Teaching Critical Reflection

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Teaching Critical Reflection

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.

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