Classically Inclined

June 17, 2011

Book review: Becoming a critically reflective teacher – Stephen D. Brookfield

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:23 am
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I’m the sort of teacher who would very much like to think that she’s reflective – I put a lot of thought into my teaching, I view it as a continually developing process rather than a fixed artefact, I like experimenting with assessments and in-class activities. You know the sort of thing (or at least, I hope you know the sort of thing). However, my attempts to keep a reflective teaching journal have, as a rule, flopped. The one I tried to keep in  my first course ever degenerated into a list of notes of things to follow up for the next class, which isn’t a bad thing per se but doesn’t exactly merit the description of ‘reflective’. The notes I kept when I knew I was going to be presenting on a particular class in the course and its content were a bit better, but I was very focused on how the course was leading up to that one key lesson, and didn’t really think about the course more broadly, or about anything unrelated to the issues I planned to discuss in the conference paper.

Brookfield’s book seemed to promise some answers to my desire to become a critically reflective teacher, and I’m glad to say that the promise was not an empty one. Brookfield’s main premise is that critically reflective teaching is better teaching. It helps us to uncover our assumptions about teaching and how the process should work; it alerts us to underlying systems of oppression in our classrooms and how they affect both our teaching and our students’ responses to us; and it helps us stay flexible, grounded and supported in what we do. Any assumption about teaching is worth challenging – that lecturing or active learning is the best thing to do in the classroom. Each assumption has its own underlying rationale, and when we understand that, we can both explain it to other people in a convincing fashion and deal with any of the problems that it poses. Brookfield gives four lenses for critical reflection – our autobiographies as learners and teachers; our students’ eyes; our colleagues’ experiences; and theoretical literature in the fields of critical pedagogy, reflective practice and adult learning and education.

There are a number of things that I very much liked about this book, and  I am so convinced of its potential to be useful that I’ve bought my own copy. I should note that it was published in 1995, so some of his review of the literature is a little dated by this point (although the giants of Paulo Freire et al do appear – and while I’m on this topic, I’d like to thank Brookfield for articulating my issues with Friere’s approach so beautifully, but that’s another topic for another time). The first element I like is that he does a very good job of talking about the importance of grounding reflection in experience, but keeping a critical focus so you don’t get caught in an anecdote machine. The second is that he never pretends to have the perfect answer – critical reflection is a praxis to help you find the answer for the time being, but nothing is ever going to be fixed, and you are not going to be able to eliminate wider systems of social injustice in your own classroom. (If you think you can pretend they’re not there, then that’s an assumption you should sit down and question – you need to do a lot of breaking down and building up before you can get to a democratic classroom.)

I also like his emphasis on the importance of having a support culture in your critical reflection, that teaching should be something that is talked about and worked on just like we expect our students to talk about their learning and academic work. The sense of a learning community among teachers very much appealed to me, although Brookfield is quick to point out that there are severe risks involved in becoming sufficiently vulnerable to engage in significant conversations about this sort of stuff. You have to admit you’ve done things wrong, or are confused about a dynamic in your classroom, or don’t know what to do in a certain situation. In certain academic cultures, that’s the blood in the water. Critical reflection is a dangerous thing, because it rocks the boat – which is why you need a trusted community to be part of.

Of course, a lot of Brookfield’s suggestions are impractical for me at the moment, particularly anything using the lenses of our students’ eyes and our colleagues’ experiences; until I have a teaching position again, I have neither students nor colleagues. This is one reason I decided to invest in my own copy, so I would be able to refer back to some of the really quite excellent suggestions for getting inside students’ heads and finding out how they are perceiving the class. In particular, Brookfield devotes a whole chapter to discussing the Critical Incident Questionnaire (or CIQ); students anonymously fill this out at the end of the last class of each week, noting what they felt most engaged with in class over the past week, what they felt most distanced from, what action they found most affirming, what action they found most puzzling, and what about class surprised them the most. At the start of the next week, the teacher reports back on the responses and the trends they illustrated, and opens discussion about any serious issues that have turned up as group issues.

I’ve done something similiar with this in the past with an activity called the One Minute Paper, where at the end of each class students write on a notecard the clearest and muddiest point covered in class that day. That’s given me some great insight into content issues my students face, but it’s less helpful for identifying other problems with my teaching in the way Brookfield suggests the CIQ could. I’m very tempted to experiment with something along these lines next time I teach, in place of the One Minute Paper, and see what difference it makes.

The other thing I think I will be trying is Brookfield’s idea of taking the experience of attending a professional development workshop or an academic conference as a moment to reflect on my experiences as a learner (that is, someone learning new things), and to analyse my reactions to help me identify assumptions about my own teaching and implications for my teaching practice. I’ve done something similar to this before to find out how I could become a better conference speaker, but it hadn’t occured to me to turn the experience around and look at my own learning experience. I know I will be attending a conference in July, so I shall plan ahead to view this as an opportunity to follow Brookfield’s advice and do a bit of assumption-hunting. I’ll be interested to see what surfaces, but it seems as good an opportunity as any to experiment with the process. I could also think about my identity as a singer, as I will be looking for a new teacher when I return to the UK, but that might take some time, and I think trying this on a small scale first is the way forward.

I do, of course, have a couple of gripes. First, I do wish Brookfield had been a bit more explicit about pointing out that trying out just one of these critical lenses would be a perfectly good place to start. He does emphasise frequently that the process of critical reflection is slow and hard, and involves a lot of resistance from yourself and others as you start to discover things you’d really rather ignore. However, a bit more reassurance that you can start critical reflection with one tiny thing and build from there would not have gone amiss. (I am delighted that he pointed out that changing the requirements of a course halfway through, regardless of whether you think you are responding to student demand and needs, is unlikely to end well – I do sometimes get the sense that some writers forget that radically revising a course mid-stream often just isn’t practical, and major revisions of the syllabus might be best left to the next time you prepare to teach the course.)

I’m also rather sceptical of his concept of the democratic classroom, and I think that’s because in some ways it feeds into the notion of student-centred learning that has become a bit of a dominant buzzword in recent years. I have Problems with student-centred learning. Brookfield does not advocate caving in to every student whim, far from it, but the idea of creating a democratic classroom, grounded firmly in the ideas of critical pedagogy, to my mind risks losing sight of the subject you are supposed to be teaching in one’s zeal for identifying and working through the various power dynamics and intersections of oppression in your classroom. It’s a valiant aim, but I want to teach classics. I don’t think that Brookfield’s overall point about acknowledging assumptions, including ones about who gets to be dominant and the effect that has on others, is at all incompatible with a subject-centred approach to teaching, which is my favoured one; however, his discussion of the democratic classroom did occasionally fill me with a vague sense of unease, similar to that I felt when I read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

The final point I should make is that Brookfield is writing for an American environment from 1995. That said, I suspect that many of the suggestions he makes would transfer comparatively smoothly to a UK classroom, and (apart from one joking references to overheads) I didn’t notice any suggestions about using technology that would make the book unusuable or superceded – it’s aged remarkably well. So I shall look forward to trying out some of Brookfield’s recommendations, and I shall see how far it gets me.



  1. Stephen Brookfield’s writing and teaching has deeply influenced my own ontological stance as a researcher (and practitioner), and I am fortunate to have been able to study with him here and there along the way. His work with the critical incident questionnaire has also paved the foundation for my using an adapted version in nearly every class I teach. It surprised me when he even made a reference to one of my papers on the topic

    Small world, ehh, Liz?

    Comment by Jeffrey Keefer — June 17, 2011 @ 3:19 pm | Reply

    • A small world indeed! I think you’d mentioned you’d worked with Stephen Brookfield at some point, but it had gone out of my short-term memory. You’ll have to let me know if he’s ever in my neck of the woods as I’d love to hear him speak.

      If you don’t mind me asking, what adaptations did you make to the CIQ and why? What did you find they improved?

      Comment by lizgloyn — June 17, 2011 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

      • He is an amazingly engaging speaker, especially as he argues for justice and issues of concern to critical theorists for the population being served by adult and continuing education programs.

        The revised form we use is here – – we adjusted the questions to make them flow in a way that did not seem to invite complaints or dissatisfaction, which we found the original form did at times. Sometimes people do not complain unless we lead them to do something – we found this to be the situation. Additionally, we added some instructions.

        Comment by Jeffrey Keefer — June 17, 2011 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

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