“learning from one’s experience involves not just reflection, but critical reflection.” (Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p.117)
Reflective practice as a part of the experiential learning cycle has been a key component in modern education since Kolb and Fry first developed their experiential learning model and learning style inventory in the mid 70’s. The Kolb model is used by educators and business leaders alike as a way to create meaningful learning and evolving trains of thought, and a road to continual improvement. But it is not only taking the time for reflection, but critical reflection that stands out in this reference. Brookfield proposed three stages of critical reflection – taking our assumptions, scrutinizing them, and then reconstituting them (as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014). By including critical reflection, we are creating a call to action that should result in meaningful change and growth. This thought process is evident in the development of transformative learning as a theory posed by Mezirow that identifies 10 stages of transformation, starting from a life crisis or major transition which triggers a disorienting dilemma, through to reintegration.
Critical reflection is a way for the learner and teacher each to challenge their own assumptions. As humans we are naturally inquisitive, as anyone who has lived through the “why” years of raising young children can attest. By including regular reflection and evaluation into our lives, we offer ourselves the opportunity to make changes and also to question why or why not we do things. We learn from our own reflections, but also by the critical reflection that comes when asked a question that seems relatively innocent. In my early years as a chef, I used to get really worked up for the busy weekend evenings. I would work faster, push my team to do the same, and thought nothing of it, until one day a 16-year-old dishwasher asked me a fairly simple question. He said, “Chef, why do you get yourself and everyone else so worked up on Fridays? We only do 10 more dinners than we do on Thursday.” From that moment on, I used that same rationale to calm down others I saw creating bigger challenges for themselves than they needed to in similar situations.
By looking at critical reflection as a natural part of the learning cycle, we place ourselves in an place that can have both high reward and risk for the teacher. Are we really able to have our students challenge our assumptions, or to ask difficult questions of us? I hope so. Offering students the opportunity to reflect critically on their own work is one thing, but a huge part of growth and learning to teach and to lead is to develop the ability to critique in a manner that is constructive, and to build trust by offering up opportunities for students to critique and challenge your assumptions as a teacher or leader. Without doing do, we run the risk of reflection being a cursory exercise, with out the meaningful insights that come from looking truly at opportunities for improvement. This quote challenges us to not fall into that trap, and that in order to really learn, we must be willing to reflect critically and make changes as a result.
One of the more difficult things about teaching adult learners, especially those who have developed the skills to think critically and to participate actively in the learning process, is letting go of any assumptions that you might have about being the “expert” in the room. Just as the skills managing people need to change and evolve depending on the individuals, their needs, so does the approach to teaching. We should always be looking for ways to be more effective, more engaging, and to create the most meaningful opportunities for our students. Critical reflection not only offers us the opportunity to make that happen, it is a necessity. As a friend of mine once said when addressing a group of young cooks, “Every day, I try and do what I have done before just a little bit better. Even if I’m just making mashed potatoes, I think about how I can make them better today”
Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. In Theories of Group Process. London: Wiley.
Merriam, S.B., Bierema, L.L. (2014) Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Wikipedia. (2015) Transformative learning. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transformative_learning