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Faculty Development Center

Reflective Teaching Habits

Effort is felt only when there is a conflict of interests in the mind. The idea A may be intrinsically exciting to us. The idea Z may derive its interest from association with some remoter good. A may be our sweetheart, Z may be some condition of our soul's salvation. Under these circumstances, if we succeed in attending to Z at all it is always with an expenditure of effort.

William James, The Principles of Psychology

The wry, understated humor of that last sentence in James' passage above seems particularly compelling as February gives the lie to many a New Year's resolution. That remoter good--a trimmer waist, a healthier routine, a calmer and more organized life--may have already been eclipsed by a tempting immediate pleasure (or crisis). Of course we all know that changing habits of behavior and response is never as simple as we would hope. Sometimes, the more difficult challenge is admitting to ourselves that troubling habits exist and might need serious attention.

Starting a new term with the best of intentions and a high level of motivation, we might be looking forward to teaching a new class--or seeing whether the changes we've made in a class we've taught frequently work to our satisfaction. But it's also the case that for many of us teaching habits are what propel us through the semester. We have succeeded in many aspects of teaching--lecturing, discussion leading, grading essays--and we rely on our experience and well-honed instincts to guide us as we meet new classes and attempt to travel with them through the semester (often over well-worn paths). Despite our initial enthusiasms, though, our motivation to keep things fresh and challenging sometimes begins to fade as the semester unfolds, accompanied by a notable drop in students' attention, especially as warmer weather beckons.

Yet developing one specific habit could probably help professors more than any individual teaching strategy in keeping students engaged until the final weeks of the term. That habit is a regular, more sustained critical reflection on what we are doing, day to day, as instructors--both in and out of the classroom. In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen D. Brookfield explains that reflection becomes critical reflection when one of its purposes "is to question assumptions and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier but actually work against our own best long-term interests" (p.8). It's hard to keep James' Z in mind in the midst of assignments, meetings, an avalanche of email, and preparing for class; but our pedagogical goals need to be revisited regularly, and measured against daily classroom events, in order for us to keep courses on track.

In the simplest sense, being reflective means taking the time to review what went well, or not so well, in class every time we teach. Few faculty keep a teaching journal of any sort, but such a record can help us make decisions about what to do in upcoming class sessions. Rather than rushing off to the next meeting, or office hours, or the lab, consider taking a short break after each class period to note successes, concerns, points to be re-explained, or questions to be addressed. Did the class seem to work the way you wanted it to work? Are there problems that need to be addressed that keep cropping up? Do you believe your students are achieving the learning goals you set out for them at the beginning of the semester? Are there ways of figuring out what students need more or particular help with?

Brookfield notes that without the habit of reflection, we risk making bad judgments and take action on the basis of unexamined assumptions, thinking we can read our students' minds: "We fall into the habits of justifying what we do by reference to unchecked "common sense" and of thinking that the unconfirmed evidence of our own eyes is always accurate and valid. 'Of course we know what's going on in our classrooms,' we say to ourselves. 'After all, we've been doing this for years, haven't we?' Yet unexamined common sense is a notoriously unreliable guide to action" (pp. 3-4).

In his book, Brookfield, of course, develops the notion of critical reflection in much greater detail. He explains not only why critical reflection is a crucial part of teaching, but also describes "how we can view what we do and think as teachers through four distinctive lenses. These are our autobiographies as teachers and learners, our students' eyes, our colleagues' perceptions, and theoretical literature" (pxvii). By thinking about our own learning experiences, by getting more student feedback, and by discussing teaching concerns with other faculty members, we can gain greater insight into our teaching practices and the options that might improve our work. The fourth lens, literature about teaching, is also often extremely useful, and the Faculty Development Center has a well-stocked library of books and materials available for borrowing.

And dare we think of habits as an insignificant part of the goal of gaining or imparting knowledge, William James offers yet another pity comment on our condition, both as learners and teachers, in the concluding paragraph of his chapter "Habit" in The Principles of Psychology: "The physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally of hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habit, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our fates, good or evil, and never to be undone."

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For a brief excerpt from Stephen Brookfield's Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995) see: http://www.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/facultypapers/StephenBrookfield_Wisdom.cfm

For notes on one of Brookfield's workshops, http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/mrcte/brookfield.htm