Yiannis Karaliotas

March 2000

Critical Reflection and the Reflective ODE Practitioner

The meaning of 'Critical Reflection'

According to peer exchange, "critical reflection can be defined as thinking about what we are thinking .... act[ing] upon rather than react[ing] to a stimulus" ( Jon, msg#3,105 ) and being inter-related with social constructivist practice and the openness to change ( Martin, msg#22,105 ).

Donald Schön's (1983, 1987) reflective practice in education, which is the first attempt to break with positivist 'technical rationality', it has been said to require:

"diagnosis, testing and belief in personal causation. Diagnosis is the ability to frame or 'make sense of' a problem through use of professional knowledge, past experience, the uniqueness of the setting and people involved, and expectations held by others. Once framed, the reflective practitioner engages in on-the-spot experimentation and reflection to test alternative solutions. Finally, the courage to act in situations of uncertainty...requires that the practitioner accept responsibility for action." ( Kirby and Paradise 1992: 70 )

Schön draws a fundamental distinction between two reflective processes: reflection on action and reflection in action . Reflection on action describes the process of reflection which takes place after the event where the practitioner makes explicit and evaluates the theories of action used to solve a problem. Reflection in action describes interaction with a 'live' problem as it unfolds. The capacity to reflect in action assumes that the problem-solver has the capacity to surface their 'knowing in action', that is, the hidden or tacit knowledge which we use to deal with particular tasks ( Hawkridge, 2000 ).

Where a problem does not create a sense of uncertainty or surprise we tend to deal with it spontaneously on the basis of that tacit knowledge. However, where a problem contains an element of uncertainty or value conflict, we consciously confront our tacit theories of action and their underlying values in order to reframe the problem and make it capable of resolution ( Reinhard, msg#27,105 ). Schön calls this process 'the reflective conversation'. "When someone reflects-in-action he [sic] becomes a researcher in the practice context" ( Schön, 1983 )

The essence of Schön's model of professional education is the creation of an environment in which students can confront simulated or live problems and engage reflectively with them. This he calls the ' reflective practicum '. It is a safe environment in which learners put their rule-based knowledge into action and develop a repertoire of responses and judgements which become progressively more complex and sophisticated as they develop to cover a wider range of experiences.

Within the context of this course, tutor group and plenary conferences seem to have provided such an environment where our (student & tutor) CMC discussion on Block1 appears to have carried in practice all the elements of reflective process as described by Schön.

In reference to msg#141,103 (Annette) , which offered an excellent summary of peer responses embellished with the writer's own insights, it was suggested that this can be seen, as a point of action, implementing reflection in and on action (decoding/making meaning of subject resources, including peer responses) and attempting reflection for action (synthesis of written account on the subject - TMA) ( Yannis, msg#36,105 & #204,103 ).

The concept of reflection in action is one of the cornerstones of Schön's theory. It is this process which integrates theory, intuition and action in situations of uncertainty. It is understandable, therefore, that it is reflection in action which has been the principal focus of analysis and critique.

Eraut (1995) reframes Schön's account by recognising the significance of time when reflecting on an action (more time allowing more deliberation). Time is a definite constraint and it may be that lack of it leads to 'thinner' rather than 'thicker' forms of reflection - but we should not under-estimate the sophistication of thinking that is occurring in practice. Eraut's observation might be right but not so much his conclusion of "reflection [be] best seen as a metacognitive process..." ( Eraut 1994) ). The complexity of some of the thinking taking place on the hoof, irrespective of time constraints, in no way does it point out to a dismissal of the notion of reflection-in-action.

Reflection-in-action is knowledge gained through an activity. The knowing is through the action, tied directly in the activity itself, not as something known before hand as a set of presumptions or axioms. What is more, reflection-in-action seems to best bring out the critical element in the reflective process that Mezirow gives emphasis to in his work on transformative learning ( Mezirow et al. 1991 ), because it can directly and instantly challenge given attitudes and learned cultures ( Yannis, msg#36,105 ).

Allen (1992) addresses those concerns by offering a definition of critical reflection as being itself a learning process ( Allen in Hawkridge, 2000 p.39 ). Apparently, this definition is the one that best illustrates the attributes of CR outlined in the course discussion. Allen, broadens the perspective on Schön's and Eraut's 'reflection' by introducing the term 'critical' and, thus, bringing into focus sociocultural context and historical events ( Edith, msg#31,105 ).

"The focus goes beyond simple understanding or identification of issues: its primary concern is with change, achieving a more equitable society through informed social practice .... These new understandings become the basis for decision making which has equity as a fundamental goal" ( Hawkridge, 2000 p.40 ).

This notion of critical reflection as a precursor to change ( Evans and Nation in Hawkridge, 2000 ) is further refined with the introduction of the term 'worlds' - "shorthand for the physical, psychological and intellectual environment in which people have to learn" - by the late, but dearly remembered, Alistair Morgan ( Morgan, 1999 ).


The Reflective ODE Practitioner

"We live in a world of problems which can no longer be solved by the level of thinking that created them" (Albert Einstein).

In our era of market economy, where the means (money, technology) tends to become the ends and the epicentre of human existence, the ever expanding fragmentation of knowledge since the division of study into the disciplines of the trivium and quadrivium and the teaching-learning dichotomy in the dominant western culture have inevitably brought about what Schön describes "the Balkanization of the schools--the division into pieces that don't talk to one another" ( Schön, 1987 ).

It is, more than ever, evident that no single mind in its lifetime can possibly master to harmonise the functions and applications of the countless and rapidly increasing domains and sub-domains of knowledge which have long lost their common (holistic) point of reference, i.e. the age old, fundamental systemic principles of collective universal existence recently re-emerging as the elements of autopoiesis in life systems ( Maturana & Varela, 1980 & 1987 ).

However, in the field of practice (both at individual and collective level), social life forms appear to evolve as destined and seek their equilibrium. In the field of education, central part of every teacher/learner's experience is the rich chaos and the contingencies which constitute the texture of any teaching and learning situation; the second thoughts, the missed opportunities, the irrelevant considerations which somehow have relevance, the difficult holding back while learning happens (or doesn't), the planning of the unplannable, the risk taking. The philosophical position of the representational view of mind ( Putnam, 1988 ), which assumes that learning is a process of immaculate perception dependant on external pre-structured representations, cannot accommodate the ability of the mind to interpret and construct in action. The positivist notions of the mind clash with the reality of practice.

Action reflection, as an outcome of critical thinking, seems to help practitioners develop the habits of mind in which "change is regarded as the fundamental reality, forms and structures are perceived as temporary, relationships are held to involve developmental transformations and openness is welcomed" ( Brookfield, 1987, p. 13 ).

Should teaching, then, be regarded as a means of improving schooling, by focusing on generalised issues of the management of curriculum or class, or should it be seen instead as a means of engaging in a critical process of action reflection which is in itself Paideia (=education and acculturation)?

Possible transformations in design

In my chosen field of practice (Higher education, Pedagogy), the current concern is the design and implementation of a network of distance learning intended to support learners and teachers of elementary education, focusing on remote populations (islands, isolated villages and towns) and excluded minorities (disabled, gypsies, refugees). My role is to offer consultation on educational technology issues and modes of delivery and to assist in the formation of content.

For the purposes of critical reflection, I would like to contemplate the what , why and how of this project. This is the usual order in which such projects are tackled assuming that the rationale has been sufficiently dealt with by the higher authority. Choosing the course of particular actions becomes then a matter of either technological determination or subjective criteria and preferences.

On reflection, the team must first familiarise themselves with the worlds of the stakeholders and their social roles in the process within the project context - even beyond the traditional boundaries known as the context of implementation - attempt to identify their needs and requirements in order to contemplate any possible ways of innovation ( George, 2000 - Markee, 1997 ).

Defining Action

Holding the notion of change under focus, the introduction of the above schema will likely transform the initial question of Why into a critical question of Who Adopts What in the proposed context of innovation, i.e. the introduction of distance learning in elementary education with the use of new technologies. In describing sociocultural factors ( Allen, 1992 - Evans & Nation, 1989 ), we need to take into consideration that "multiple systems potentially interact to constrain classroom innovation" ( Markee, 1997, p.106 ). Figure 1, adapted from Kennedy (1988) , incorporates a hierarchy of such subsystems.


Figure 1: The hierarchy of interrelating subsystems in which innovations have to operate

Considering such a hierarchy would remind the project team that the network will be a component of cultural, political, administrative, educational, and institutional subsystems. Becoming aware of such subsystems can potentially help to critically reflect on the variables which affect the diffusion of innovations.

Kennedy states that the outer rings shown in Figure 1, the cultural influences, are more powerful than the inner rings of the system, which is worth taking into account. However, it may be advisable that, in the context of the process of design and implementation, the project team should primarily follow Markee's suggestion "to state upfront what their particular ideological orientations are and also to analyze how different variables cluster together in light of these orientations" ( Markee, 1997, p. 108 ). Articulating this question remind us to think about why we do all those things, for what ends, and according to which approaches to change.

By resolving those issues, the answers to the What and How questions would no longer be determined by technology and subjective preferences alone. Furthermore, the possibility of opening a dialogue with the main operating agents in the proposed network, namely the teachers and learners, might be considered a necessary action. Such a decision, to engage in a CMC dialogue while designing and planning, could lead to critically reflecting on the proposed system of communication and delivery, using it at that stage as a pilot prototype. Acting as reflective researchers, all agents would also be in a position to evaluate the features and reflect on the demands of Laurillard's (1993) 'conversational' model of learning that Thorpe (1995) appears to be advocating in her article.





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