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Transformative Inquiry

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Interactive 6.3 Reflexivity and EDP 490

Beyond Reflection

Historically, reflection as a teaching practice can be found in the work of educational scholars John Dewey (1933) and Donald Schön (1983). Both promoted reflection as a “critical underpinning of growth and learning” (Ryan, 2005, p. 1). Reflection involves looking back on experiences as a means of constructing knowledge about one’s self and about the world. Consider reflection as a process akin to looking in the mirror. You might check to see if your hair looks just right, if it doesn’t then you make adjustments.

In the context of teaching, simple reflection may not yield all the information needed for the type of growth and learning originally advocated by Dewey and Schön. Teaching is as much rooted in intuition as it is in intention; often our ‘gut feelings’ profoundly guide the decisions we make. This is not to say that our actions are without consideration; teachers frequently consider the events that take place in their classrooms. In fact, most teachers reflect relentlessly on a daily basis (Dana and Yendol-Hoppey, 2009). Reflection occurs in the staff room at lunch, while walking down the hallways chatting with colleagues, on the drive home from work and even invades sleep in the form of annoying teacher dreams!

One way of expanding a reflective practice is to move towards a practice of reflexivity. Engaging in reflexivity requires critical thought and careful consideration followed by action rooted in understanding. Engaging in mindfulness and introspection with careful and open consideration to the complexity of situations and events that present themselves frequently generates reflexive practice. Where reflection is often individual, reflexivity is decidedly relational. Jun (1994) suggests that reflexive practice is guided by three key questions:

  • Who am I and what kind of person do I want to be?
  • How do I relate to others and to the world around me?
  • How can I practice self-conscious and ethical actions based on a critical questioning of past actions and of future possibilities?

By adding deeper attention to reflection, reflexivity becomes an increasingly useful tool for growth as we increase our self-awareness within the larger social, community, and ecological contexts.
Educator, Parker Palmer (1998) says that as teachers, “we teach who we are” (p.2) and that “good teaching can’t be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p.10). The TI process asks us to pay attention to who we are and to have integrity with our inner world because whether we are aware of it or not, we share our values, beliefs and attitudes with our students. For this reason, reflexivity becomes paramount as a process that goes beyond reflecting on the more mechanical aspects of practice to include deep attention to individual positioning within social contexts (Dressman, 1998).

Reflexivity is an act of self-conscious consideration that can lead people to a deepened understanding of themselves and others, not in the abstract, but in relation to specific social environments . . . [and] foster a more profound awareness . . . of how social contexts influence who people are and how they behave. . . . It involves a person’s active analysis of past situations, events, and products, with the inherent goals of critique and revision for the explicit purpose of achieving an understanding that can lead to change in thought or behavior. pp. 155-156 (Danielewicz, J. (2001).

Within TI, meaningful learning~teaching occurs when we are able to recognize and respond to personal beliefs and assumptions that inform our teaching practice. We take particular care to attend to the paradigms we use to make sense of our world so that we can bring to consciousness our unconscious dispositions. When these knots are unearthed, they become sites for examination, questioning and possible transformation. All teachers have prejudice and biases; the process of TI creates a safe-enough space to attend to these so that “a path with heart” can be followed (Chambers, 2004, p.5) through the messy swamp of learning~teaching~ researching.

Reflexivity is a movement from awareness to connectedness. It invites us to not only develop a stronger sense of attentiveness to who we are and who we are becoming, but provides an opportunity to explore other worldviews. As we ask and follow our deeper questions, we realize that our individual experiences are integral to the unique way we perceive the world and our connection to it. It is a process that includes attention to beliefs about ontology (the study of what it means to exist) and epistemology (the study of what it means to know). Reflexivity requires attention to an object, while at the same time attending to one’s role in how that object is being constructed or constituted (Davies, et. al, 2004).

This means that I need to understand my own subjective influences (my beliefs, values and attitudes) on that which I am attending to (my topic). For example, if I see the glass as being half empty, what beliefs are at play for me? What about when I see it as half full? To be reflexive requires analysis of that which founded my beliefs and actions (Bray, Lee, Smith, & Yorks, 2000) and requires a degree of action based on those findings. In addition, Brookfield (2003) suggests that individuals must be willing to “identify assumptions they hold dear that are actually destroying their sense of well-being and serving the interests of others, that is, hegemonic assumptions” (Brookfield, 2003; p.127).

The practice of reflexivity can help us in developing a more complete teacher awareness, or what Sakamoto (2011) calls kizuki, a heightening of cognitive, emotional and collegial awareness in order to transform beliefs and assumptions about learning~teaching.

[A process like this can] enable teachers to develop and gain ownership over their own teaching and learning because kizuki is not merely given by someone but it is gained by the teachers themselves or by having mediation by others whether by design or by accident (Sakamoto, 2011; p. 202).

Being reflexive means that you do not simply look back and contemplate but you consider your contributions to the construction of meanings and the reinterpretation of your actions in light of newly constructed meaning (Willig, 2001). Moreover, you are able to amend misinterpretations in what you believe and how you act.

Reflection has long been a key part of teacher education, but as past students in the program have said, they can at times feel “reflected to death.” This contention sometimes shows up as reluctance for inquirers who prefer not to reflect, especially when deeper processes of reflexivity on their own power and privilege are involved. Gore and Zeichner (1991) identify reasons for a lack of reflection amongst pre-service teachers to include biographical, situational and cultural issues that are complex and interconnected. In her study on beginning teachers, Labosky (1994) identifies her participants as being either “commonsense thinkers,” who often ask how, when and to what standard, or “reflective thinkers,” who tend to ask the deeper “why” questions. Reflexivity expands to consider the “who am I” in these questions. See Interactive 6.3 for more exploration of reflexivity.

Anna Freud (1979) famously argued that teachers should not just reflect on their actions and re-actions. They actually have a duty to understand these elements of teaching situations in order to avoid the possible negative consequences on their students of a failure or a refusal to do so. Britzman and Pitt (1996) summarize:

…teachers’ encounters with students may return them involuntarily and still unconsciously to scenes from their individual biographies. Such an exploration requires that teachers consider how they understand students through their own subjective conflicts. … The heart of the matter, for Anna Freud, is the ethical obligation teachers have to learn about their own conflicts and to control the re-enactment of old conflicts that appear in the guise of new pedagogical encounters. (Britzman and Pitt, 1996, p. 118)

As a research team, we can see the important role reflection and reflexivity can play for teachers. Yet, in scholarly discourse, reflexivity plays a certain role – focusing on thought, cognitive connections, and philosophical quandaries implicit in learning. It can be a challenging concept to understand because it:

  • is a dense concept, with scholarly complexity and controversies
  • focuses on the brain and cognition, and treats intuition, bodily knowing, relatedness to other (and other-than-human) as secondary elements.
  • engages in logic and reason, and if practiced poorly reinforces hegemonic principles (e.g. consider reflexivity as it relates to one’s own continued paradigm - does this fit in my own paradigm? If not, how can I fix it?

Over time, reflexivity has begun to feel too narrow, given our needs in TI. The next section considers the role of mindfulness and interbeing as a more useful approach to engaging an ongoing consideration of self and other.

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