Why Inspecting Your Assumptions Is Essential
Why critical reflection is far from optional
“We teach who we are . “
When I read this sentence from Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, my thoughts were at the same time “Yes!” and “Oh no …” I have seen this truth over and over in my own practice. If I take the time to ask, “Why did I do this?” I can often trace the roots back to my own identity and experience. That’s fine and even comforting when it comes from a place of wholeness, but what about the qualities and experiences that I would rather not have seen in my practice?
You may not call yourself a teacher, but I think Palmer’s statement is still true if you replace the word “teach” with anything you do – lead, manage, design, develop, or create. Your practice comes from your personality. While this seems too philosophical to be useful in your busy life, it can be dangerous not to examine this context. A lack of critical reflection means that you are working under taken for granted beliefs, also known as assumptions, which affect your practice, sometimes negatively. You pretend you know what is best for a particular learning situation, group of learner, or organizational need rather than taking the time to understand where that obvious knowledge comes from, who it serves, how exactly it is or whether it really is for the best. Even with the most honest of intentions, your work can be inadequately contextualised and disconnected from your learners, potentially reducing the return on investment or even harming you or your learners.
Stephen Brookfield, an adult education scholar who has devoted considerable time to critical reflection, defines his purpose as “helping us take more informed action so that something designed to help students learn actually has that effect . “If you’re like me, this is something you really want. The first step is to understand how assumptions work.
Brookfield (2017) defines three types of assumptions to look out for: paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal.
1. Paradigmatic Assumptions are worldview assumptions that relate to how you see and organize the world. These are the most difficult to uncover because they are so fundamental to our lives. A personal example is that I see learning as socially constructed and influenced by power dynamics outside of the learning space.
2. Forward-looking assumptions are what you think should happen in any situation. Some of me are:
- Teachers should seek to increase students’ independence by expanding their zone of proximal development.
- Teachers should challenge learners’ perspectives and thought processes.
- Learners should ask critical questions to deepen their own learning and that of others.
3. Causal assumptions are related to how things work and how you can influence these processes. One of me is that sharing personal examples (narrative disclosure) encourages openness and vulnerability, and portrays the teacher as a learner.
Assumptions in Practice
Although these assumptions are presented separately here, they are interrelated. For example, I see everyone involved in the learning process as the same (paradigmatic). Although the teacher has the authority role, he should also be open to learning from students (mandatory). Anyone can learn from anyone, and this makes learning richer than if it came from just one person (causal).
These assumptions that I make are not necessarily wrong, but without awareness and testing they can be problematic. A few years ago I was looking after some students from South Korea. I explained to them that while I could have the role and title of mentor, I would respect them as equals and also learn from them. While this was perfectly normal for me, I could tell that they were a bit shocked and confused. When I spoke to them, I found that my assumptions were very different from theirs. You grew up in an educational system that required a much greater disparity of power in the teacher-student relationship. They should not assume that I am their equal, but treat me with special respect and honor and avoid questioning what I have said. When I was aware of my own assumptions and understood some of them, I could steer the learning relationship more purposefully and with better results.
3 Basic Practices for Awareness for Adoption
How do you become more aware of your assumptions? There are 3 key practices you can use.
1. Take your time
We are all busy, but awareness will not come about without deliberate practice. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it has to be consistent. Carve the time the way it works for you, e.g. For example, a 15-minute reflection walk for lunch, a monthly meeting with colleagues, or a daily journaling habit.
2. Be a learner
The learners are curious. Explore the learners. The learners are open. If you don’t have this attitude, you are not open to feedback even trying to get it.
3. Get feedback
Don’t wait for people to give you feedback; seek it out. Talk to your learners, ask your peers, and spend time in the literature with the statements of the research. Make sure you don’t just listen to those who you know agree with you. Find feedback from different perspectives (and don’t forget exercise 2).
Critical questions to get started
Ready to start? Here are some self-reflection questions to help you uncover your assumptions and encourage more thoughtful, deliberate practice. You can also use this with a colleague or in a small group.
- What are my assumptions?
- Learning is …
- Adult learners are …
- A good learning environment is inherently …
- Learner designers should …
- Teachers / moderators should …
- Learners should …
- A successful learning experience should …
- With ___ technology …
- The practice of ___ creates …
- ___ is the best way to …
- Where do these assumptions come from?
- What experiences have I made as a learner? As a teacher? As a designer?
- Who or what am I learning from?
- How was I trained in my practice?
- Who will benefit from this assumption?
- Are my assumptions correct and valid? Do assumptions need to be adjusted? Do any assumptions need to be deconstructed?
- Who do I listen to and learn something different from them than I do?
- How will I incorporate critical reflection into my practice in the future?
It is not easy to invest time and energy in becoming a critically reflective practitioner, but it is worth it. As Brookfield (2017) noted, your good intentions towards your learners are much more likely to produce corresponding results. Will you think about it
 Brookfield, S. (2017). Become a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass.
 Palmer, PJ (2017). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of Teacher Life (20th Anniversary Edition). San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass.