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.

Where have we been? Where are we going?

By Colin Roust, University of Kansas

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the AMS Pedagogy Study Group. With that auspicious date and the new website, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the recent history of music history pedagogy, as well as offer a few thoughts on directions in the field.

Last September, Ashgate Publishing recognized Mary Natvig’s 2002 essay collection, Teaching Music History, as one of their publications that has made the greatest impact on the author’s field. While Scott Dirkse has recently shown that this was hardly the first publication on music history pedagogy, I find it hard to challenge Ashgate’s assessment. In response to the publication of Natvig’s book, Kathryn Lowerre organized the first Teaching Music History Day in 2003 at Michigan State University. We are currently preparing for the eleventh edition of that event and the growth is palpable. What began as a one-day regional workshop has now become a national conference drawing participants from across the United States and Canada. The attendees at the 2015 conference represented eleven of the fifteen AMS chapters and, after the next two editions take place in Denver and Boston, the event will have been hosted within the boundaries of five of those chapters.

Since the publication of Natvig’s book, James Briscoe and James Davis have assembled complementary essay collections. Under Jessie Fillerup’s leadership, the founding of the Pedagogy Study Group in 2006 ensured that there would at least one pedagogy session at every AMS annual meeting. The Committee on Career-Related Issues also hosts an annual Master Teacher Session and in just the last few years, half of the other study groups and the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music have organized pedagogy-related sessions at the AMS meetings. The first issue of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy appeared in 2010. Then in 2013 we experienced a watershed moment, when the members of the society voted to revise the AMS Object Statement to include the word “teaching.”

Nor has the AMS been alone in generating discourse about music history pedagogy. The College Music Society has had a decades-long history of engagement with the topic. At the 2012 Congress of the International Musicological Society, Giuseppina La Face chaired the inaugural session for the Study Group on the Transmission of Knowledge as a Primary Aim in Music Education, a group focused on international conversations about music pedagogy and didactics. La Face has also served as the executive editor of Musica Docta, a multilingual online journal about pedagogy and didactics whose first volume was published in 2011. And in 2014, John Spilker founded the Pedagogy Interest Group for the Society of American Music.

In short, there is more happening now in the field of music history pedagogy than at any prior point in the discipline’s history. But the majority of the essays in Natvig’s, Briscoe’s, and Davis’s essay collections are self-reflective and anecdotal. This is perhaps most transparent in Michael Beckerman’s “How Can You Teach What You Don’t Know? … and Other Tales from Music History Pedagogy” and Gavin Douglas’s “Some Thoughts on Teaching Music History from an Ethnomusicological Perspective.”[1] These are essays written by music history teachers for music history teachers. The anecdotal basis of these essays has also been reflected in the vast majority of music history pedagogy conference presentations that I have heard—and those that I’ve given. There is value in this, certainly, but it hardly resembles the sort of critical scholarship that is demanded in other fields of musicological inquiry, or academic inquiry in general.[2]

At the 2014 AMS roundtable on the undergraduate music history curriculum, Daniel Di Censo challenged the panel, commenting that there is considerable scholarship on pedagogy happening in other academic disciplines, all of which seems to be ignored in the scholarship on music history pedagogy. Di Censo was both right and wrong. There is indeed a dearth of non-music history related sources in the bibliographies and footnotes of the essays in Natvig’s, Briscoe’s, and Davis’s collections, as well as the articles published in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy. However, there have been several notable exceptions in recent issues of JMHP. To the best of my knowledge, as of February 2016, this is the comprehensive list of these exceptions: Matthew Baumer’s 2015 article on the undergraduate curriculum is based on a quantitative review modeled on similar curriculum studies done in other fields. Kevin Burke’s 2014 article applies the principles of “Reacting to the Past,” a teaching methodology developed in the discipline of history, to the music history classroom. James Maiello’s 2013 article draws on recent trends in music education to discuss how to apply a paraxial approach to music history courses; Maiello’s article is accompanied by a response from Thomas Regelski, a prominent contributor to the discourse on praxial philosophy in music education. Also from 2013, Robert Lagueux’s essay engages with Benjamin Bloom’s famous taxonomy of learning. In addition, I must mention José Bowen’s 2012 book Teaching Naked,[3] which does an outstanding job of engaging with pedagogy scholarship from a variety of fields—and which is quickly taking its place in the pantheon of essential books to read for college professors, alongside such venerable classics as McKeachie’s Teaching Tips and Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

To conclude, I want to take a moment to reflect on where I think the scholarship of music history pedagogy is going and where this blog might fit into it. I have no doubt that we will continue to see the kinds of self-reflective and anecdotal essays that have built the foundation of this field of scholarship. These are valuable as a way to share ideas of what has worked for a certain person at a certain institution with a certain kind of students. But I also hope that the recent trend represented by Baumer, Burke, Lagueux, and Maiello will continue to expand. We need more examples of rigorous, evidence-based scholarship on the teaching of music history. Musicology is a beautifully interdisciplinary discipline, but little of our pedagogical scholarship has engaged with other disciplines in a substantial way. I am absolutely convinced that our scholarship can have usefulness to people working in a wide variety of other fields, but first we need to accept Di Censo’s challenge and engage more fully with the wealth of pedagogy scholarship being produced in those other fields.

This blog provides an ideal place for short-form writing on pedagogy. Let us know what is working for you in your classroom, but also let us know what you are reading about pedagogy. As you discover helpful ideas from other fields, let us know what they are and how you envision them translating to our classrooms.

[1] Both essays appear in Briscoe’s Vitalizing Music History Teaching.

[2] Shawna Ross recently published a short essay about similar issues with digital pedagogy on the blog of the MLA Committee on Information Technology.

[3] The website for Bowen’s book also has a variety of additional resources worth looking at.