Book Review: Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher

By Daniel Guberman

In the music history classroom students develop knowledge, skills, and experiences that go beyond remembering facts. Regardless of the music covered, as teachers we have a responsibility to empower students to engage critically with the world by fostering information, social, and political literacy. Although some may perceive this mode of teaching  as hostile to traditional narratives, it develops from a critical pedagogy that prompts instructors to expose the ways in which structural inequalities throughout history, current society, and our discipline shape contemporary musical culture. As a means of reaching this end, instructors must uncover the ways these hierarchies continually inform our classrooms, curriculum, and discipline.

This critical pedagogy framework derives from the writings of Paulo Friere and bell hooks, but for many, these theories offer a challenge in praxis. How do we go from idealized theory to practice? Stephen Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher provides and models specific tools for teachers pursuing these lofty goals.  Originally published in 1995, the second edition (2017) retains the original framework but is completely rewritten, drawing on new examples and experiences. Entirely new chapters deal with incorporating new technologies, teaching classes about race and racism, and applying these principles to leadership roles. Here, though, I will focus on the book’s premise and method of critical reflection.

At the core of Brookfield’s pedagogical approach are a set of tools for uncovering and evaluating suppositions, especially hegemonic assumptions about our teaching. Brookfield outlines four critical perspectives and provides specific examples of practical applications of each reflective lens (a separate chapter is devoted to each one):

  1. Students’ Eyes: Debates abound regarding the value of student evaluations. Regardless, there are many ways to solicit and collect meaningful feedback on our teaching, and no matter how we do it, Brookfield argues that time spent collecting and engaging directly with student feedback gives us insight into whether students are succeeding, the goal being student learning, rather than our successful teaching. Moreover, if one of our goals is to empower students to see structural hierarchies, and we recognize the classroom as one that we want to challenge, we must ensure that students are able to push back when our teaching does not align with these democratic principles. One particularly valuable tool, developed by Brookfield for collecting student feedback, is the “Critical Incident Questionnaire,” which asks students to reflect on specific moments and actions during a class. I have experimented with asking these questions at the end of every meeting, and find that this helps to illuminate the dynamics of group discussions and provide deeper insights into student learning than traditional minute paper questions such as “What did you learn today?” or “What do you have questions about?”
  2. Colleagues’ Perceptions: Traditional peer observations can be just as fraught as student evaluations, but again, our colleagues have important experiences and lessons to share with us.  Rather than open observation or discussion, Brookfield offers some specific approaches designed to structure colleagues’ discussions about teaching. For example, in “chalk talk,” an activity designed for faculty meetings or small workshops, a teaching question is written in the middle of a board. Colleagues silently write responses to that main prompt, as well as engage with ideas contributed by others. The facilitating colleague, meanwhile, silently draws lines to establish connections and poses clarifying questions in writing. Verbal conversation follows only after the ideas have been developed silently. A second chapter approaches team-teaching as a way to model critical reflection.
  3. Personal Experience: This is admittedly the most challenging reflective lens to use productively, because we must not assume the universality of our experiences or attitudes. Brookfield models ways to address this challenge by including his own reflections on various learning situations (workshops, conferences, recreational learning). By describing his own experiences as a learner, particularly in situations in which he is not an expert (e.g., taking swimming lessons), he can engage with some of the feelings his students may have as non-experts in his class.
  4. Learning from Theory: Too often, we engage with scholarship as a way of confirming what we already know or think. Brookfield challenges us to use scholarship as a way to uncover and challenge assumptions. For many musicologists, this might mean venturing out into other academic territories to explore how other disciplines teach similar skills. For example, the author describes how his engagement with critical race theory changed his perspective—instead of viewing himself as “one of the good guys,” he saw himself as “complicit in unthinkingly supporting structures that legitimize racism” (p. 176), which led to a dramatic shift in his teaching (described in detail in chapter 12).

These tools facilitate continued growth in our teaching, and Brookfield’s reflective mode of articulating his own narrative of his journey as a scholar and teacher, models how to integrate these abstract theories into one’s personal practice.