Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Critical reflective practice is one of the most powerful thought exercises for goal-setting, strategic visioning, and living what Parker Palmer calls an “undivided life” (Courage to Teach. 1997).
“If we want to grow as teachers -- we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives -- risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”
― Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life
Critical reflective practice is a process of “meaning making” that links past practice with present context in order to harness future facing goals (Dewey, 1916/1944; Schön, 1983; Rodgers, 2002). If there is no room for reflective practice, actions remain unconnected and experience alone might cause us to “reinforce stereotypes…, offer simplistic solutions to complex problems and generalize inaccurately based on limited data” (Ash & Clayton, 2009, p.26).
Engaging in critical reflection helps us “articulate questions, confront bias, examine causality, contrast theory with practice and identify systemic issues all of which helps foster critical evaluation and knowledge transfer” (Ash & Clayton, 2009, p. 27, quoted here).
Critical reflection is a skill that can be learned through practice and feedback (Dewey, 1933, Rodgers, 2002). And yet we do not usually assign critical reflection in our courses, nor do we have clear frameworks for teaching it or develop criteria for assessing it. This oversight is not limited to our classrooms: we do not value critical reflective practice - or invite in all the messiness and imperfections of growth – in tenure and promotion structures either. Even in strategic visioning processes the depth of reflection is uneven at best. What is valued and visible is the shiny packaging of perfection rather than the more candid, contested, and authentic narratives of constant and ongoing transformation.
The lack of attention to critical reflection is problematic when we consider the research that links this practice to building critical thinking (Kuh), designing for authentic learning environments (Herrington and Reeves), developing emotional and social intelligence (Dewey), and other key competencies of a liberal education.
Over the past several months I had the privilege of working closely with 10 award-winning faculty and 48 student leaders on developing critically reflective dossiers for the 3M National Teaching and Student Fellowships as a 3M mentor (outside and beyond my role as the ED). The dossiers are daunting because they are extensive (35 pages and 15 pages respectively), but what is more challenging is that they require nominees to excavate their authentic voices. The academy has trained us to stamp out our inner voices – with all the vulnerabilities and joys, silliness and sadness – in order to “sound like experts” in professional and disciplinary fields.
So many faculty reflect, when given safe and brave spaces, that they have lost the spark of delight that led them into academia in the first place. These revelations should be troubling to us all. And yet critical reflective practice helps us unlock fundamental values and align work with purpose. In doing so, reflection builds resilience in a profession that otherwise has high burn-out rates. One of the nominees this year was generous enough to send a letter to the four Maple League Presidents about her transformative process in writing the dossier; with permission we share it in the appendix of this report.
Getting back to the core values and deep delights of our identities – as leaders, scholars, colleagues, and educators – is hard work for so many because we weren’t taught how to do critical reflective practice; this means we also don’t teach, model, value, or facilitate the deep work of critical reflective practice for our students or our colleagues. We can be better.
I am grateful for the opportunity to walk alongside faculty on their reflective journeys. The process as a 3M mentor gives the gift of renewal -- of joy and a shot of energy and a reminder of the hope in the world, helping us remember our own heart work. It is intimate, individualized, and intensive work, but it is some of the most meaningful work we can do.
We must do more to teach and evaluate critical reflective practice in our classrooms, in our faculty development, and our work as institutions. Looking back helps us understand our present and move into the future with alignment, purpose, and joy. While there is tremendous value for individuals to engage in this work, we must also challenge ourselves to do this as communities of practice, as institutions, and as a consortium. Our very resilience and joy are at stake.
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities