The Getting of Wisdom: What Critically Reflective Teaching is and Why It’s Important

Journal Club Article: Brookfield, S. (1995). The getting of wisdom: What critically reflective teaching is and why it’s important. Becoming a critically reflective teacher, 1-28.

There is reflection, then there is critical reflection. In teaching to change the world, Brookfield states that “what we think are democratic, respectful ways of treating people can be experienced by them as oppressive and constraining. One of the hardest things teachers learn is that the sincerity of their intentions does not guarantee the purity of their practice. The cultural, psychological and political complexities of learning, and the ways in which power complicates all human relationships (including those between students and teachers) means that teaching can never be innocent.”

What Is Reflection Critical ?

According to Brookfield, “reflection is not, by definition, critical. It is quite possible to teach reflectively while focusing solely on the nuts and bolts of classroom process. Just because reflection is not critical does not mean it is unimportant or unnecessary. But the depth of a reflective effort does not, in and of itself, make it critical. Put briefly, reflection becomes critical when it has two distinctive purposes. The first is to understand how considerations of power frame and distort so many educational processes and interactions. The second is to question assumptions and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier but that actually end up working against our own best long term interests.”

Critical Reflection involves the dynamics of power which “permeate all educational processes helps us realize that forces present in the wider society always intrude into the classroom.”

Rationale for Critical Reflection

“One reason why the habit of critical reflection is crucial for teachers’ survival. Without a critically reflective stance towards what we do we tend to accept the blame for problems that are not of our own making.  A critically reflective stance towards our teaching helps us avoid these traps of demoralization and self-laceration.”

Brookfield states an important aspect of the reflective process is its focus on what he calls “hunting assumptions” and provides 3 types of assumptions.  “Assumptions give meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do. Becoming aware of the implicit assumptions that frame how we think and act is one of the most puzzling intellectual challenges we face in our lives. It is also something we instinctively resist, for fear of what we might discover.

  1. Paradigmatic Assumptions: are the hardest of all assumptions to uncover. They are the structuring assumptions we use to order the world into fundamental categories. e. Some paradigmatic assumptions I have held at different stages of my life as a teacher are that adults are self-directed learners, that critical thinking is an intellectual function characteristic of adult life, that good adult educational processes are inherently democratic, and that education always has a political dimension.
  2. Prescriptive Assumptions: are assumptions about what we think ought to be happening in a particular situation. For example, if you believe that adults are self-directed learners then you assume that the best teaching is that which encourages students to take control over designing, conducting and evaluating their own learning.
  3. Causal Assumptions: are assumptions about how different parts of the world work and about the conditions under which these can be changed.  But discovering and investigating these is only the start of the reflective process. We must then try to find a way to work back to the more deeply embedded prescriptive and paradigmatic assumptions we hold.”

Some assumptions of teaching from Brookfield to consider during critical reflection:

  • The teacher organising group work and going around to check in and answer any questions. Could this be seen by the students as a lack of respect and trust in allowing them to analyse and critique the task at hand? In going around the groups you alter their focus to pleasing the teacher and being task-orientated.
  • Students like group discussion since they feel involved and respected. Discussion methods build upon principles of participatory, active learning. If we explore ‘the Circle’ approach to sitting students for open discussion, its implicit pressure to participate and perform, may be an uncomfortable experience for some.
  • The teacher as equal approach. The power relationships of student and teacher have a historical hierarchical culture within higher education and clear demarcation of roles and boundaries.

The Mandated Confessional

This is one of the most important discussion points in this article. Brookfield highlights the risk of the mandated reflection is that “not being able to produce revelations of sufficient intensity they may decide to invent some.” The student may also not want to admit to an error or being seen as a failure. If we reflect as educators on using reflection for learning in nurse training, the focus ends up on a cardiac arrest, a disagreement with a colleague or a error in clinical practice.

Meeting Everyone’s Needs

“The assumption that good teachers meet all students’ needs all the time is guaranteed to leave us feeling incompetent and demoralized.” It is likely that we are unable to meet every student’s needs so consider this mission impossible.


Critical reflection makes the educator remind oneself to continually research how the learning environment is experienced by students and engage in critical conversation.

  • It Helps Us Take Informed Actions
  • It Helps Us Develop a Rationale for Practice
  • It Helps Us Avoid Self-Laceration
  • It Grounds Us Emotionally
  • It Enlivens Our Classrooms
  • It Increases Democratic Trust

The process of critical reflection encourages review and growth through analysis of the learning environment and make informed decisions.