Lifestyle Articles for Self-Improvement
Teaching Critical Reflection
by David Stein
The ability to reflect critically on one's experience, integrate knowledge
gained from experience with knowledge possessed, and take action on insights
is considered by some adult educators to be a distinguishing feature
of the adult learner (Brookfield 1998; Ecclestone 1996; Mezirow 1991).
Critical reflection is the process by which adults identify the assumptions
governing their actions, locate the historical and cultural origins of
the assumptions, question the meaning of the assumptions, and develop
alternative ways of acting (Cranton 1996). Brookfield (1995) adds that
part of the critical reflective process is to challenge the prevailing
social, political, cultural, or professional ways of acting. Through
the process of critical reflection, adults come to interpret and create
new knowledge and actions from their ordinary and sometimes extraordinary
experiences. Critical reflection blends learning through experience with
theoretical and technical learning to form new knowledge constructions
and new behaviors or insights.
Learning by critical reflection creates new understandings by making
conscious the social, political, professional, economic, and ethical
assumptions constraining or supporting one's action in a specific context
(Ecclestone 1996; Mackintosh 1998). Critical reflection's appeal as an
adult learning strategy lies in the claim of intellectual growth and
improvement in one's ability to see the need for and effect personal
and system change. Reflection can be a learning tool for directing and
informing practice, choosing among alternatives in a practice setting,
or transforming and reconstructing the social environment (Williamson
1997). Can critical reflection be taught in a classroom? Does the new
knowledge created foster change? This Myths and Realities investigates
the extent to which critical reflection can be taught to adult learners.
How Do Adults Learn to Be Critically Reflective?
Without agreement on what reflective practice is, it is difficult to
decide on teaching-learning strategies. Reflective practice may be a
developmental learning process (Williamson 1997), may have different
levels of attainment (Wellington 1996), and may be affected by a learner's
cognitive ability (James and Clarke 1994), willingness to engage in the
process (Bright 1996; Haddock 1997), and orientation to change (Wellington
1996). However, there does seem to be some agreement that critical reflection
consists of a process that can be taught to adults. Brookfield (1988)
identified four processes central to learning how to be critically reflective:
assumption analysis, contextual awareness, imaginative speculation, and
reflective skepticism.Assumption analysis describes the activity adults
engage in to bring to awareness beliefs, values, cultural practices,
and social structures regulating behavior and to assess their impact
on daily activities. Assumptions may be paradigmatic, prescriptive, or
causal (Brookfield 1995).
Assumptions structure our way of seeing reality, govern our behavior,
and describe how relationships should be ordered. Assumption analysis
as a first step in the critical reflection process makes explicit our
taken-for-granted notions of reality. Contextual awareness is achieved
when adult learners come to realize that their assumptions are socially
and personally created in a specific historical and cultural context.
Imaginative speculation provides an opportunity for adults to challenge
prevailing ways of knowing and acting by imagining alternative ways of
thinking about phenomena (Cranton 1996). The outcome of assumption analysis,
contextual awareness, and imaginative speculation is reflective skepticism-the
questioning of any universal truth claims or unexamined patterns of interaction.
A similar process called expressive inquiry has been described by Willis
(1999). Critical reflection involves three stages: dispositional, contextual,
and experiential. The values, preferences, and characteristics of the
adult influencing an action is termed dispositional reflection. Contextual
reflection focuses on the cultural forces shaping an experience. Forces
might include race, gender, ethnicity, institutional policies, personal
expertise. Experiential reflection involves remembering the event as
it occurred and the associated feelings and thoughts-a revisiting of
the experience. The outcome of the process is to reveal and resolve contradictions
between expectations and reality.
Can Critical Reflection Be Taught in the Classroom?
Critical reflection is viewed by some educators as a learning strategy
that can be taught using such tools as diaries (Heath 1998; Orem 1997),
action learning groups (Williamson 1997), autobiographical stories (Brookfield
1995), and sketching (Willis 1999). However, some educators question
the usefulness of classroom teaching, citing lack of empirical data to
support claims of individual and practice improvements. A weakness in
the use of critical reflection is the lack of a consistent way to measure
the depth and outcome of critical reflection. Kember et al. (1999) developed
a scale to distinguish levels of reflection in a consistent manner. The
scale classifies statements as habitual, thoughtful, or introspective
(nonreflective) or as content, process, or premise reflection (reflective).
Although the coding scheme had acceptable interrater reliability, applications
of the code to determining the level of reflective thinking were not
Another rubric for differentiating levels of reflection has also been
designed by Wellington (1996). Five orientations were identified: immediate,
technical, deliberative, dialectic, and transpersonal. Reflection can
be a learning tool for directing practice, informing practice; choosing
among alternatives in a practice situation, or transforming and reconstructing
the practice environment. The issue here is that learners exist at each
level. Reflections are bounded by the ability of learners to confront
their individual beliefs about a situation. How effective are the tools
that may be used to help learners confront their beliefs?
Of the various tools available to educators, diary keeping or journaling
is a popular means of recording events and reactions to events (Heath
1998; Mackintosh 1998; Orem 1997; Williamson 1997). Diary writing does
have serious limitations. Writers may suffer from selective recall of
events and may be reluctant to express thoughts that others may read
(Mackintosh 1998). Learners may be unable or unwilling to confront or
seek disconfirming information about themselves or implicitly held knowledge.
Bright (1996) suggests that to be able to write reflectively, learning
to be reflexive in one's thinking is a necessary prerequisite skill, "because
it is the practitioner's understanding which is the window through which
a situation is understood and interpreted, an essential feature of 'reflective
practice' is the need for the practitioner to be aware of her own processes
in the development and construction of this interpretation. In this sense,
'reflective practice' is reflexive and involves much self-reflection
on her own practice" (p. 177). Resistance to going beyond technical
descriptions of experience as expressed in diaries may be due to lack
of writing skills, expressive skills, or the inability to confront comfortable
assumptions (Heath 1998; Orem 1997; Wellington 1996).
Description of critical incidents has also been advocated as a tool
for teaching critical reflection. Hunt (1996) taught reflective practice
processes by having learners select critical incidents arising from the
practice environment. Learners engage in a reflective practice discussion
group under the guidance of a tutor. The use of groups is essential if
implicit assumptions and practices are to become visible. However, using
reflection results in a journey for which neither the instructor nor
the learner can chart or predict the outcome. The discussion group may
provoke anxiety and inhibit learning for some. Creating a safe and structured
climate does seem to increase learner willingness to share (Haddock 1997).
Although advocating the development of reflective learning modules, Hunt
does not provide any data to suggest that learners grow in their ability
to reflect and act on newly formed knowledge constructions. Critical
reflection may result in ambiguous and unclear learning for some learners.
Graham's (1995) action learning group used small group processes to
share experiences, personal insights, and ideas among practicing nurses
and midwives. The group followed a three-phase process: preparatory,
experiential, and processing. The action learning group helped learners
associate, integrate, validate, and appropriate the new meanings produced.
Professionals participating in the group did develop new strategies for
improving professional practice. Future studies will investigate if transfer
of learning to the practice situation does occur.Reflection should help
learners make meaning out of content applied in a specific practice situation
and better understand the complexity of how one acts and might act in
a future situation. However, in a study conducted by Lee and Sabatino
(1998), reflection skills used in the classroom did not correlate with
performance on field projects. There was no significant correlation between
use of guided reflection and the learners' application of content. However,
attitudes toward guided reflection were positive. Learners indicated
that reflective practices help to connect prior experience to new content.
Mallik (1998) noted that the use of journaling and reflective discussion
groups did not move novice practitioners to deep levels of critical reflection.
Novice practitioners stayed at the technical and practical levels of
critical reflection. Guided reflection may make an interesting classroom
but it did not improve practice.
Critical reflection skills learned in the classroom may be different
from the skills needed in the everyday world (Ecclestone 1996). Perhaps
the value of classroom learning is to move learners from one orientation
to another in a developmental sequence (Wellington 1996). Instructors
must recognize the proficiency of each learner to use reflective tools
and their individual capacity for growth. Yet the question of how to
teach to different levels of critical reflection is still in need of
additional research. Is there any evidence to suggest that teaching strategies
employed in the classroom do promote critical reflection? The answer
is unclear (Ecclestone 1996; Graham 1995; James and Clarke 1994; Mackintosh
1998).Critical reflection holds out the promise of emancipatory learning,
learning that frees adults from the implicit assumptions constraining
thought and action in the everyday world. Through critical reflection,
adult learners can act on the forces creating inequality in professional
practice and in the world (Imel 1999). At an individual level, critical
reflection does bring about awareness of the need for change. Unfortunately,
the research does not indicate that critically reflective learners become
change agents. The use of critical reflection has had more success in
the classroom than in the practice world. How to bridge the transition
from classroom to practice is still a challenge for adult educators.
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New Perspectives for Teachers of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey Bass,
- Ecclestone, K. "The Reflective Practitioner: Mantra or Model for
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- Willis, P. "Looking for What It's Really Like: Phenomenology in
Reflective Practice." Studies in Continuing Education 21, no.
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Developed with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement,
U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RR93002001.ERIC Clearinghouse
on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education http://ericacve.org.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the position or policies
of OERI or the Department.
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