Critical reflection in education
The present book concerns itself with one of the key ideas in contemporary humanities: critical reflection, a concept which often spurs “platonic sighs” among academic educators and practitioners. The general consensus is that reflection is not only highly desirable but also that there is nothing else that could be envisaged as better reflecting the essence of homo sapiens. However, reflection proves troublesome in practice. Firstly, we find it hard to define its actual nature. Secondly, we very rarely (perhaps even increasingly so) seem to practice it.
One of the themes which guided the author in formulating the objectives of this book was the existing state of knowledge on reflection, critical reflection, and reflexivity. Recent years have seen a great number of analyses and empirical studies appearing in the literature worldwide. This includes Poland, which has produced several monographs devoted entirely to different aspects of – and approaches to – reflection. Among them are: the work by Maria Czerepaniak-Walczak entitled Aspekty i źródła profesjonalnej refleksji nauczyciela [Aspects and Sources of Professional Reflection among Teachers] (1997), the book Myślenie krytyczne w kontekstach edukacji wczesnoszkolnej - uwarunkowania nieobecności [Critical Thinking in Early Education Contexts – Conditions of Absence] by Iwona Czaja-Chubyba (2013), and the recently published monograph W poszukiwaniu refleksyjności w edukacji [In Search of Reflective Practice in Education] by Anna Perkowska-Klejman (2019). These texts, together with many works published outside Poland, served as the point of reference for writing this book.
To analyze reflection from the standpoint of academic education is a challenging task. The difficulty stems from the plurality of available sources – the concepts of reflection presented in those texts are exceedingly multifarious, heterogeneous, and multi-layered, coming from research works produced under diverse, but often competing paradigms. Progressivist, critical theory, constructivist, post-structuralist or postmodernist analyses each paint a different picture of reflection. As such, the author assumed that it would be futile to try and find any kind of “common denominator”, to look for a universal formula which would precisely convey the essence of reflection. Rather, it would be more reasonable to base on a interdiscursive methodology and to trace observations on critical thinking, critical reflection, reflectivity, and reflexivity across the contemporary discourse of social sciences. Moreover, this approach can help understand what each of the phenomena (reflection, critical reflection, critical thinking, reflectivity, and reflexivity) is ontically and how they relate to each other.
The main objective of this monograph, as set from the perspective of an academic educator, was to take the approaches towards reflection present in the discourses of the humanities and social sciences, and translate them into the traditional language of pedagogical thinking and action. This goal stemmed from the view that pedagogy should not be obfuscated by the language of other human sciences. Education theory offers its own way of interpreting reality and formulating research problems, including the – lamentably often forgotten – pedagogical mode of thinking.
The issues considered in this text were defined in large part against empirical findings of current research. The reality of reflection in professional practice, as described by these research works, is hardly optimistic. School teachers struggle with critical thinking (Chudyba-Czaja, 2013); university teachers fail to teach critical thinking to their students (Paul, 2005), wile students display poor reflectivity (Perkowska-Klejman, 2019). Likewise, reflectivity among teachers differs greatly from the theoretical models of reflection (Marcos, Miguel and Tillema 2009). Given this state of affairs, it becomes important to pinpoint the pedagogical aspects of this problem.
The monograph consists of three distinct sections. The first, entitled “Reflection in the Optics of Pedagogical Pragmatism”, sets out the ideas that laid the groundwork for the intellectual design of the present work – namely, the approaches to reflection presented in the classic works by John Dewey and Donald Schon.
The second part transposes critical reflection against the other, “supporting” categories – critical thinking, reflection, reflectivity, and reflexivity – laying out the entire spectrum of critical reflection in all its hues and shades. The author shows how the idea of critical reflection is interpreted in the discourse of social sciences, regardless of the discipline. Particular focus is placed on how reflection is framed within the – now highly-influential – critical thinking movement, within the bounds of critical theory and constructivism.
The third part of the book, entitled “Towards Reflective Pedagogical Knowledge” paints the first (unavoidably broad) strokes of reflexive pedagogical knowledge. This chapter is incomplete by design, containing hints, intimations, and suggestions regarding the assumptions necessary to create a complete, multifaceted description of reflective pedagogical knowledge.
The author decided to critically reflect on the issues crucially important to contemporary pedagogy – especially the issue of its “practicality”. The chapter argues for the thesis that it would be difficult nowadays to maintain a strict demarcation between theoretical and practical fields, especially with regard to pedagogy. Practical pedagogy cannot be reduced to the “technology” of upbringing and education, nor is it an applied science in the sense used in the natural sciences. The lines between the theoretical and the practical are quite blurry, especially when reconsidering the contemporary meanings of ‘practice’. What is more, practical pedagogy can be a source of scientific knowledge.
This part of the book seeks to conceptualize the category of reflective pedagogical knowledge, placing it opposite the instrumental knowledge. Reflective knowledge is both critical knowledge and public knowledge. It can be considered to be reliable (as ensured by methodological rigor in the process of knowledge creation, as well as reflectivity and reflexivity on the part of researchers) and “socially healthy”. The latter refers to reflective knowledge being created in the context of the real, practical problems. The features of reflective pedagogical knowledge are defined by indicating the role that the central concepts of this book (reflection, critical reflection, reflectivity, and reflexivity) play in the process of designing, conducting, and communicating research findings.
The present book is far from a definitive investigation that puts all questions and doubts to rest. It is an “unfinished tome” – the author's intention was to open up new perspectives, avenues for further research, and practical pursuits.
The content of the book delineates several areas that can be explored further through empirical research. The first such research area concerns barriers that prevent critical thinking and critical reflection from being cultivated in the realities of contemporary educational systems. This line of inquiry includes identifying strategies, forms, and methods for teaching critical thinking at different stages of education. Such investigations could be conducted through the lens of the approaches analyzed in this book – pedagogical pragmatism, critical theory or pedagogical constructivism (the last of which has seen considerable development, especially in Poland). Findings to date suggest that such inquiries should tap into the advantages offered by participatory, action, and evaluation research strategies, as they involve persons that work directly with schoolchildren.
Another important goal is to clearly identify the forms critical reflection assumes in the professional work of academics (especially in teaching), as well as to pursue research on epistemic cultures and empirical research on scientific criticism.
The empirical data analyzed in this book are insufficient to conclusively assert that critical reflection is present in education systems. It is very difficult to 'track down’ exactly where such reflection materializes. Nevertheless, as strongly noted by the author, critical reflection may prevail in education systems on a large scale, and is the duty of pedagogy and educators to act to promote and safeguard it. Perhaps the critical reflection as a quality does not facilitate a smooth transition into modern life, and may be a source of dilemmas – and yet, one can scarcely imagine a free and responsible person that lacks the ability to think and act reflexively.