Critical Reflection Week

I’m not enamoured with the requirement for reflection on this Ed.D. Perhaps that’s because I don’t like being told to do what I do as a matter of course, or maybe it’s because the task itself takes away time from reading, writing and thinking. This week saw a masterclass on critical reflection. The first thing Liverpool should do is abandon the name ‘masterclass’. It’s a discussion week, for goodness sake, precisely the opposite of a masterclass. I’d prefer something like ‘Intensive Focus: Critical Reflection’ or ‘Special Study: Critical Reflection’ or ‘Skills Development: [course focus]’ or something that actually relates to the actions in the week.

I committed what Stephen Brookfield (Laureate, 2011) calls “cultural suicide” recently. A relationship with a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) was developing, and I invited him to my office for a post-class conversation. My hope was that I could advance our emerging friendship over a coffee. I was in the middle of module 3. I was interested in the module topic of organisational cultures and was itching to ask him about his views. However, I began framing the discussion by explaining the work of Bergquist and Pawlak (2008). This move positioned me as the ‘teacher’ in the discussion and effectively limited the possible responses JTE could make. Further, I compounded the increasingly difficult exchange of ideas by drawing upon Robert Kegan’s (1982) notion of ‘subjective’, where the subject cannot perceive forces of agency upon it. I had hoped Kegan would direct the conversation onto the need for critical reflection (van Manen, 1977). The crowing glory, a supremely stupid move made from panic at the progressive silence I was facing, was to mention Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010). Rather imbecilic in hindsight, my reflection-in-action (Schön, 1992) was to address the silence through demonstrating my cultural sensitivity by acknowledging a typical Japanese reaction to uncertainty. The conversation, now situated in a racial framework, had plummeted to depths beyond repair. JTE rose from his chair, sullen and clearly livid, and left the room. We haven’t spoken since.

My attempt backfired spectacularly at following Brookfield’s advice to build a community of practice (Wenger, 2010) with like-minded colleagues, and it highlights the deficiencies in Brookfield’s approach. Brookfield’s agrees with Mezirow that critical reflection is a key component in transformational learning (Brookfield, 2000); transformation “depends on the presence of” critical reflection but “it is not a sufficient condition” (Brookfield, 2000, p. 142). For true transformation to occur, one’s assumptions need to be significantly reassessed, and critical reflection does not necessarily lead to that change (Brookfield, 2000). A “building block” of Mezirow’s transformational learning (Mezirow & Associates, 2000, p. xiii) and critical reflection is Habermas’s demonstration of the ability of critical theory to enlighten educators (Elliott, 2005). However, as Elliot (2005) makes clear, Habermas fails to show how the process of enlightenment results in empowerment. At the various levels of description, prediction and explanation, critical theory is too fragmented to offer definitive statements. Without this power, Habermas could not defend the link between enlightenment and empowerment. At the root of this issue is the notion that reflective practice is constructivist (Kinsella, 2006), a fact noted by Clegg, Tan and Saeidiin their account of how students in professional development react to the demands of reflection (2002). The exact bases upon which critical theory and reflection rest are too varied, too diffuse, too inexact to escape the “charge of relativism” (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011, p. 35).

I have been influenced by Aumann’s theorem that states:

“If two people have the same priors, and their posteriors for an event A are common knowledge, then these posteriors are equal” (Aumann, 1976, p. 1236).

In other words, if two people share the same information, beliefs and assumptions, they will think alike. Of course, this fails in everyday communication. What becomes interesting is why that communication fails. Elliot recognises that discussion “presupposes that participants are an avant-garde who have ‘completed the processes of enlightenment’” (2005, p. 361); In my scenario, my presumption of an Aumannian discussion was naive. Furthermore, by overlooking the potential to induce anxiety in my erstwhile friend, forcing the discussion onto “nonconfrontable and nondebatable” basic assumptions and theories-in-use (Schein, 2004, p. 31), I not only destabilised the discussion, I destroyed the friendship. However, no amount of prior reflection would have changed that.


Aumann, R. J. (1976). Agreeing to disagree. The Annals of Statistics, 4(5), 1236–1239.

Bergquist, W. H., & Pawlak, K. (2008). Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. (2000). Transformative learning as ideology critique. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress(pp. 125–150). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Clegg, S., Tan, J., & Saeidi, S. (2002). Reflecting or Acting? Reflective Practice and Continuing Professional Development in Higher Education. Reflective Practice, 131–146.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research Methods in Education (7th ed.). London: Routledge.

Elliott, J. (2005). Becoming critical: the failure to connect. Educational Action Research, 13(3), 359–374.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organisations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.

Kinsella, E. A. (2006). Constructivist underpinnings in Donald Schön’s theory of reflective practice: echoes of Nelson Goodman. Reflective Practice, 7(3), 277–286.

Laureate. (2011). Critically reflective practices.

van Manen, M. (1977). Linking of ways of knowing with ways of being practical. Curriculum Inquiry, 6(3), 205–228.

Mezirow, J., & Associates. (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational Culture and Leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schön, D. A. (1992). The crisis of professional knowledge and the pursuit of an epistemology of practice. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 6(1), 49–63.

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Retrieved July 5, 2015, from

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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