Why Critical Reflection Is Anything But Optional
“We teach who we are .”
As I read this phrase from Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, my thoughts were simultaneously “Yes!” and “Oh no…” I have seen this truth in my own practice again and again. When I take the time to ask, “Why did I do that?” I can often trace the roots back to my own identity and experiences. This is fine and even comforting when it comes from a place of wholeness, but what about those characteristics and experiences I would rather not have appear in my practice?
You may not call yourself a teacher, but I think Palmer’s statement still rings true when you replace the word “teach” with whatever you do—lead, manage, design, develop, or create. Your practice comes from your personhood. While this might seem too philosophical to be useful in your busy life, not examining this connection can be dangerous. A lack of critical reflection means you work under taken-for-granted beliefs, aka assumptions, that affect your practice, sometimes negatively. You operate as if you know what is best for a given learning situation, a group of learners, or an organizational need, instead of taking the time to understand where this apparent knowledge comes from, who it serves, how accurate it is, or if it truly is the best. Even with the most honorable intentions, your work may be inadequately adapted to the context and disconnected from your learners, potentially reducing the Return on Investment, or even harming yourself or your learners.
Stephen Brookfield, an adult education scholar who has spent significant time invested in critical reflection, defines its purpose “to help us take more informed actions so that when we do something that’s intended to help students learn it actually has that effect .” If you’re like me, this is something you truly want to happen. The first step is to understand how assumptions operate.
Brookfield (2017) defines 3 types of assumptions you need to pay attention to: paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal.
1. Paradigmatic assumptions are worldview assumptions that relate to how you see and order the world. These are the hardest to uncover because they are so fundamental to how we live our lives. A personal example is that I see learning as socially constructed and influenced by power dynamics outside the learning space.
2. Prescriptive assumptions are what you think should happen in each situation. Some of mine include:
- Teachers should seek to increase student independence through expanding their zone of proximal development.
- Teachers should challenge learner perspectives and thinking processes.
- Learners should ask critical questions to deepen their own and other’s learning.
3. Causal assumptions are related to how things work, and how you can impact those processes. One of mine is that sharing personal examples (narrative disclosure) encourages openness and vulnerability, as well as presents the teacher as a learner.
Assumptions In Practice
These assumptions, while presented separately here, are interconnected. For example, I see all persons involved in the learning process as equal (paradigmatic). Even though the teacher has the authority role, they should also be open to learning from students (prescriptive). Everyone can learn from anyone, and this makes the learning richer than if it were just coming from one person (causal).
These assumptions I hold are not necessarily wrong, but without awareness and examination, they can be problematic. Several years ago, I was mentoring some students from South Korea. I explained to them that while I might have the role and title of mentor, I wanted to respect them as equals and learn from them as well. While this was completely normal to me, I could tell they were a bit shocked and confused. As I talked with them, I realized my assumptions were quite different from theirs. They were raised in an educational system that assumed a much greater power distance in the teacher-student relationship. They should not presume me to be their equal, but treat me with special respect and honor, and avoid challenging what I said. Being aware of my own assumptions, and understanding some of theirs, helped me navigate the learning relationship more intentionally and with better results.
3 Essential Practices For Assumption Awareness
How do you become more aware of your assumptions? There are 3 key practices you can adopt.
1. Make Time
We are all busy, but growing in awareness will not happen without intentional practice. It doesn’t need to take a lot of time, but it does need to be consistent. Carve out time in a way that works for you, such as a 15-minute reflective walk at lunch, a monthly meeting with colleagues, or a daily journaling habit.
2. Be A Learner
Learners are curious. Learners explore. Learners are open. If you don’t have this posture, you won’t be open to hearing feedback even if you do try to get it.
3. Seek Feedback
Don’t wait for people to give you feedback, seek it out. Talk to your learners, ask your colleagues, and spend time in the literature with what research is saying. Ensure you are not simply listening to those you know will agree with you. Choose to seek feedback from a variety of perspectives (and in doing so, don’t forget practice #2).
Critical Questions To Get Started
Ready to get started? Here are some self-reflection questions to help you uncover your assumptions and foster more thoughtful, intentional practice. You could also use these with a colleague or in a small group.
- What are my assumptions?
- Learning is…
- Adult learners are…
- A good learning environment is inherently…
- Learning designers should…
- Teachers/facilitators should…
- Learners should…
- A successful learning experience should…
- Using ___ technique will…
- The practice of ___ creates…
- ___ is the best way to foster…
- Where did these assumptions originate?
- What have been my experiences as a learner? As a teacher? As a designer?
- Who or what do I learn from?
- How was I trained/educated in my practice?
- Who benefits from this assumption?
- Are my assumptions accurate and valid? Do any assumptions need to be adjusted? Do any assumptions need to be deconstructed?
- Who do I listen to and learn from that is different to me?
- How will I incorporate critical reflection into my practice going forward?
Putting time and energy into becoming a critically reflective practitioner is not easy, but it is worth it. As Brookfield (2017) noted, it makes it much more likely that your good intentions toward your learners produce the corresponding results. Will you think about it?
 Brookfield, S. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 Palmer, P.J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (20th anniversary ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.