In preparation for a professional development workshop I’m doing later this week, I’ve reread the book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen Brookfield. I remember reading the Brookfield book years ago when I first started teaching. A second edition was (finally) released in 2017 and I’ve been finding so much in the text that still resonates with me after teaching for 20+ years. For instance, early in the new version, Brookfield writes:
“One of the hardest lessons to learn as a teacher is that the sincerity of your actions has little or no correlation with students’ perceptions of your effectiveness. The cultural, psychological, cognitive, and political complexities of learning mean that teaching is never innocent. By that I mean that you never be sure of the effect you’re having on students or the meanings people take from your words and actions. Things are always more complicated than they at first appear.” (p. 2)
That’s powerful stuff. I’ve written about these concepts over the years on this blog, especially with how I’ve transitioned from focusing on my actions as instructors to focusing more on my interactions with my students. But Brookfield adds another aspect to this. Our effectiveness as teachers has little to do with our intentions and sincerity and more to do with how our teaching is perceived by the students we serve. If you read further in the book, however, Brookfield offers additional lenses that are important for assessing our effectiveness as teachers. I thought I’d spend a little time unpacking all of these lenses with the hope of fostering more “critically reflective” practice and encouraging us to explore additional data to inform our roles as teachers.
- Students Eyes: Earlier this year, I advised readers to conduct regular student evaluations so they could monitor fluctuations in students’ perceptions. But student evaluations aren’t the only way to assess students’ perceptions of our teaching. Seeking formative feedback from students during the course of the semester is much more proactive than trying to address evaluations after the semester has ended. Asking critical questions like “At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?” or “At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?” can provide much more valuable insight into our teaching than asking “Do you have any questions?” or “How is it going?”
- Colleagues Perceptions: Our colleagues can offer a powerful lens for us as teachers. In a way, they can serve as an ethnographer to detail the social and cultural aspects of our classrooms. The challenge, however, is that the real impact of these functions occurs through trust, collegiality and a shared mission for becoming more effective.
- Personal Experience: Teaching is a highly personal activity. It is informed by our own experiences as learners and our experiences as instructors. The challenge with this lens, however, is that we assume our experiences are the same as those of our students. While our personal experiences can inform our roles as teachers, we have to be careful that those experiences don’t create blinders to limit our field of vision on our teaching.
- Theory and Research: This is the lens that I’ve drawn upon a great deal while writing this blog. Our teaching should be guided by what research and theory says about learning and learners. Whether it’s examining “high impact practices” or ways to support our diverse learners, our actions and instructional decisions should be informed by the growing body of educational research.
I know this is a short overview of Brookfield’s work but my hope is that it gives you some ideas on how to adopt additional lenses to view your teaching. Critically reflective teaching involves having multiple sources of data on our teaching. These complimentary lenses give us a fuller picture of what we’re doing and how effective we are.