Home Up Review Powell--DCC

Critically Reflective Teaching

[Though Prof. Stephen Brookfield distributed a set of handouts when he spoke at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College on April 19, 2001, his conversation with the group present ranged across several topics in an order that he adjusted as he detected the interests and experience level of the group, most of whom were faculty developers from several colleges--Mountain Empire, Danville, JSRCC, John Tyler CC, and Piedmont Va. CC, as well as VCU.]

Starting Out

bulletSelf-disclosure is one way to put students at ease at the beginning of a course.  
bulletWhat would you want to know on the first day if you were taking a course like White-Water Rafting 101?  The answer to that question should determine what information you provide to students on the first day of your own courses.
bulletA panel of former students, especially those who were initially resistant, may be an effective opening method for reassuring new students and getting them to listen to practical advice on how to survive or prosper in your course.  When Brookfield has such a panel, he leaves the room; yes, he risks being trashed (and has been a couple of times), but more often than not students get a lot of information they need and heed it.  

The feelings of "impostership" that can arise during one's career can be eased by a gradually building expertise and trust in one's own confidence.  A similar problem may arise for students: Some students exile themselves to "Siberia" in the classroom--close to the door and far from the teacher--because they don't trust the teacher or because they prefer privacy to the glare of the front row.

Our Autobiographies as Learners

How do our own experiences as learners influence our choices when we teach?  It may determine our assumptions about whether or not students will be hostile [, whether or not to give students second chances].  Teaching, suggests Brookfield from his experience, means muddling through.  

Critical Reflection

Critical reflection is a deliberate, consistent, systematic effort to uncover assumptions.  For instance, prescriptive assumptions surface in mission statements and program documentation [and probably in course objectives].  It may be least easy to uncover paradigmatic assumptions that undergird our practice as teachers or the operation of the institution; it is most easy to notice and question causal assumptions.  For instance,

bulletAre we relaxing students or unsettling them if we admit that we don't know everything, that their experience matters, that students and teacher will discover knowledge together?  (It depends, doesn't it?  White-Water Rafting 101 probably shouldn't be a "discovery learning" course, [but many lecture courses have been turned into discovery learning courses and achieved at least less passive learning by students if not increased learning.])
bulletDoes group work foster existing social differences and benefit mostly those who bring a great deal of "social capital" to the experience, or does it level social differences and help all students to prosper?  (It depends, again. [For instance, cooperative learning strategies that make all students in a group responsible for each other's learning can help all members to survive and maybe thrive. Online communications which involve nicknames that do not reveal the gender of the sender have allowed female participants to get in their fair share and even dominate, just the opposite of the same class's performance in the on-campus segment of the course.])
bulletIs visiting small groups as they work assistance or surveillance?
bulletIs discussion inherently more democratic than lecture? (Nope; discussions can be steered to support the bias of one group, of the faculty member, or of the dominant participant(s).)

Getting Feedback and Reacting to It

Each of the "four lenses" through which we are likely to view our teaching practices--our own experiences as learners, students, colleagues, and reading the professional literature--helps us reveal the assumptions behind those practices and call them into question. 

bulletGetting feedback from students, such as by using the "Critical Incident Questionnaire," can be quick, revealing, and helpful, but it takes a veteran teacher, a secure teacher, to use [such formative feedback].  (Seems like the early years of teaching are driven by concerns over content or procedures, but later years can be more susceptible to reflection.)
bulletResponding to students' commentary on [formative feedback, such as] a CIQ may mean justifying a class activity rather than canceling it.
bulletWhen students keep a copy of their CIQs and report on them, perhaps monthly, the quality and length of such reports, with your guidance, can improve over the semester.  [See handout #28 on the "Participant Learning Portfolio.]
bulletTheory can raise cross-cultural issues.
bulletYour own autobiography as a learner and colleagues can surface other assumptions.

Sharing Your Experiences with Formative Feedback and Critical Reflection

If there is a college newsletter on teaching, a faculty member could highlight use of a CIQ and telling how it changed his or her teaching.  Publication is one way to offer modeling a use of critically reflective teaching.  Such reflection is for

bulletjustifying a teaching method
bulletshowing a diversity of responses to learning

Team-teaching is another way to cause assumptions to surface.  Brookfield has team-taught courses with colleagues from Trinidad, Vietnam, and a native American and learned differing behaviors that show respect related to discussion.  For instance, to some [including some of our American students] not answering shows respect for peers by not placing oneself before the crowd.

Interning can lead the host teacher to be more reflective, especially if feedback from the intern and open discussion after class are part of the experience.

Mentoring can also surface assumptions about teaching, but should it be a reciprocal experience? involve someone you know or a stranger? or maybe getting to know each other [as in a group of potential mentees] and then choosing a partner.

Observing each other's classes can, too.

Experiencing Critical Reflection

Handout #9 of the set Brookfield used for the workshop (with permission to copy) concerned the downside and risks.  

bulletImpostorship: The mask of command feeling may be intensified by critical reflection, but that's natural when you examine your practices.
bulletCultural Suicide: Reflective faculty can wind up in being ostracized by other faculty, just the problem that adult students can face with relatives and friends.  For prevention, role-play or imagine for yourself how to re-enter a department after an insight.  Focus on telling what happened to transform your teaching and don't offer until you are asked.  Tell your questioning process, what you've learned, not what teachers "should" or "must" learn.  [In short, focus on what teachers can replicate for themselves.]  
bulletLost Innocence: It can be a shock to learn that there is not a perfect teaching method, but that as faculty we just "muddle through."  To counter-act this shock is one way a teacher support group can help.
bulletRoadrunning: Questioning can be confusing, cause uncertainty, be demoralizing, and can cause revisions to one's old method.  A teacher support group can provide a parachute so that while you are being a sort of Wiley Coyote pursuing the impossible Roadrunner, you don't have to crash to the canyon floor of reality.
bulletIsolation vs. Community:  College teaching nationally is an isolating profession; critical reflection requires a community; it's a social process.  You need "mirrors" and emotional support.

Critical reflection isn't just for faculty but for administrators, [staff], and students, too.  At a "learning college," performance appraisal includes learning how you've learned[--for each of these groups].  But they may not credit your saying so unless you've built up "deviance credits" ["loyalty points" might be a more plausible term] by participating in and even championing administrative causes so that you can occasionally present a counter-perspective.

"Conversional Obsession" is a tendency to try saving the resistant students but diverting huge energy to the task.  The opposite flaw might be called "radical pessimism," giving up.  Both of these flaws undermine the transformative impulse. [ Critically reflective teaching, in other words, is a middle way between these tendencies.]

Critical Reflection for Students [or Anyone]

bulletis incremental: Start with exercises, e.g. scenario analysis, that cause and reveal critical thinking and raise levels over the semester.  [Other relevant exercises, listed on handout #14 and defined on the following handout page, include crisis decision simulations, heroes and villains, critical incidents, and a good practices audit--a collaborative analysis of experience.]
bulletinvolves trust-building

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