Thursday, May 31

Critical Reflection

In his book Becoming a Critical Reflective Teacher Stephen Brookfield discusses what it means to be critically reflective as a teacher. He defines reflection as hunting down and examining the assumptions we have. This is a definition that makes sense and provides a concrete model to follow. His examples though seem extreme and unrealistic. He sets up a serious of "common sense" examples that he then disproves. For instance, "It's common sense that teaching is essentially mysterious, so if we try to dissect it or understand its essence, we will kill it." Does anyone really believe that let alone think it is "common sense"?

Obviously not all reflection is critical, so what makes reflection critical? According to Brookfield, two things. First is to "understand how consideration of power undergrid, frame and distort" the processes and interactions. The second component is to "question assumption and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier but actually work against our own best long term interest."

Brookfield refers to our classrooms as "contested spaces" and discuss all the power struggles that occur in all classrooms whether they are acknowledge or not. These power struggles are a huge part of the reason we chose to homeschool. These power struggles are not only between student and teacher but among the students. It is a battle with assumptions and social norms. My first teaching assignment was in a very homogeneous school system where maybe 2% of the population was not "redneck". This is the system where I listened to one of my students (an 8th grader) tell me that there were no Jews in Virginia so telling jokes about them wasn't offensive. I knew I could not allow a child of mine to go to school system that bred such close-minded opinions.

One good point that Brookfield makes is "critically reflective teachers will make sure that they find some way of regularly seeing what they do through their students eyes." I think in some ways this is easier for us as homeschoolers and in other ways harder. As parents we know and understand our children better than a public school teacher could ever hope to so getting their perspective is easier. At the same time that closeness also makes it much much easier to "assume" we know how they see things. We need to not assume but ask.

Brookfield repeatedly instructs teachers to get inside the heads of their students as a check on how the methods are working . Sure! Great! That is an important and wonderful idea but it is not likely to happen for a public school teacher. That requires a build of trust and understanding that takes more time than a teacher with a 120 students has in 9mths. This is yet another reason to homeschool.

Apparently, critical reflection is also the"recognition of hegemonic assumptions." Hegemonic assumptions are those that seem "natural, preordained and working for their own good" but which are really bad and serve a "powerful minority interest." I certainly would want to analyze and identify these assumptions. Unfortunately, no indication is made as to how to identify these and distinguish them from ideas which are indeed natural and working well.

One of the reasons many parents homeschool is that, unlike a classroom teacher, they can cater to their child's preferred learning style and help them learn. Brookfield condemns such practices stating that "letting people stick with what comes easily to them is a form of cognitive imprisonment." The truth lies somewhere in the middle. We must challenge our children and help them stretch their minds but we should also present information to them in a way that makes sense for them.

"Critically reflective teachers ... know methods and practices imported from the outside rarely fit snugly into the contours of their classrooms." It is the rare experienced homeschooling parent that has not modified a store-bought curriculum or pulled together several different philosophies to create a personal plan for the year. It appears that more homeschooling parents are critically reflective than classroom teachers. Which came first? Do we choose to homeschool because we are critical reflective people by nature and this shows us the importance or does homeschooling lead one to be critically reflective out of necessity? I believe it is the former and this may be an interesting problem to research.

Brookfield criticizes what he calls "the 'meeting needs' rationale" Used in a public school setting it can be a justification for lowering standards or set up an impossible standard. Yet it is important and a common motivation for homeschooling. The parent with unlimited time and more varied resources can meet the different needs of their children, however many that may be. For the homeschooling parent "meeting needs" is not an impossible standard but a daily fact of life.

In closing this particular section, Brookfield lists several reasons why critical reflection is important. My reaction upon reading them was "Duh!" His wording is different than how I might say it but to me these are all obvious. I think again that is because we are already critical reflective thinkers.
  1. It helps us to take informed action
  2. It helps us develop a rationale for practice
  3. It helps us avoid self-laceration
  4. It grounds us emotionally
  5. It enlivens our classroom
  6. It increases trust

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