Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Stephen Brookfield

Stephen Brookfield is widely respected as a leading contemporary thinker in adult education. His academic research and writing is informed by his experience of teaching adults in England, Australia, Canada and the USA. Born in Liverpool in 1949, he has written extensively on adult learning, critical thinking, discussion and critical pedagogy. His work should be on the reading lists of all adult educators who are committed to reflective practice and critical pedagogy.

Stephen Brookfield

Stephen Brookfield

His personal website gives more information: http://stephenbrookfield.com/Dr._Stephen_D._Brookfield/Home.html

He is probably best known for the concept of ‘Brookfield’s lenses’, which describes four perspectives that teachers can consider in their critical reflection. He identifies these as:

  1. the autobiographical, (the teacher’s own view)
  2. the students’ eyes (the students’ views)
  3. our colleagues’ experiences (fellow professionals’ views)
  4. theoretical literature.

These four lenses bring together the processes of self-reflection, student feedback, peer assessment and consideration of relevant academic literature. They sum up various elements of critical thinking that reflective practitioners bring to their teaching with adult learners.

Giulia Forsythe, who tweets as @giuliaforsythe, has produced this wonderful visual summary of Brookfield’s 1995 book, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education). It would make a fantastic poster and is shared with Giulia’s kind permission.

Giulia Forsythe's visual summary of Brookfield's, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher"

Giulia Forsythe’s visual summary of Brookfield’s, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher”

This blog scratches the surface of Brookfield’s work. Have you got any comments or observations about the impact of his work on your professional practice, your experience as a student, or pointers to other relevant resources?

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What’s the point of reflective practice?

As educators we put a lot into what we do. We think, we question, we plan, we learn, we teach and we reflect. Praxis, the cycle of reflection, practice, reflection and improved practice is fundamental to good teaching, learning and assessment and most outstanding teachers are expert learners who continue to develop their subject expertise and their professional practice.

So far, so good, but the big question is, “What difference does all this make to students?” In other words, “What’s the point?”

The WEA context

The Workers’ Educational Association works exclusively with adult learners so we have to consider all sorts of starting points, personal circumstances, educational experiences, barriers and motivations and to tailor our practice so that they can have the best possible learning experiences. Our professional development is about our learning to improve their learning through our teaching and planning.

The WEA’s teaching, learning and assessment happens in a complex networked organisation supported by many volunteers, with a democratic membership structure and elected governance. We work at community levels across England and Scotland, as part of a wider international family of Workers’ Educational Associations. We run part-time courses, working flexibly and adapting to locally identified situations and partnerships. Without campuses and with very few of our own learning centres, we’re very mobile and adaptable. We try to turn the ‘hard to reach’ cliché on its head by recognising that most educational opportunities for adults are hard to reach and so taking our courses to them.

Our dispersed model of working brings advantages and challenges as we work to bring our vision and values to life through our classroom practice, which is rarely in dedicated WEA classrooms and more usually in hired rooms in community-based venues where people can feel more at home.

Proof of the pudding

The logistics alone give us a lot to think about, but the practicalities are ‘backroom’ issues. What matters most is the difference that we make to our students and the difference that their learning makes to their lives. That’s where reflective practice is essential and where we have to balance our thinking about what we put into teaching, learning and assessment with the crucial matter of what our students gain from it. As we’re committed to education for social purpose, we’re also interested in the wider effects on their friends, families and communities.

This short film shows the impact of WEA learning and our tutors’ expertise:

WEA leaders and managers use data to help us to reflect, shape and improve what we do, but we’re a ‘head and heart’ organisation that combines our use of statistics with a constant stream of students’ stories that inspire and motivate us.

Here are 2 short films of students telling their stories about family learning.

These are examples of what drives us and our professional practice in teaching and learning.

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Reflective practice and feedback in leadership and management

Reflective practice is a feature of good teaching and learning. It’s important for governors and managers in education too.

Last week WEA Trustees and senior managers met to work on the next stages of our strategic planning. We used critical thinking and questioning to challenge any ‘fixed mind-sets’ in the planning process. Our working principles for more detailed strategic planning included the following:

1. Stick to core principles – education first
We agreed not to work on finance and funding strategies until we had focused on the priorities and direction of our educational work. Our vision, mission and values are central to planning. We concentrated on plans to improve outcomes for our students and their communities based on our prioritised themes of employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and culture.

StrategicPlan-Graphic_thumb

2. Avoid the ‘echo chamber’ effect
We recognise that talking among ourselves could lead to predictable thinking as we read the runes, even within a lively, democratic organisation, unless we consider other sources of information and interpretation. Contributions from external experts can ginger up our approach to strategic planning and help us to review our work in the light of wider social, economic, policy and educational trends.

3. Keep challenging stereotypes
People are individuals with different interests, talents or aspirations, whatever their circumstances. Inclusion has to be on the basis of personal aims, ambitions and circumstances and not on a patronising tick-box approach. There’s more about some of our current work on equality and diversity at http://betterforeveryone.wordpress.com/.

4. Empathy and involvement
We discussed the need to think about things from the perspectives of students, tutors, volunteers and partners, trying to see the impact of plans from their points of views. We recognise the dangers of second guessing other people’s opinions on their behalf without wider, inclusive discussions.

5. Identify historical ‘drag’ factors that slow down progress
We challenged the attitude of, “We can’t change this because we’ve always done things this way.”

The meeting released some fresh questions and ideas to discuss at Scottish, regional and local levels in England and was a productive way to review and update strategic planning assumptions.

Meeting the matrix Standard
We received the feedback from an intensive two-and-a–half week assessment for the matrix Standard on the day after our Strategy Day. (The lower case m isn’t a typo.)

The matrix Standard is the unique quality framework for the effective delivery of information, advice and/or guidance on learning and work. It promotes the delivery of high quality information, advice and/or guidance by ensuring organisations review, evaluate and develop their service; encourage the take up of professionally recognised qualifications and the continuous professional development of their staff.

See http://matrixstandard.com/ for more information.

We were delighted with the feedback, although we’re never complacent. The report won’t be available for a few weeks but it is very encouraging. We enjoyed hearing the independent validation of the WEA’s strengths after a rigorous assessment of 5 English regions. We’re also pleased that the suggested areas for improvement aligned very closely with those that we had identified in our own Self-Assessment Report, Improvement and Development Plan and during our Strategy Day.