I feel that there are a number of elephants in this reflective room that bear pointing out.
Last week we read multiple definitions of critical thinking and critical reading. This week we1 have a similar task with reflection. Yet there seems to me a simpler way of dealing with all of this material. Or rather the issue is complicated and the multiple views on reflection and other types of advanced thought serve only to obfuscate what is after all a clear issue.
That is: intelligent people think deeply about things.
There are two basic motivators for change. One is where we encounter problems and the other is when we wish to understand our environment deeper. Both situations require us to engage critically with our assumptions, with the underlying motivators of the actions of those around us and our own, with possibilities of outcome, and with quite a few more issues. Wallace and Poulson’s chapter on critical thinking outlined a reasonable start in understanding what concepts, theories, ideologies and so on are (Wallace & Poulson, 2003). Thinking deeply is a mechanism for and in change. As we come to understand more about our environment and about the motivators for actions, we learn how to predict the effect of our actions in our environments. During thinking, we come to realise how we think. The iterative process continues leading us to further realisations. With depth comes depth. And with that comes more and more subtle interactions with our environment. These are not ‘black box’ ethereal concepts that need some woo-science to explain how we change. I will elucidate some aspects that concern me about reflection.
- The first is that because of Schon, there was a separate strand or type of knowledge that was hitherto unrecognised by the academy. Once Schon described not only the type of knowledge but also its importance in the practical lives of professionals, there was a rush towards finding ways to incorporate that knowledge into the academy. Once inside, it can be controlled. The academy (at least some parts of it) need to grade and evaluate its members. It is a highly stratified environment. If there’s a type of knowledge out there, it must be turned into a syllabus element and placed into the curriculum. Then its content can be assessed in the usual way.
- There is a recognition that advanced thinking of particular kinds is done by experts. There is the subsequent belief that non-experts can learn to learn better if they are taught to or required to ‘reflect’. As Chema pointed out the question of learners actually doing better or not is hardly a settled issue. This reminds me of the strategy training in EFL where only small effect sizes are returned after sometimes quite intensive instruction (Plonsky, 2011). Results have been heterogeneous among same age, sex, social economic status and other groups (Maeng, 2014). Whatever the status of the research, the basic belief that students can learn to mirror the thinking processes of experts has led to the systemisation of these processes.
- This systemisation of thoughts is ultimately a futile experiment. A typology of thought at the expert level will simply be a thesis level explanation of each individual expert’s way of thinking. Differences will be characterised as ‘an art’, which doesn’t really help. Or actually, it helps more than anything else. Scholars can debate the content of any thought system, but they can’t debate what is describable only as ‘art’. We come back full circle to Schon. The professional’s expertise is something that can only be understood at the individual level after significant experience and deep thinking about that experience.
Writing this post was difficult for me. I’ve found a great deal of value in the readings about reflection. Yet I can’t escape the sense that most writers were arguing over actions that we are doing already. Sure, we can do some thinking better, but what is a better use of my time: reading about something I think I’m already doing, or reading about learning theories, management of education theories and so on? Like the earlier weeks’ topics of intercultural sensitivity, learning in an online environment, I can’t help but wonder if these readings are a way of validating the processes in this course, a sort of meta-instruction.
 ‘We’ here refers to the members of our cohort.
Maeng, U. (2014). The Effectiveness of Reading Strategy Instruction : English Teaching, 69(3), 105–127.
Plonsky, L. (2011). The Effectiveness of Second Language Strategy Instruction : A Meta-analysis, (December), 993–1038. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2011.00663.x
Wallace, M., & Poulson, L. (2003). Learning to read critically in educational leadership and management. (M. Wallace & L. Poulson, Eds.). London: Sage Publications.