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Reflecting On Assumptions And Critical Thinking


Hi there, in this lesson we're going to discuss the idea of reflective writing.

First, we'll define what it is, and then explore the idea of critical

reflective writing at university using an example.

In order to discuss what reflective writing is,

it's useful to first define what we mean by reflection.

Mezirow suggests that reflection is a turning back on experience.

That is, we engage in reflection whenever we think back on or about an event or

an experience, or even when we engage with the simple awareness of an object.

That means actively thinking about what we've learned and the process of learning.

When we engage in this kind of reflection,

we're doing what Flavel would classify as metacognition.

We're gaining an awareness and

understanding of our own process of learning.

Another way to think of this is that it is, in part, critical self reflection.

We think about how we think.

So how, when, and why do we use reflection at university?

Firstly, reflection can be a study habit for individual students.

In fact, Mezirow suggests that critical reflection is a cornerstone of

adult learning, and key to being able to think independently.

This means that you, as a student,

critically reflect both on what you've learned and how you're learning.

You could reflect on anything, from your study habits, to the way your ideas and

attitudes are changing, or the gaps in your knowledge or

skills that you need to fill.

This kind of reflection, or

metacognition, encourages learner autonomy and will make you a better learner.

Boyd and Fales suggest that reflection occurs

when you think about an experience or event that revealed an area of concern.

For example, for a medical student, the experience might a clinical error

that might have revealed a lack of knowledge about a disease.

Or it might have uncovered a personal assumption or

bias that a student had towards a patient.

It might even highlight a personal tendency,

such as being too quick to jump to conclusions.

Reflecting on the experience and

area of concern thus enables you to better understand yourself and

your own gaps in knowledge, assumptions, and biases or thought processes.

Next, in the significance stage, you analyze why it happened.

You might draw on or question prior learning or relevant theory and

research in order to contextualize the concern.

If, for example, it was revealed that the medical student made an error due to

a lack of knowledge about a particular disease, they would then need to discuss

how they would overcome this difficulty in the future.

Simply looking up and

learning more about the particular disease doesn't solve the core problem.

It is impractical to assume that medical professions

will know everything about every disease and medication.

So, a good perfection would also discuss this issue, and

then consult theory and research into how medical professionals overcome it.

Of course, this is usually a difficult process.

You need to be honest about your failings,

to admit faults, or things you find particularly difficult.

As Brookfield suggests,

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.

In this way, reflective writing is both subjective and objective.

It's subjective because you're talking about your personal experiences,

thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, and you often use I.

On the other hand, it's objective because you need to treat those experiences,

thoughts, beliefs and opinions like any other argument.

Something that can be analyzed and deconstructed to reveal new truths.

And finally, while the written aspect to a reflection is probably more particular to

universities, critical reflection is definitely not.

Some of the most common interview questions for jobs are focused on

identifying personal strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.

In fact, look at any advice page for interviews, and

you'll find people stressing the need to find examples of specific instances.

How you dealt with them, and what you've learned about

dealing with those situations, about yourself or about the field.

While you may not need to draw on theory and

research to back up what you're saying, the principle is still the same.

You need to be critically reflective.

Of course, this is something that applies to all the skills we've been discussing on

this course.

Being a critical and reflective thinker is not just a hat you put on

when you walk into a tutorial or a lecture hall.

It's something that you are and do every time you engage with new information or

a new argument.

Whether it's published in an academic journal article,

a friend's social media post, or a tabloid magazine.

Using these skills is how we grow and learn throughout our whole lives.


Research indicates that critical reflection makes a significant impact on a teacher’s knowledge, skills, and effectiveness (Brookfield 2004; Cranton, 1996; Willis, 1999).  The skills of critical reflection now form the underpinnings of most teacher education programs internationally (Clarke & Otaky, 2006).  Cranton (1996) argued the process of critical reflection allows individuals to identify and locate the origins of assumptions that guide their actions, and consider alternative ways of acting. Critically reflective teachers are better able to question assumptions and develop new perspectives toward understanding culture and complex aspects of teaching. Teachers must also reflect emotionally and cognitively to develop and improve. This affective element demonstrates that reflection is a complex process that requires time to integrate successfully. On the teaching of young children, Anderson (2014) wrote:

… educators come to new understandings…. Using a critical lens, our existing values and beliefs, theories, and epistemologies… can be transformed… reflective practice provides a new opportunity to re-form our pedagogy and increase our professional capacity.... To transform early childhood education, we need to better recognize the possibilities in ourselves and begin to take action. (p. 81).

Brookfield (1988, 1995) identified four types of analysis in critical reflection. First, assumption analysis challenges a teacher’s beliefs, values, cultural practices, and social structures; it comprises three types: paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal assumptions.  Second, contextual awareness supports a teacher’s awareness that their assumptions are socially and personally constructed. Third, through imaginative speculation teachers develop alternative thinking to find better ways of doing things. Finally, reflective skepticism elicits questioning of assumptions taken-for-granted. This type of critical reflection is a foundation for transformative learning leading to new understandings and actions (Mezirow, 1990). 

Research recently conducted by myself and colleagues (in press) included interviews with 62 Qatari teachers intended to clarify their understandings of reflective practice both in knowledge and application. Focus group data revealed that the teachers primarily limited their reflection to a technical level. But conversations with teachers revealed that some moved toward critical reflection, engaging in assumption analysis. By acknowledging that culture and educational structure played a role in the ability to implement change, teachers were reflecting critically by identifying causal assumptions. When they described “what ought to be” happening in their classrooms, they were expressing prescriptive assumptions

There is not much (though some) evidence that teachers have developed a conscious awareness that their assumptions are socially and personally constructed (contextual awareness).By suggesting alternative thinking to find better ways of doing things, teachers couldprovide some evidence of imaginative speculation. But this was limited to their individual classrooms. They seldom considered or questioned social, cultural, and educational structures.While teachers could make assumptions about colleagues’ resistance to change, there was scant evidence that teachers challenged their own assumptions (reflective skepticism). Overall, the teachers did engage in reflection, and a few occasionally moved toward the more complex critical reflection Brookfield described.Such reflection, however, did not seem to come from conscious effort, but reflected a low level of self-awareness among teachers of their own critical reflection. 

If we want teachers to be critically reflective, they must be taught the concepts and skills, and to have meaningful opportunities to reflect. Most important, they must be empowered to extend their critical reflection into a process of actively exploring change in the classroom and in the education system.  The most productive critical reflection makes teachers’ personal assumptions explicit, and enables them to challenge those assumptions in the unique context in which they teach. To do this, one must gain awareness of the cognitive process of reflection and the affective influences on one’s thoughts and actions. 

Reflective teachers can discover many ways of developing less teacher-directed practices that encourage students themselves to both frame and to solve problems.  Here is an example. A mathematics education professor was disappointed by many textbook driven lessons she observed. The teachers said the need to meet prescribed lesson outcomes inhibited reflection. She collaborated with a teacher of five year-olds, and they decided the students themselves should direct the learning of the next topic, linear measurement.  The approach was to elicit questions from the children, and then have them find answers to their questions. 

On the classroom floor they outlined a shape (a few metres long); the teacher made no remark about it to the children.  At first sight, children talked about the shape, walked in, outside and around it, and on the third day, some sat inside it.  Some said it might be a canoe.  On the fourth day the teacher asked the students what they thought the shape might represent.  Most said it resembled a canoe.  The teacher asked if they had questions about it. The questions were varied, and many related to mathematics, such as how long and wide the canoe was. The students investigated these linear concepts. They both formally and informally estimated, measured, and used fractional numbers. 

Reflecting on the project, the teacher realized that the role of a teacher is to guide, encourage, occasionally redirect, and importantly, listen carefully as the children shared ideas.  Other teachers became interested and used the approach in other curricular areas, particularly science.  They reflected and shared ideas.  Did the students answer their own questions?  Did they have fun? Were the ‘intended’ mathematics concepts addressed?  Yes.  Did the mathematics learned come directly from a textbook?  No.  As the teacher noted, “Being a committed teacher means you are open to changing the way you teach, and to improve the way you teach takes a commitment to engage in reflective practice.”

Critical reflection helps teachers grasp the complexity of their actions and to improve future actions. The most effective teachers are those who reflect continuously to make meaning from any teaching situation.


  • Anderson, E. M. (2014). Transforming early childhood education through critical reflection. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood15(1), 81-82.
  • Brookfield, S. (2004). The getting of wisdom: What critically reflective teaching is and why it’s important. Retrieved  from
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  • Brookfield, S. (1988). Training educators of adults: The theory and practice of graduate adult Education. New York: Routledge.
  • Cranton, P. (1996). Professional development as transformative learning: New perspectives for teachers of adults. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Clarke, M., & Otaky, D. (2006). Reflection “on” and “in” teacher education in the United Arab Emirates. International Journal of Educational Development, 26(1), 111–122. 
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