Using the 4 Lenses of Critical Reflection to Uncover Your Teaching Assumptions

4 Lenses
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By Christine Goedhart

“As with all aspects of science and education, new evidence will and should prompt us to revisit our assumptions, question our practices, and make new instructional choices that continuously improve teaching and learning.” (Cooper et al., 2021)

We’re now a full year into remote teaching during a global pandemic. During this time we’ve encountered new situations, new experiences, new technologies, and a whole lot of new information. As we cross this one-year threshold, it’s a good time to look back and critically reflect on what happened, what was learned, and how our thinking may have changed.

And in particular, now is a great time to identify, explore, and challenge our assumptions about teaching and learning.

Assumptions are a foundational part of teaching. In fact, our teaching philosophy and the decisions we make regarding our teaching practice are based on the assumptions that we hold about teaching (e.g., effective teaching uses active learning strategies), learning (e.g., opportunities to practice are needed for learning), and our students (e.g., students come into the course with certain background knowledge).

Ultimately, our teaching assumptions guide how and what we teach.

Assumptions don’t come out of nowhere – they are developed over time through our own experiences, our conversations with others, and our knowledge of scholarly research and theory. And assumptions are not necessarily bad, especially if they are well-informed and regularly examined.

In his book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield describes critical reflection as “the sustained and intentional process of identifying and checking the accuracy and validity of our teaching assumptions.” This is easier said than done, because assumptions are often unconscious, making them difficult to recognize, and thus difficult to challenge.

However, this past year has been particularly conducive to critical reflection. The extraordinarily disruptive impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning has exposed numerous inequities and forced many of our deeply held assumptions to rise to the surface, providing us with a unique opportunity to see them and to address them.

To help us uncover our assumptions, Stephen Brookfield recommends that we critically reflect on our teaching using the following four lenses:

Lens #1: Personal experience – examining our own experiences with teaching and learning

There are important lessons to learn from your own experiences with teaching and learning this past year, especially as you’ve had the opportunity to use new teaching techniques, strategies, and technologies. In addition to being in an instructional role, you may have also experienced remote teaching and learning through different roles, such as observer, workshop participant, or perhaps even student.

Thinking back on all of your personal experiences this past year with remote teaching and learning, consider the following questions:

  • What worked well? What were the elements that made it successful?
  • What didn’t work so well? How could it be improved?
  • What were some challenges that you faced?

Lens #2: Students’ experiences – seeing the course through students’ eyes

Over the past year your students have been remotely engaging with you and the course, and you’ve had a chance to get to know them in new and different ways. For example, new learning technologies may have allowed you to check in with students more frequently throughout the term, hear from students you don’t usually hear from, or get a better understanding of their lives and unique situations.

Thinking back on all the ways you’ve interacted with, and learned about your students this past year, consider the following questions:

  • What was helpful for students’ learning or overall experience in this course?
  • What hindered students’ learning or overall experience in this course?
  • What were some challenges that students faced?

Lens #3: Colleagues’ perceptions – talking about teaching practices with colleagues

Your colleagues have also engaged in remote teaching over the past year and have their own personal experiences and perspectives to share. Talking with your colleagues may have helped you to see things in new ways, expand your understanding of teaching-related practices and situations, and determine if your own experiences are unique or shared by others.

Thinking back on your formal and informal conversations with colleagues over the past year, consider the following questions:

  • In what ways has your remote teaching experience been similar to that of your colleagues?
  • In what ways has your remote teaching experience been different from that of your colleagues?
  • What are some things that you’ve learned from your colleagues?

Lens #4: Theory and Research – engaging with scholarly literature

When beginning something new in science, we often start with a literature review to inform our thinking on the topic. Similarly, you may have turned to the literature or revisited established learning theories as you worked to figure out how to teach remotely. Others may have also shared with you particularly useful articles or scholarly works that helped you make sense of the new teaching situation.

Thinking back on your exposure to educational scholarly literature this past year, consider the following questions:

  • What have you noticed to be some popular topics or trends in the literature?
  • What scholarly literature have you found to be most useful?
  • Have you come across any literature that contradicts your understanding of teaching?

Each of these lenses provides a certain valuable perspective, but has its limitations. When we use all four lenses together we can see a more clear and complete picture, exposing our assumptions and bringing them into focus so that we can better explore them.

Sometimes we completely reject our assumptions when we encounter new evidence, but more often our assumptions evolve to become more refined, nuanced, and complex. Similar to hypotheses in science, the continual act of intentionally articulating, questioning, and testing our teaching assumptions makes them more accurate and contextualized, ultimately leading to better teaching decisions, practices, and outcomes.

Which of your teaching assumptions were exposed or called into question this past year?
How have they changed?
How can you explore them further?

It can be difficult and uncomfortable to answer these questions, but because our teaching decisions are only as good as the assumptions on which they are based, it is important to continually uncover and challenge them. Doing so will result in more accurate assumptions, more informed teaching decisions, and better learning experiences for students.

Want to see a good example of critical reflection in action? Check out Cooper et al. (2021).

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