29 June 2013

On reflection on reflection

Earlier this week I attended a half-day conference on "Professionalism, Reflection and Criticism" (odd title--"Critique" would have made more sense). The keynote speaker was Stephen Brookfield; he spoke on "Critical Reflections on Reflective Practice" and his slides are available on his site here (first on the list of presentations).

Leaving aside the workshop sessions, the plenaries were a bit of a mess. No-one's fault; the organisation was fine, Brookfield and the other contributors obviously knew their stuff and were articulate and accomplished presenters...

But "reflection" has become so diluted and devalued that many of the questioners and floor contributors seemed to mean something quite different by it from the invited speakers, who also differed from them and from each other.

Brookfield did his best (slides 3 and 4) to set out boundaries for his discussion. He emphasised that reflection needed to be located--in his words "on what? for what?" and identified different ways in which it might be used, and different intellectual traditions within which it might be located--analytical philosophy, natural science, critical theory, and pragmatism (in the traditional of James, and Peirce, and not the debased form of "whatever works").

Unfortunately he elected to locate the rest of the discussion in the critical theory tradition. He spelt out the assumptions of critical theory thus:
  • Society organized to make permanent inequity appear normal, a natural state of affairs
  • Perception of normality created & disseminated via dominant ideology
  • Point of theory is to illuminate as a prompt to action  (Slide 5)
and its applicability to reflection thus: 
  • Understand better how power operates – its dynamics, its ethical use/abuse in relationships, work /community
  • Detect ideological manipulation
  • Recognize and challenge hegemony
  • Be alert to how repressive tolerance neutralizes challenges to the system
  • Practice democracy (Slide 6) 
...and then expanded on these points, very interestingly.

He had admitted that reflection could be regarded as a self-evident Good Thing, or as he put it a "premature ultimate – its invocation stops further analysis and questioning"*, but despite some reservations about theorists' use of language in his closing remarks, he seemed to extend the same accolade to critical theory. It addresses Very Important Issues, such as inequity and oppression, and therefore it must be the Best Way to approach reflection. In its own terms it has hegemonic status. In demotic game-theory terms, it trumps everyone else. No.

The problem is that it is a tool, a frame of reference, for seeking out inequity, oppression, hegemony etc. and it always finds them. But in the context of reflection only rarely does it achieve anything other than create guilt-trips, and the possibility for true believers to get onto some moral high ground of their choosing, usually for their own political reasons**.

In other words--go on, call me a pragmatist--it doesn't necessarily do much to improve one's performance as a teacher (and posture as you will about "education", it is only transformative [etc.] if it is done well). The political dimension is indeed there, and ground-clearing its contamination/framing/whatever of the teaching situation is indeed a never-ending task, but sometimes you just have to admit that you've done as much as is reasonable and get on with the rest of the job. It is possible to be good-enough. Contra Ofsted; satisfactory is satisfactory.

And the problem was that everyone present had their own understandings of reflection, and the part it plays in practice, but few of the people who spoke up seemed to share the same particular set of concerns. Instead, they were raising issues such as;
  • How can we get students to reflect in a disciplined way?
  • What's the point of being reflective when teaching is becoming increasingly structured from the top-down..?
  • ...And when teachers are increasingly under surveillance to ensure compliance?
  • Should we be teaching children to be reflective?
and one brave soul who dared to ask about the emperor's tailoring--regardless of critical theory;
  • Is there any research evidence that reflective practitioners are any more effective than other practitioners?
He did not get an answer, but as I argue here, the answer is "no". (Do let me know if anything has come up since I last visited the topic a couple of years ago.)

Brookfield did admit that on occasion critical reflection could become a substitute for action rather than a stimulus for it.

OK. Ideological hegemony, Repressive tolerance, and the rest are occasionally useful tools. But I'm reminded of Maslow. No, not that hierarchy of needs stuff. This observation.

See: "If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning..." (Hays/Seeger, 1958)  and perhaps philosophising with a hammer (Nietzsche, 1889).***

Critical theory is a dead end; it's a rut, and the more you go down it the deeper it gets. It's a cop-out, and if I found it making an appearance in any student's "reflective" work, I should mark it down.
"He would do good to another must do it in minute particulars
General good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer"
(William Blake (1804) Jerusalem pl.55 1.60)

*  There's no point in googling "premature ultimate"--Brookfield gets a look in on the second page, but all the rest is about premature ejaculation!

**  I refer only to my own experience here--and I can't conceive of a research project on this which would  ever get past an ethics committee--but all my experience, particularly in social work education, suggests that in practice the application of the rhetoric of critical theory (which is 99% of its content) aspires to both the devaluation of most real practice, and incredible naivety. Incidentally--in a book review in the Sunday Times yesterday, Daisy Waugh referred to "the Islington School of Sanctimony". Spot-on!

*** To be fair to Nietzsche; his hammer was not destructive--he used it as railway worker would, testing wheels; or a bell-founder--as way of checking for the "ring of truth".

 (Apologies that this post first went out with the final paragraphs missing, for some arcane techie reason)

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