The Role of Critical Reflection on Teaching in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Personal Reflection

Genevieve Newton, Assistant Professor, Department of Human Health & Nutritional Sciences, University of Guelph

As the new secretary of SoTL Canada, one of my responsibilities is organizing monthly blog entries. Through this, I will have the opportunity to interact with mentors and colleagues in the SoTL field, encouraging them to share their thoughts and reflections about SoTL in Canada and beyond. But for my inaugural blog post, I would like to (*selfishly*) share my perspective on the relationship between critical reflection and SoTL, and how critically reflecting on my own teaching practice led me to pursue SoTL as a primary area of research focus.

Many in the SoTL field are familiar with the work of Dr. Stephen Brookfield, educational scholar. In his book “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher”, Dr. Brookfield writes about using critical reflection to further both personal and professional development as a teacher. He writes about “four lenses” through which teachers can be critically reflective: the lens of autobiographies as teachers and learners; the lens of their students’ eyes; the lens of theoretical literature; and the lens of colleagues’ perceptions. Each of these lenses provide us with information regarding the experience of teaching and learning, either our own or of others, and it is my belief that SoTL lies where these lenses converge.

In my own life, the lens of my autobiography as a teacher and learner was of primary importance in spurring an interest in SoTL. I suspect that many of us have had those “aha!” moments, both as teachers and as students, when learning “clicked”. Conversely, we can likely all identify with the opposite experience of teaching and learning “failures”. If we reflect on these divergent experiences, and on everything in between, we start to see evidence of what appears to comprise effective teaching, as well as effective learning. From this, an interest in a scholarly exploration of teaching and learning is born, as we strive to make meaning from our own experiences.

The second lens of the students’ eyes is very closely related to the autobiographical lens. Often, those “aha” moments or the moments of failure are shared between teacher and student. Sometimes, we are fortunate to actually hear our students’ voices; at other times, we must infer their view from their behavior. As with our autobiographical lens, these observations can motivate us towards SoTL as we similarly strive to make meaning from our students’ experiences. Then, as we embark on a scholarly exploration of teaching and learning, the student lens becomes critical to the measurement of impact, as we look to them to determine whether our efforts have been successful.

In the process of making meaning from our own experiences and the experiences of our students, we invariably turn to the lens of theoretical literature. This lens informs our SoTL work from conception through to interpretation, and we learn from the scholarly explorations of others in related and diverse fields. The lens of colleagues’ perceptions may also be accessed, as we share in the teaching and learning journey with our peers, and have much to glean from their insights. The knowledge of peers, both familiar and unfamiliar, serves to compliment the knowledge from our students and ourselves, and it is through these critically reflective lenses that we find a strong framework for the design and conduct of our SoTL pursuits.

It certainly isn’t necessary for all critically reflective teachers to engage in SoTL. However, I would argue that it would be difficult to engage in SoTL without being a critically reflective teacher, as the two practices are highly complimentary. The four lenses described here are tools that can be used to guide and inform SoTL activities, and their simplicity lends itself to practical usefulness.

As a final note, feedback from the STHLE SoTL working group about how critical reflection on teaching has influenced your SoTL practice is encouraged. Please let us know how you may have used any of the four lenses of critical reflection, and how you perceive their value in your SoTL work.

Brookfield, Stephen. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

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2 Responses to The Role of Critical Reflection on Teaching in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Personal Reflection

  1. Erin says:

    It’s probably because I’m a millennial (I blame everything on being a millennial), but I found learning to engage in critical reflection challenging because I didn’t like to slow down and carefully explore my own assumptions and reactions. I was more interested in ‘zap!’ and ‘zing!’ and ‘try and new thing!’ and multitask-multitask-multitask. It wasn’t until the (very wonderful) (very wise) Natasha Kenny introduced me to critical-reflection-in-team-meetings that I saw the benefit for me, and for our team, of deliberate and dedicated time for critical reflection on teaching/educational development practice. (The hypocrisy of the years of me teaching others to engage in CR without properly doing it myself aren’t worth exploring here. The short answer is: millennial). All this to say thanks for the post, Gen, for its reminder of the value – and complexity! – of this practice.

  2. Thanks Gen and Erin. I would like to hear more about this critical-reflection-in-team-meetings strategy! I, too, find myself ‘zinging’ from one new thing to the next if I’m not careful. There are so many interesting teaching-learning questions out there that sometimes engaging in SoTL can feel like being a kid in a candy store! I find that being intentional about writing up my SoTL projects helps with this – I realize that writing up a SoTL project for publication is only one form of being ‘appropriately public’ (Felten 2013), but for me it is a necessary self-imposed critical-reflection enforcement strategy. And the writing process always generates new insights which I might not have had if I hadn’t taken the time to write. 🙂

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