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Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher

By Stephen D. Brookfield
320 Pages
ISBN: 0-7879-0131-8 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Richard Kernochan

Department of Management
California State University, Northridge


I teach a required, twenty-five student seminar in strategic management. I work hard at teaching, and my evaluations are usually good. Recently I emailed a student to communicate my concern regarding her class participation. She responded as follows:

This class is not a class that students take of their own free will and if it doesn't interest me then I'm sorry. Having a huge part of our grade reflect participation is ridiculous. I believe that being forced to participate only makes the matter worse. We are all grown college students and if we want to state our opinion in class then we will. Forcing students to participate leaves the students nothing more than to completely learn how to fake a conversation with our professors.

It would be easy to dismiss this student's complaint, given its tone and uniqueness--the only one of its kind that I have ever received. But reading Stephen Brookfield's Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher gave me a very different and more useful perspective. After all, when did you last think about how your syllabus affects your students?

I preface this review by stating that I know little about educational theories and research. Thus I cannot comment on the book's contribution to its field. However, since Brookfield addresses his book to "all teachers who think about their practice"(p. xiv), I'm definitely part of his desired audience. And my conclusion, after reading his book, is that I want a copy nearby whenever I'm thinking about teaching. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher is a provocative book in the best sense. It provokes me to think deeply about my teaching: what I do and why, the assumptions I bring to it, and the changes I can make. If you agree that good teaching requires continuous improvement, then this book is a very useful means to that end.

I began the book somewhat complacently. After all, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about my teaching, so I consider myself to be a reflective teacher already. But according to Brookfield, mere reflection is insufficient. To be effective, such reflection must be critical. Here the word "critical" has multiple meanings and is key to understanding the author's approach. Normally, we feel we are critical thinkers if we make reasoned judgments and evaluate our teaching with a critic's eye. In this instance, however, it is also a code word for theories about power relationships in the classroom. European scholars are usually more sensitized to power concepts, so I was not surprised that Brookfield is an adult educator from England. And, since I have never encountered the application of power concepts to the classroom, I prepared myself to be challenged in unusual ways.

Brookfield makes another important point about critical reflection: it's a social activity. You probably know that university teachers frequently score as Introverts on the Myers-Briggs Types Indicator, meaning we prefer solitary work. We spend considerable time working alone: writing articles, designing courses, preparing classes, evaluating student work, conducting research, and so on. Consequently, when simple "reflection" implies the need for solitary thinking time, we may feel attracted to it. But Brookfield insists that "critical reflection is a social process" (p. 141). We can begin to modify and improve our teaching--another social process--only when we understand how others see and react to it.

Brookfield believes that the most effective classroom is "democratic." In democratic classrooms, the key themes or principles are equity, inclusion, and negotiation. By contrast, traditional classrooms contain expressions of power and hegemony. As teachers, we use and experience the power that arises from multiplex interactions among various stakeholders, including students, colleagues, administrators, departments, parents, and others. The power relationships in these transactions are often taken for granted, exercised unconsciously and thus invisible. How often are we mindful of our power when we "impose" our syllabus and standards of learning on our students? For myself, the answer is never--even though I was extremely sensitive to power imbalances as a graduate student. This system and many of its power relationships exist and function at an unconscious level. They are invisible, representing tacit assumptions that we do not normally recognize or acknowledge, much less question. Moreover, as a male teacher, I may be actively avoiding recognition of power relationships. Because I associate the topic of power imbalance with issues of harassment, sexual or otherwise, such a discussion is discomforting.

Whatever the reason, most power relationships are invisible. And, whether deliberate or inadvertent, this invisibility means that a truly critical perspective is rarely encountered and is difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom. Yet classrooms can only become democratic when they acknowledge the reality of power. Only if we are able to recognize the existence of these power relationships, can we move towards a new, "critical" perspective on our teaching, a perspective that enables us to create and teach in a democratic environment. Is this perspective desirable? Brookfield is, of course, in favor of it, arguing that a critical perspective enhances the effectiveness of both student and teacher. But achieving this perspective is difficult. The traditional perspective is grounded in unrecognized assumptions about the world, teaching, the classroom, and our role as teachers. To become truly critical, we must discover these assumptions.

The book suggests four avenues that we can use to realize a critical perspective on our teaching: (a) autobiography, (b) students, (c) colleagues, and (d) educational theory. It explores each of these avenues in some detail, discusses their particular strengths and weaknesses, and presents some specific techniques for creating access to their insights. Autobiography is useful, for example, to discover our assumptions and prejudices about "good" teaching as well as our personal reactions to the teaching of others. Some of these assumptions come from our personal history: how we were taught affects how we teach. Through autobiography, we gain some access to these assumptions as we describe and analyze our history. Not surprisingly however, autobiographical techniques only go so far. We also need assistance from external sources, especially our students and colleagues. Here the book includes some interesting instruments and techniques for seeing ourselves through our students' and colleagues' eyes. We can, for example, find these views in students' learning journals and learning portfolios. We can understand more about classroom dynamics through the use of the Critical Incident Questionnaire. Sympathetic colleagues can help through various collaborative approaches, including the Good Practices Audit--if we are careful to structure the conversation in ways that create positive outcomes for all. Theory is the final avenue to a critical perspective on teaching. It can help us name our problems, recognize their frequency, and find unanticipated solutions. Books like this one help us recognize our conscious and unconscious teaching assumptions. Brookfield proposes that, by using all four approaches, we can illuminate some of the darker corners in our teaching and utilize that new self-knowledge to improve. Of course, for Brookfield such improvement means creating a more democratic classroom. He warns, however, that such changes can challenge conventional wisdom and rattle existing political structures. He therefore concludes his book by cautioning his readers to use critical reflection and pedagogy with care.

On one level, this book is eminently practical. Brookfield carefully demonstrates specific techniques for fostering critical reflection and creating democratic classrooms. He writes clearly, and the instructions are simple. It is both easy and attractive to use this book for its practical suggestions. On another level, however, the practice of truly critical reflection can create considerable discomfort for both readers and their educational institutions. The neophyte will need to implement specific methods for working with individual colleagues and classes. Developing a different perspective and related teaching methods will require time for meetings with colleagues, classes and individual students. Writing an autobiography, exploring theory, and conducting relentless self-examination will consume even more time. As an Assistant Professor, I am certain that such practice would contribute much to my job satisfaction but count little towards its tenure. Moreover, in detailing the process needed for implementing critical reflection, I am reminded of Alcoholics Anonymous and its techniques for managing substance addiction. This analogy may be unexpected, but I think it is apt. In a sense, we become "addicted" to our teaching methods as our teaching matures. And we can only alter this habitual behavior through systematic and determined intervention. Whatever your reaction to this analogy, you should note that, if you fully implement the ideas in this book, the critical reflection process is likely to ruin your life as you currently know it. Brookfield suggests that you and your students will be the better for that ruination.

Only you can decide if a democratic classroom is worth the journey. If you're uncertain, take a moment and re-read my student's email. It's about power. I don't know if a democratic classroom is a good response, but critical reflection does seem to raise challenging questions. For my part, the book is useful. I have put it on a shelf nearby and refer to it often. It has an unusual perspective, useful classroom tools, interesting pedagogical suggestions, and provocative ideas. My advice? Take a risk: read this book.

The author would like to thank Dr. Cheryl Spector for her editorial assistance. A shorter version of this review was previously published in The C.E.L.T. Letter: A Publication of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (Fall 2001), California State University, Northridge. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Dr. Cynthia Desrochers, Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT).

Posted August 6, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2002 by Richard Kernochan.

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