Considering Critical Reflection

October 13, 2015

By Richard Kiely, Ph.D., Cornell University

This essay was initiated by a series of conversations related to the question, what happens when one combines the concept of “critical” with reflection. The answer to that question is not straightforward. There are many distinct traditions informing the “critical” in critical reflection, each of which contain a unique epistemology, purpose, set of values, methods, concepts, and foci. Further, some of these traditions conflict with each other in meaningful ways (Brookfield, 2005).

For example, through Stephen Brookfield’s decades of work, he describes four intellectual traditions that inform the use of “critical” in educational theory and practice 1) ideology critique, 2) psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, 3) analytic philosophy and logic and, 4) pragmatism and constructivism. Each of these traditions maintain diverse and somewhat contradictory sets of epistemological assumptions that have practical implications for how educators understand and practice critical engagement.

The tradition of ideology critique stems from more contemporary interpretations of Marxism and the work of the early and late Frankfurt School of Critical Social Theorists such as Gramsci, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas. Service-learning educators informed by the tradition of ideology critique would encourage students and community members involved in service to critically examine unequal relations of power and hegemonic forces that maintain an uncritical acceptance of structural arrangements, institutions, and policies that perpetuate oppressive conditions and problems that service is meant to address.

The psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic tradition represented in the work of Freud, Jung, and others focuses on the critical exploration of childhood inhibitions and distortions learned in childhood, often as the result of a traumatic experience, that preclude one’s ability to function effectively in certain situations, relationships, school, and/or the workplace. The work that therapists undertake assists learners in critically evaluating the source of their distorted sets of assumptions and inhibitions in order to overcome barriers and limitations caused by such inhibitions.

The tradition of analytic philosophy and logic informs much of the educational work related to critical thinking. Much of the reflection literature in service-learning is informed by this tradition. This tradition suggests problem solving using logic, argumentation, and debate to systematically uncover bias and false assumptions to surface empirical evidence that will prove why something is not working thereby bringing one closer to addressing the truth of a problem.

The pragmatic and constructivist traditions focus critical reflection on the contextual factors that influence the meanings we attribute to experience. Brookfield (2005) points out, “constructivism rejects universals and generalizable truths and focuses instead on the variability of how people make interpretations of their experience” (p. 15). Service-learning educators using a constructivist framework would encourage reflection on how culture, context, and history as well as different stakeholders attribute different meanings to the value and impact of the service experience.

Understanding the diverse and sometimes contradictory traditions underpinning “critical” has important implications for how service-learning educators approach critical community engagement. For example, one can be a skillful critical thinker who was hired to maximize profits for a multinational corporation working to extract minerals from an area inhabited by indigenous communities who have had no say in the mining operation and whose land may be negatively impacted by the unsustainable methods used by the corporation. Another corporate worker who is a colleague of the critical thinker who has masterfully created a formula for maximizing profit, but who draws from the tradition of ideology critique, invokes critical reflection to examine the underlying set of assumptions of who benefits from the extraction of minerals from the land and who is harmed. She argues that a more ethically sound, environmentally sustainable, community-driven way to maximize benefit is an approach that balances the benefits of a triple bottom line: “people, planet and profit.” She suggests to her superiors an approach to mining that takes into consideration environmental impacts and encourages the corporation to reach out to more indigenous leaders to better understand their perspective on mining so that they may have a more meaningful voice at the planning table and in the decision-making process.

Understanding Critical Engagement

I became even more acutely aware of the way in which traditions of “critical” in community engagement and service-learning are or are not understood when I was asked to prepare a pre-conference keynote and workshop with colleagues at the Annual Engaged Scholarship Consortium at Penn State University on the topic of “critical engagement.”

In preparation for the keynote and workshop, I set about to explore how critical traditions in education and service-learning are understood. This essay is an attempt to share how one might understand critical approaches to engagement more broadly. It describes how critical community engagement is understood in the area of teaching and learning, and more specifically, how such a tradition affects how one might approach the critical dimension of reflection as a learning process. I found the exercise particularly useful in terms of identifying and examining the value of critical theory and critical pedagogy as traditions that might influence how we understand our community engagement work.

My first inclination in constructing a possible conceptual framework for critical community engagement was to explore the work of scholars and practitioners who fall into the categories of critical theory, critical pedagogy, and critical service-learning. Some initial questions that I asked were:

  • Who are critical theorists and practitioners?
  • What language and concepts do they use?
  • What is traditional engagement?
  • What is critical engagement?
  • What if critical engagement were a transformative learning process?

When I explored critical approaches to service-learning, I came across both Tania Mitchell’s (2008) work comparing traditional and critical service-learning and Andrea Yoder Clark and Maura Nugent’s (2011) chapter in a book edited by Brad Porfilio and Heather Hickman, Critical-Service Learning as a Revolutionary Pedagogy: An International Project of Student Agency in Action (Critical Constructions: Studies on Education and Society). Mitchell’s (2008) comparison, while not specifically focused on identifying the influence of critical theory on service-learning, was both helpful in highlighting the work of critical service-learning scholars (i.e., Rhoads, Rosenberger and others – see Table 1 below) and outlining key distinctions between traditional and critical service-learning. In particular, she highlights three important dimensions of a critical approach 1) a focus on fostering social change, 2) redistributing power and 3) building authentic relationships (Mitchell, 2008). Yoder Clark’s (2009) review and list of critical authors influencing service-learning scholars in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (MJCSL) from 1994-2007 was useful in understanding more broadly, the diversity of critical theorists who inform service-learning scholars and practitioners. In addition, she studied pioneers and contemporary critical service-learning scholars to develop a better understanding of how they addressed power in service-learning; power is a key concept in the critical theory tradition (Yoder Clark, 2009).

Building on Yoder Clark’s (2009) list of critical theorists, I decided to add a few more critical theorists to what she found in the MJCSL, especially those who have influenced my own research drawing from critical theories of adult learning (Kiely, 2002; Wilson & Kiely. 2002) and program planning (see Cervero, Wilson and Associates, 2001 and Sandmann, Kiely & Grenier, 2009), I came up with the following list of critical theorists juxtaposed with critical scholars and practitioners of service learning and community engagement. The list is not exhaustive. However, it should highlight the breadth and depth of work that informs an approach to critical engagement, critically reflective practice and transformational learning. This juxtaposition was then followed by a mini-discourse analysis of the language and concepts used by both critical theorists and critical service-learning educators (see Table 1).

Table 1

From the juxtaposition of critical theorists and critical service-learning educators and a description of the language and concepts used by both, drawing primarily from the work of Yoder Clark (2009) and Mitchell (2008), I generated a set of assumptions about the relationship between traditional and critical community engagement (see Table 2).

Table 2

While a deeper exploration of the differences between “traditional” and “critical service-learning” and the substantial “critical” work highlighted above was not the purpose this post, a key “take away” of this essay is that a movement from traditional to critical community engagement then suggests certain “tendencies” in practice. These “tendencies” have significant implications for how well and in what ways global service-learning practitioners can: 1) foster transformational learning processes aimed at social change, 2) transform unequal relations of power, 3) create authentic, reciprocal relationships, 4) build greater solidarity with those “served,” 5) uncover root causes to persistent social and environmental problems, 6) challenge status quo policies, cultural, and institutional norms, 7) identify community assets, and 8) generate actionable knowledge with diverse stakeholders. Key to this transformative learning process is developing meaningful strategies for engaging campus and community stakeholders in “critically” informed forms of reflection.

Considering the “Critical” in “Critical” Reflection

I now turn to highlighting what other scholars and educators such as Brookfield (1995, 2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2009), Freire (1970, 1973), Kiely (2004, 2005), Maher (2004), and Mezirow (1990) also suggest are important differences between reflection and critical reflection and the implications this distinction has for fostering transformative learning. As Brookfield (2009) states, “This conflating of the terms ‘reflection’ and ‘critical reflection’ implies that adding the qualifier ‘critical’ somehow makes the kind of reflection happening deeper and more profound (p. 294).

Brookfield (2009) clarifies that reflection is not inherently critical. Drawing primarily from Marxist thought, Gramsci, and the Frankfurt tradition of critical social theory, Brookfield contends that

critical reflection turns the spotlight squarely onto issues of power and control. It assumes the minutiae of practice have embedded within them the struggles between unequal interests and groups that exist in the wider world. For reflection to be considered critical then, it must have as its explicit focus uncovering and challenging the power dynamics that frame practice and…hegemonic assumptions (those assumptions we embrace as being in our best interests when in fact they are working against us) (2009, p. 298).

Steven Brookfield’s writing (2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2002) draws from the earlier Frankfurt School tradition of critical social theory to “reposition ideology critique as a learning process crucial to the realization of adulthood” (Brookfield, 2001, p. 7). Brookfield (2000a, 2000b, 2001) problematizes the loosely defined notion of “critical” in the reflective process that is at the heart of much of Mezirow’s (1990) transformational learning theory. For Brookfield, the “critical” aspect of reflection cannot be understood without the notion of “ideology critique,” which stems from ideas associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Social Theory (Brookfield, 2000a, 2000b, 2001). Critical reflection in the tradition of ideology critique has two purposes in adult learning settings, “the first is to understand how considerations of power undergird, frame, and distort so many adult learning processes and interactions. The second is to analyze our own practices to reveal the hegemonic assumptions embedded within them” (Brookfield, 2000a, p. 39).

Brookfield’s view of critical reflection builds on Mezirow’s conception of critical reflection (1990, 1991) by extending the concept of ideology critique as “not to be understood as pertaining only to our beliefs about social, political, and economic systems, but as something that frames our moral reasoning, our interpersonal relationships and our ways of knowing, experiencing, and judging what is real and true” (2000b, p. 130). Ideology is so pervasive in society that it permeates every aspect of social life and causes us to take for granted social, economic, cultural, and political practices that are detrimental to our well-being (Brookfield, 2000a, 2000b, 2001). Resuscitating the “critical” in the Frankfurt School’s tradition of ideology critique, Brookfield’s (2000b) analysis reemphasizes the historical socio-economic, political, and cultural constitution of the “self” in society. From this perspective, critical adult educators and service-learning practitioners fostering transformational learning should help adult learners “get the big picture” or “structuralized world view” – to work with them so that they view personal problems as manifestations of larger social, economic, and political forces (Brookfield, 2002, p. 108).

For service-learning educators and practitioners, the use of critical reflection from a critical theory tradition would mean engaging in a learning process that examines relations of power, hegemony, ideology, trenchant historical structures, and existing institutional arrangements that marginalize and oppress. It would also involve exploring ways to act and challenge the status quo toward a more just and equitable set of social, political, economic, and cultural relations (Brookfield, 2009).

Especially because global service-learning (GSL) may be pioneering, path-breaking, or perhaps even a radical approach to teaching and learning at an educational institution or within the discipline and/or community in which they are working, a faculty member can not plan for all of the insights, challenges, processes, and outcomes that may result from it. This is the case for any course or program that is community-engaged and thereby often includes unpredictable and complex interactions with others shaped by unequal relations of power. The point about community engagement requiring ongoing adjustment and flexible planning is made clear in the service-learning literature, but the “critical” dimension here suggests something that goes one step further. One cannot plan precisely for outcomes when GSL is part of conscientization (Freire, 2000), personal transformation (Edwards, 2004), movement-building (Swords & Kiely, 2011), or doing the work of global citizens challenging the status quo and building relationships to create an as-yet-unimagined tomorrow (Falk, 2000; Hartman & Kiely, 2014). This is the case in two different ways.

First, critically reflective practice and the movement building work of service-learning explicitly and intentionally challenges long-standing institutional arrangements, power relations, and dominant cultural norms that serve to oppress rather than empower; this necessarily involves creating new norms, institutions, policies and healthier communities based on a more equitable set of relationships. Students, faculty, staff, and community members as civic actors and co-collaborators in community development may imagine and implement an unplanned possibility. Community initiatives and advocacy campaigns have grown from community-based learning and research into full-fledged nonprofit organizations, social sector initiatives, and movements (Korten, 1989). This cannot be a precisely targeted learning outcome, but may be a more likely result with the infusion of deliberately critical reflective practice; practice that highlights the distance between ideal and real social structures. Second, as suggested in Hartman, Kiely, Friedrichs, and Boettcher (In Press), our understanding of humility, continuously developing knowledge, and history lead us to embrace the notion that ongoing criticality (Berbules & Berk, 1999) is important for everyone to develop as a life habit.

My own work (2002, 2004, 2005) has questioned current conceptions of reflection and “critical” reflection in the service-learning literature and demonstrates the shortcomings of many transformational learning efforts. While critical reflection and transformational learning in service-learning remain elusive, the longitudinal research I conducted demonstrated the value of critical reflection as a necessary but insufficient learning process for students’ perspective transformation in GSL, and its connection to individual and social action. However, as this study indicated, students who engage in critical reflection along with deeply visceral, relational and connected ways of learning often experience perspective transformation or profound shifts in their worldview that are personal, ethical, political, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual (Kiely, 2002, 2004). Such shifts, while illuminating distorted and sometimes harmful assumptions about one’s self, culture, consumption habits, ways of knowing, institutional structures, and the sources and solutions to persistent problems in the community, can also lead students to disengage, feel frustrated, and experience difficulty relating to others who are content with the status quo and communicating the deeper meaning and transformative dimensions of their service-learning experience to friends, family, co-workers, and peers.

I have referred to the challenges students have returning home in communicating, sharing, relating, and sometimes reconciling their worldview shift with those who have not experienced a shift in perspective as the “Chameleon Complex” (2004). Having experienced a deep shift in how they see and understand the world, students are unable to share and connect with their peers and family and instead hide their true colors all the while feeling frustrated and deeply conflicted about how to negotiate and maintain stable and meaningful relationships. Many students come back deeply critical of the political, economic, social, and cultural status quo but find allies who might support them few and far between. Because of the potential for students to experience the Chameleon Complex upon return and long after participating in GSL, it is crucial that faculty incorporate numerous reflection assignments and exercises for students to hone their skills in reflection and critical reflection before, during, and after their GSL experience so that they are able to channel their post-GSL experience more effectively. Critical reflection as it is understood in the critical theory tradition, therefore, differs from much of the dominant individualistic cognitive developmental, technical-rational, and constructivist reflection traditions in service-learning. A critical theory tradition differs in terms of its intentionality regarding interrogation of taken for granted assumptions and common sense wisdom, its examination of ideology and hegemony, its embrace of alternative perspectives, and its explicit questioning of institutions, structures and policies, unequal relations of power that lead to harmful practice, systemic oppression, and marginalized communities (Friere, 1970; Kiely, 2002, 2004, 2005; Mezirow, 1990, 2000). This critically reflective orientation thereby moves well beyond learning that focuses on students’ personal growth, objective content mastery and disciplinary skill development and emphasizes what Hartman and colleagues (In Press) refer to as the “the structural dimensions of reflective learning (i.e., how context, ideology, and relations of power shape the learning process)”; and it uses the term “critical” to, in their words, foreground issues of “power, ideology, and hegemony, agency-structure relationships and their relationship to the problem or social issue being discussed and acted on through service. Brookfield, for example, proclaims that the focus of critical reflection is, “always on analyzing commonly held ideas and practices for the extent to which they perpetuate economic inequity, deny compassion, foster a culture of silence and prevent people from realizing a sense of common connectedness” (2009, p. 298).

To set up reflection in service-learning as concerned purely with learning goals within disciplinary fields is unfair. There are service-learning scholars who have written about “critical” reflection (Ash & Clayton 2009; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Whitney & Clayton, 2011) and who are interested in advancing transformational learning and they often include reflective activities that advance that goal. However, as mentioned, as a condition of reflective practice, it is important to be aware of the philosophical and epistemological assumptions informing critical reflection including its purpose, methods, foci, processes, and expected outcomes and make these more intentional and explicit. Given the potentially challenging implications of engaging in critical reflection as ideology critique, intentionality is all the more essential, particularly in terms of developing curriculum to hone further one’s skills in critical reflection in order to prepare for the inherent challenges in questioning the status quo and working to develop more equitable policies and institutions.

A Challenge for Educators: Modeling Critical Reflection and Dialogue

Engaging in critical reflection, to a much greater extent than is the case with structured reflective practice for specific learning goals, requires the faculty member to develop further his/her skills and knowledge in critical reflection and to model more dialogic and democratic forms of teaching and learning (Wilson & Kiely, 2001). This entails a willingness to de-center him or herself as an authority figure. This means faculty will need to share control over how knowledge is constructed and how decisions are made over the content and process of the service-learning course and community work. In addition, faculty will need to engage in dialogue with multiple and diverse stakeholders in order to create a democratic learning environment and civic space. Faculty members and teachers may find this process disorienting as it often “breaks the wall” of authority and expertise created by the traditional academic model.

Critical reflection asks a lot of our participants in terms of questioning assumptions, critiquing dominant and oppressive norms and structures, sharing feelings as well as taking concrete action steps. The end goal of critical reflection is lifelong commitment to continuously considering the legitimacy of habits and social structures and being willing to make ongoing adjustments and realignments to create a better, more just world. Leaders should model and demonstrate how they have approached these challenges in their own lives (Brookfield, 1995) and remind students in a very real and inspiring manner that, our professional and personal lives often intersect and come together in meaningful ways to foster social change across cultural, spiritual, social, and political borders (Kiely, 2005). Students also model faculty behavior in this and other aspects of GSL, so honest sharing about personal struggles to live justly and well is powerful and important. In critical reflection, authority and expertise are not nearly as valuable as creating spaces that offer more meaningful relationships, robust dialogue, openness, empathy, integrity, and commitment.

Service-learning faculty and practitioners may also find themselves as the object of questions from participants and community members– interrogated and challenged by those with a critical consciousness. By practicing critical forms of reflection themselves, leaders can respond, think deeply and even alter their own perspectives and actions as a way to create more democratic and dialogic spaces with students, colleagues, and community members. By being open to the examination of power, ideology and hegemony, agency-structure relationships, and their relationship to the problem or social issue being discussed and acted on through service, critical service-learning educators create more authentic spaces for modeling what it means to foster critical community engagement.


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Richard Kiely is the Director of Engaged Learning + Research at Cornell University. In 2002, he received his PhD from Cornell, and in 2005 was recognized nationally as a John Glenn Scholar in Service-Learning for his longitudinal global service-learning research that led to the development of a transformative service-learning model. In 2006, Richard co-taught a graduate/undergraduate service-learning course in City & Regional Planning as part of the New Orleans Planning Initiative (NOPI). The participants in this course developed with their community partners a comprehensive recovery plan for the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Richard also served as the Faculty Director of the Cornell Urban Scholars Program (CUSP) and the Cornell Urban Mentor Initiative (CUMI), two university-wide, interdisciplinary service-learning programs. Richard is interested in learning about the different ways people work together to have a positive impact on the world and the potential role of higher education in facilitating that process. He continues to be an active scholar in the area of service-learning and engagement in higher education and regularly conducts seminars and workshops for students and faculty on course design, experiential learning, service-learning, community-based participatory action research, assessment, and program evaluation.

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