaining how a group can collaboratively discuss teaching using a Good Practices Audit, along with a “Best/Worst Experiences Matrix,” to define the boundaries of a professional discussion of college teaching—by stating the problem, analyzing teaching experiences, and making suggested solutions.  After a case study on student attrition to illustrate the Good Practices Audit, Brookfield notes the role of the discussion leader during a “GPA” to get the ideas out without critique that could squelch a viable solution.

 

Not every method that Brookfield suggested seemed easily replicable.  For instance, “Troubleshooting” (101-102) could easily turn into a gripe session only if not done in the best spirit.  Though not as formulaic as many classroom assessment technique manuals, Brookfield’s procedures could turn mechanistic if they are applied without, well, critical reflection.  All things considered, however, this book should be required reading for every faculty member who has a few years of experience, as well as every faculty developer in the state.

 

If you would like a free copy of the book, contact Eric Hibbison, Chief Chair, VCCS RCTEs at ehibbison@jsr.cc.va.us with your email address.  I will continue to try to find the funds to provide copies, as well as to keep active the Blackboard website to be launched in Fall Semester, 2000, for discussing trials of some of the methods suggested above.

Eric P. Hibbison is a Professor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Parham Campus, Richmond, VA, and Chief Chair, VCCS Regional Centers for Teaching Excellence.

                                                                     References

 

Brookfield, Stephen D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

Richert, A.E. (1992). Voice and power in teaching and learning to teach.  In L. Valli (ed.), Reflective teacher education: Cases and critiques.  Albany: State University of New York Press.