Only Reflect …

Educational discourse on reflection – for a long time now – has intrigued and puzzled me. Reflection, it would seem, is an incontestable academic virtue. Reflection and reflective practice are so embedded and widely accepted in educational discourse that it seems heretical to question the faith placed in reflection. It seems very counter-intuitive to suggest that reflection is not necessarily a virtue or that there is a misplaced faith in reflection. However, I am going to raise some concerns I have which indicate why I fail to share much of the enthusiasm for reflection and reflective practice.

The first concern is: what do we mean by reflection? Is there a generally accepted meaning attached to the notion of reflection?

I would argue that reflection is beyond discursive control, where its meaning is extremely nebulous and it can be assimilated into many incommensurable (pedagogical, epistemological and ideological) frameworks. In short, despite the widespread use of ‘reflection’, the meanings attached to and invested in reflective practice are heterogeneous. This would appear to suggest conceptual confusion around the notion of reflection. Fendler captures this succinctly:

Today’s discourse of reflection incorporates an array of meanings: a demonstration of self-consciousness, a scientific approach to planning for the future, a tacit and intuitive understanding of practice, a discipline to become more professional, a way to tap into one’s authentic inner voice, a means to become a more reflective teacher, and a strategy to redress injustices in society. Reflective teaching has become a catchall term for competing programs of teacher education reforms.

Fendler (2003:20).

What diverse definitions and models of reflection share is a belief that reflection leads to transformation be it of the self, education or society. My second concern is that there appears little evidence that reflection leads to transformation. Akbari (2007), for example, states that there is a lack of evidence of a link between reflective practices and improved teacher or student performance. Why, then, do we place so much faith on the basis of so little evidence? Finlay, echoing Brookfield (1991), claims ‘there are few intellectual quests so enthusiastically lauded for such meagre, unsatisfactory returns’ (Finlay, 2008:10).

My third concern pertains to the focus of reflection. What is the object of reflection? The self? Pedagogy? Ideology? Students? Seemingly, we can ‘reflect’ on anything and anyone. Regardless of the object of reflection, the self (in its affective, social and intellectual dimensions) appears central. And this is where a whole series of further concerns emerge. Focusing on the self might entail ‘hermeneutic narcissism’ (Maton, 2003:53): unable to write about anything except ourselves and revealing nothing other than ourselves (with all of the attendant dangers of revealing more of ourselves than we would like to).

The temptation to focus on the self is ever more tempting if we are encouraged to accept that:

the author is the only person who can analyse these … [personal reflective] experiences and then turn them into a reserve for his or her own personal development.

Bailey et al., 1996:27.

Their [teachers’] thinking is relative to their entire social experience. And this ‘positionality’ of knowing depends, of course, on past as well as present and anticipated experience so that a teacher’s previous knowledge becomes one more position from which to know.

Freeman, 2002:9.

In short, the self, through reflection on experience, becomes the source of and limit on ‘knowledge’.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Knowledge is diminished, reduced to whatever emerges from private reflection. Isn’t this a peculiar notion of knowledge? Can knowledge be discursively conjured from whatever thoughts, opinions and beliefs (how do we distinguish between them?) we happen to muster and assemble from (highly fallible memories of) ‘experience’? Can or should the value of knowledge be measured more in terms of who produces ‘knowledge’ and the processes by which it is produced than an examination of what is produced or constructed? Can we ‘own’ knowledge? Why should we carry, if indeed we can, the burden to continually produce knowledge through intense introspection on personal experience?

Is reflective practice no more than a transmissive pedagogy by the back door? By this I mean that where traditional pedagogies focus on the transmission of content knowledge, reflective practices focus on the transmission of codified ways of thinking. Rather than being taught what to think, do reflective practices insist on telling us how to think? Do we need to be told and shown how to reflect? Should we all, regardless of age, experience, culture, context, our own desire to reflect, be subjected to (assessed) reflective practices? Is it appropriate for everyone and at all times?

Undertaking reflective practice entails sensitivity to analysing and revealing affective aspects of learning. Learning isn’t arid or bloodless; it requires, for example, certain dispositions, attitudes, desires and motivations to be successful. Emotion is a key dimension of learning. Yet, does that mean we have to display these emotions, analyse them, and, perhaps somewhat therapeutically, overcome (and be seen to overcome) various emotional barriers to learning? Why should I reveal how I feel? How ethical is it to explore (and assess) the emotions of individuals?

In this post I have explored only some of the questions that reflection provokes. I have not touched on the difficulty of teaching reflection, the power relations that might impact on reflective processes and products, the potential poverty of experience to support reflection, how welcome honesty is in reflective writing, or the relationship between reflection and criticality. Nor have I commented on the (frequent?) Road to Damascus syndrome entailing the demonstration of enlightenment from educational ignorance to bliss due entirely to fortuitous and deep soul-searching.

Most importantly I have yet to make any reference to reflection in EAP contexts. I believe that, as EAP practitioners, we need to be very careful and critical if we undertake reflective practice ourselves and even more so if we require this of colleagues. Of equal significance, is a requirement to support and prepare those EAP students who will have to, through possibly no choice of their own, undertake a regime of reflection as part of their EAP programme and/or as part of their future academic studies. In effect, we have to critically engage students with the issues raised here (and their own concerns) so that they are attentive to the risks as well as the affordances of educational models of reflection.