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The goal of the critically reflective teacher

Ben Miller, writing about Stephen Brookfield, said that for Brookfield, “the goal of the critically reflective teacher is to garner an increased awareness of his or her teaching from as many different vantage points as possible” ((Miller 2010). I have chosen Brookfield as a model for self evaluation, as I believe, like Brookfield, in the value of the “many different vantage points”. That is not to devalue other models which encourage self reflection, and particularly where self reflection leads to action, but I believe using Brookfield’s four lenses, the autobiographical or self lens, the student lens, the peer lens, and the theoretical lens, can provide teachers with a more balanced view of themselves and their role.

This is apparent in the DTLLS course that I am following (University of Warwick 2009). I can see Brookfield in the way in which tutors are encouraged to use different lenses through which to view their teaching, reflect and act on reflection. When this is a continuous process, it provides a good model for continuing professional development.

For example, being alert for trigger incidents, and reflecting on how these affect teaching uses the autobiographical lens, as does reflection on observed sessions, before and after feedback; engaging with student feedback to gain insight into their viewpoint uses the student lens; carrying out and reflecting on peer observations and discussions with a mentor relates to the peer lens; and reference throughout to underpinning theories provides a theoretical lens.

Brookfield also states (Brookfield 1995), that we become critically reflective by “hunting assumptions”. “Assumptions are the taken for granted beliefs about the world, and our place within it”. Reflecting on trigger incidents can often provide a starting point for “hunting assumptions” (Brookfield 1995). One of my trigger incidents led me to question my assumption that all ESOL learners aspire to speaking English like native speakers. After spending time helping a learner with some writing, I began to appreciate that for some learners, it was important to know how native speakers use the language, but then to be able to make an informed choice, which might be a wish to keep a sense of cultural identity or individuality through use of accent, words or phrases which might not be what we would expect from a native English speaker.

Brookfield distinguishes between three categories of assumptions - paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal. Paradigmatic are the structuring assumptions, the “conceptual framework one uses to order the world into fundamental categories … The facts as we know them to be true”. He goes on to say that paradigmatic assumptions are examined critically “only after a great deal of resistance to doing this.” (Brookfield 1995) Prescriptive assumptions are about what we think ought to happen in certain situations, how teachers should act, and what good teaching practice is. Causal assumptions include our understanding of causal relationships.

An example of a paradigmatic assumption given by Brookfield is to assume that “all adults are self-directed learners” but as Brookfield says, “students can only make informed choices about what they need to know, how they can know it, and how they can know that they know it, on the basis of as full as possible an understanding of the learning terrain they are being asked to explore” (Brookfield 1995). In an ESOL classroom where learners may not have the language to express what they want, or

even the concept of what they need, or as one learner put it “everybody has different ideas”, which are difficult to accommodate within a group teaching session, one might want to question this assumption, as Brookfield did. Following this train of thought, current practice places much emphasis on negotiated learning plans and measurable learning goals, which implies the same assumption. But how can it be assumed that this is the right approach for all learners in all situations unless, using an institutional lens, it is seen in the light of providing organizations with a tool with which to measure achievement, which can be passed on to funders and stakeholders. Reflection on this was one reason I chose to look further into meaningful individual learning goals for my Action Research project.

The very different assumption that all learning should be learner centred I find more difficult to question. For example, many students are in the situation of having limited funding and therefore limited time to study ESOL because of the need to find work, and therefore learning strategies for learning which can help them to continue to learn once they have left the class might be important for them, but they might not be able to express that need. Meeting such a need would be learner centred, but would not assume that learners were self directed, and achievement of such a need would be difficult to measure.

Again using Brookfield’s example, a prescriptive assumption might be that good teachers are those who encourage self directed learning, and a causal assumption that if learners have negotiated individual learning plans and learning goals they will become more self directed. This might, in light of the above, lead one to think about what Brookfield refers to as “hegemonic assumptions” or erroneous assumptions - the assumptions that “seem to make our teaching lives easier, but are counterproductive in the long run” (Brookfield 1995).

From my own experience in the classroom, I have made erroneous assumptions regarding the abilities of pre literate learners in areas other than literacy, such as numeracy, which have sent me searching for information as to how being pre literate affects all areas of life, and also to use the peer lens by observing a tutor who is very experienced in teaching pre entry, pre literate learners, in addition to the theoretical lens.

To try to step into the shoes of pre literate learners I find extremely difficulty, and full of surprises. I observed one learner who is not literate in her first language in an informal “knit and natter” group, where learners of all levels meet, knit and talk together. This learner wanted to knit a baby’s jacket, and learned to do so by “shadowing” another person while she knitted. On completion of the jacket, she immediately pulled it out and started again while it was fresh in her mind so that she would remember how to do it. On reflection, this is how I learned to bake as a child, and how many people arrive in this country, skilled in trades but without qualifications to match their skills, or hope of achieving these in the short term, as qualifications demand a high level of literacy.

I have also observed this same student, trying to understand what someone is saying to her in English. She unconsciously repeats key words out loud, which appears to help her understanding, shadowing with words as she does with knitting. If “shadowing” is a learning strategy used by pre literate learners, I should be thinking about how to nurture it in the ESOL classroom. It would perhaps provide a rationale for using methods such as ‘language experience’ as well as phonetics for teaching basic literacy. I find this an interesting area, and as part of my action plan, would like to look at research on this subject, to learn more and also whether and how my observations fit in with the research.

Once hunting assumptions becomes part of reflective practice, the questioning of these will lead teachers to see the need to provide themselves with a rationale for all aspects of their teaching, from setting goals, to learning objectives to decisions about methods and activities. Again this relates to our DTLLS course, which asks for a rationale to be provided for observed sessions. As this thinking becomes part of a teacher’s day to day practice, it forces the questioning of assumptions.

“To enable teachers to provide a rationale behind their practice” and “to increase the probability that teachers will take informed action” are among Brookfield’s reasons for critical reflection, as is “To enliven the classroom by making it challenging, interesting and stimulating for students”(King and Hibbison 2000)

The latter seems to imply that teachers must be responsive. Brookfield also uses the phrase ‘democratic learning environment’ (King and Hibbison 2000) to refer to a classroom in which all learners have a voice. If responsiveness and democracy are looked at in the light of Donald Schon’s notion of “reflection in action” or thinking on your feet (Smith 2001, updated 2009), Schon and Brookfield are not unrelated.

I gave an example in one of my trigger incidents of a session in a pre entry class where two learners had been very upset about circumstances outside the classroom, and their problems had been met with interest and empathy from the rest of the class, which led to a session on language to express feelings e.g. worried/worried about etc. This was reflection in action, relating to what was important for those learners at that time, but also looking through Brookfield’s student lens and helping them to express what they wanted to say. Further, it took account of the holistic nature of teaching, and I was able afterwards to relate my response to findings of NRDC research into effective teaching and learning (Baynham et al 2007) which cites examples of where learners have brought the outside in to learning and this has been used effectively. Thus using Brookfield’s theoretical lens to support my actions, but also relating back to Schon’s notion of reflection in action.

However, I have also experienced a less successful example of bringing the outside in when I felt that a lesson was becoming unfocused because the topic that came up, planning a trip, needed more thought and some resources. I decided to abandon the “outside in” and bring the learners back to the original lesson plan. My reflection on action involved a recognition that I had not been able, at the time, to produce a clear way forward, and that in such a situation, a potentially interesting topic might be better postponed for another session to allow for more careful thought and planning in order to optimise learning opportunities.

Donald Schon refers to reflection in action as what happens when faced with an uncertain or unique situation, and reflection on action as what happens afterwards, reflecting on why we did what we did. Reflection in action depends upon building up experiences and ideas that can be drawn upon. In the case of the two incidents mentioned above, in which one worked as a spontaneous change of direction, and one did not, this lead to reflection on action which in turn added to my repertoire of experience and will hopefully enable me to react more appropriately next time. “The unfamiliar becomes familiar and can act as a precedent when reflection in action is linked to reflection on action” (Smith 2001, updated 2009).

Schon’s reflection on action would allow for the inclusion of different vantage points, for example, discussions with supervisors or peers, but does not explicitly state this, as I think Brookfield is helpful in doing. Also, Brookfield’s notion of questioning assumptions, which forces teachers not only to provide a rationale for their teaching, but also question the rationale behind institutional processes and decision making, does not come into Schon’s model.

While acknowledging the value of Schon’s model of reflective practice, I found I preferred that of Stephen Brookfield, and I chose to carry out my self evaluation with reference to Brookfield’s four critical lenses, using this to develop my action plan (appendix 1).

Using Brookfield’s autobiographical, or self, lens to reflect on the two incidents described above which relate to my own teaching, I have put in my action plan to be sensitive to opportunities for bringing the outside in, but also to recognise when this is better postponed to allow for more careful thought and planning

Being sensitive to opportunities for bringing the outside into the classroom also involves the student lens and will allow for a more holistic approach, connecting learners’ lives with their learning, and providing meaningful contexts, as well as a supportive learning atmosphere.

My observation feedback enabled me to use the self lens to reflect on some strengths, and also on areas for improvement. I had recognized a need to embed numeracy into ESOL, particularly for pre literate, pre numerate learners, but my inexperience in this area had led me to pitch the numeracy element too high. Reflection on what pre numeracy really meant for pre literate learners allowed me to take a step back and look at activities relating to language, which could also help numeracy skills. This would go into my action plan as introducing activities which involve skills which are transferable between language and numeracy such as sequencing, handling money, measuring, singular and plural etc. and a search for literature around the effects of no first language literacy and no previous formal education on all areas of life and learning.

My observation feedback also picked up on the lack of a plenary at the end of my observed session, which led to reflection on how this could also be used as a way of developing organizational skills in students and highlighting organizing learning as a learning strategy. My action plan will include encouraging learners to keep a diary of what they have learnt, to complete at the end of each session and to observe the effect on learners of organization as a learning strategy. This diary will also form part of my Action Research as it will be linked to learning goals.

Using Brookfield’s student lens, I have incorporated into the plenary diary a space for learners’ comments. Part of my action plan will be to reflect on, and if necessary, act on this feedback.

Peer observations and discussions with peers brought in Brookfield’s peer lens. I carried out three peer observations during which I focussed on activities for pre literate learners, family learning numeracy – fun with numbers, and, following a discussion with a tutor who I know to be very organized, organizational skills and the effect of these on learners. Following my observation and reflection I have included in my action plan a need to build up a bank of good quality resources for pre entry learners that can be used in different ways and in more than one session, for example, the tutor I observed had cards with pictures of symptoms and cards with matching words. She used these to play a team game of pelmanism using blu tack and the whiteboard. These same cards could be used as flashcards to introduce vocabulary, in games such as pelmanism to aid memory and word recognition, to practice alphabetical order, to stimulate role play, as a card game to practice ‘I’ve got..’ and ‘Have you got…’ etc.

From the family learning numeracy session I took away ideas to use with pre entry learners to help them both in class by creating activities, and outside class using these activities to play with their children. Extending this idea of taking the inside out, I have also organized a separate reading group session in the central library in collaboration with the librarian who, every three weeks, provides space, tea and coffee. This is for all levels, but for pre entry, encourages them to use the library, and look at picture books, which they can take home and read with their children.

Also in my action plan will be to continue with peer observation after the course has finished as a useful way of continuing my own professional development both by learning from others and by getting feedback on my teaching.

Finally, using Brookfield’s theoretical lens. I refer earlier in this assignment to NRDC “Effective Teaching and Learning ESOL” which reports on the findings of researchers working with ESOL tutors. These findings are very much about the effectiveness of using meaningful contexts for teaching, and also about a project involving learners bringing the outside into the classroom, which the tutor used as a context for further sessions. I find this piece of research has changed the way I teach in that I now enjoy using what learners bring into the classroom when it is of interest to others in the class. Sometimes this can change the direction of a whole session, as mentioned earlier, sometimes it can be just a few minutes of someone telling a story and others asking questions, sometimes it provides material for another session. Referring to this research has given me confidence to move away from a planned session if it seems appropriate and interesting.

Another piece of writing I have found useful is Scott Thornbury’s book “Uncovering Grammar” (Thornbury 2005), particularly dealing with interlanguage, and referring to the idea that language is not learnt in a straight line, which has caused me again to question the value of setting measurable goals for ESOL learners.

The activities in Scott Thornbury’s book for “noticing” grammar and making learners “aware” of the gaps between where they are and where they want, or need, to be, fit in well with the NRDC research findings on the effectiveness of providing a meaningful context (Baynham et al 2007). Using learners’ experience as a context is a good starting point for this awareness raising.

I would like to continue to look for interesting ideas to try out in my teaching, and theories, which might support what I am doing, as I believe this will give me increased confidence in the classroom. In my action plan I have written that I will subscribe to a journal, which I find has useful articles and book reviews. I would also like to use the internet to look for articles on pre literate ESOL learners, and what effect this has on other areas such as numeracy, memory, interpreting pictures, learning strategies etc. to gain a better understanding which will help me in my teaching at this level.

Before concluding this assignment, I would like to mention one more “critical incident” which I witnessed recently. The incident happened in a mixed class when a muslim woman, allowed her scarf to slip off her head as she was absorbed in her work. A young man from Afghanistan who had very recently arrived in the UK shouted at the woman in a language they both understood, and she reacted by tightening the scarf round her head to cover her hair. This made me think back to Brookfield’s idea of a “democratic environment” and to reflect on the difficulty of maintaining this when there are such culturally strong power relationships. I concluded that to Brookfield’s lenses, I would need to add a cultural lens in order to see the incident both through the eyes of the young man, and the women, and in order to reflect on my own reaction to the incident, and my own assumptions about gender relationships. I later had an interesting discussion with a higher level group who are mostly muslim on this incident. Culture comes into the ESOL classroom in many different ways, and used sensitively, can be a valuable resource.

For this assignment I chose to use Stephen Brookfield as a model of reflective practice and self assessed using his four critically reflective lenses. However I also referred to Donald Schon and his idea of reflection in action and reflection on action. I found that, although there are differences between the two models, such as Brookfield’s use of four lenses which play an almost equally important role, while Schon uses the self first and foremost; and also Brookfield’s questioning of assumptions which do not come into Schon’s model, I found it useful to be aware of both. While Stephen Brookfield’s model of reflective practice is my preferred one, I can see that there are times when I will use Donald Schon’s model. Schon also includes the idea of a spiral of reflection, where reflection in action and reflection on action lead to change, and reflection on that change.

As with teaching where the teacher will not use just one method, but pick and choose from many, so with reflective practice, there will be times when one model appeals more than another, or enhances another. As teachers are involved in continuous professional development, there will be opportunities to be eclectic.

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