Theoretically, how are you feeling?

29th April 2005 at 01:00
The Institute for Learning has lost me as a potential member. Although I'm not usually a joiner of such bodies, I thought this one might be a good thing and, taking the fledgling professional body for FE seriously, I read its professional code.

There, I found out that the IfL requires those who join to adhere to the "value" of "reflective practice." They do not explain what they mean, but it obviously sounds safer than "critical thinking", which they don't mention because critical thinkers are dangerous beasts.

Do they even know what they are proposing? The celebration of "reflective practice" is ubiquitous, but does anyone in education have a clue what "reflective practice" means? I don't think they do.

So here's a simple, straightforward guide. "Reflective practice" means lecturers should replace thinking with feeling. It embodies an injunction:

"Don't think, feel!"

Usually untheorised and with scant explanation, the need to be "reflective" turns new lecturers, and even experienced ones, into neurotic creatures poring over feelings about the trivia of how lessons went, how students responded, and how they can do better next time.

Over many years as a teacher-trainer, I've seen hundreds of "reflective logs", lesson evaluations and lengthy personal musings on classes and courses. In one or two cases, I've become worried about the mental health of the individuals being turned into "reflective practitioners". I recall several art teachers, podiatrists, economists and hairdressers, whose work got no better but whose stress levels dramatically increased as a result of "reflection".

Even when the exercise is theorised and explained, most people - even teacher-trainers - don't know what they are talking about. Accounts of "reflective practice" often seem like a necklace of unexamined quotes strung together from the works of everyone from Donald Schon to Yvonne Hillier. This is often credited as an "awareness of theory". As I see it, an "awareness" means not understanding or adopting a theory but simply pointing out that there are people who have a theory. If it were worth struggling to understand the philosophy of "reflective practice", lecturers would need a grounding in epistemology, an understanding of what makes an action meaningful, and what it is to know something without being able to express it in propositional terms. My rule of thumb is, when you hear teacher-trainers using the word "epistemology", reach for your gun!

The celebration of "reflective practice" is a philosophical cover-up of the general shift in education over the past 25 years - from prioritising knowledge and skills to prioritising practice. Dr Shirley Lawes, from Oxford university, who has researched teacher-training, has gone so far as to say that "theory has now been re-defined as practice" and that all this amounts to is an elaboration of self-indulgent navel-gazing.

New lecturers would be better professionals if they had more knowledge from reading theory and spent less time "reflecting". The older idea of "reflective practice" was about using knowledge, drawn from theory, in the classroom. Without that theory, the "knowledge" involved in reflecting is purely personal accounts of lecturers' feelings. Feelings have spontaneously filled the "knowledge gap".

Reflective practice will continue to be popular because it provides a clever label which implies that everyone has a "theory" in their practice, and that there is therefore no need to undertake serious reading and thinking. The managerial value is clear: "reflecting" ensures that everyone feels good about what they are doing, or leaves them too anxious to complain.

Is there a solution? I used to try putting "critical" before "reflective practice". But "critical reflective practice" in the present anti-theoretical climate means adding "cynicism" to the emotional thrust of "reflective practice".

It is probably best to abandon "reflective practice" altogether. I 've heard Professor Terry McLaughlin from London university's institute of education argue that there are better objectives for lecturers than "reflecting" on practice. One objective, he said, would be to try to be less boring.

Being less boring. That's an outstanding value for the IfL to adopt. When they do, I'll join.

Dennis Hayes is the head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church university college

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