Stephen Brookfield is one of my academic heroes. I’ve read most of his books in my own study of adult learning and teaching, and his insights about learning, thinking, teaching –well, about being — never fail to impress me.
One of Brookfield’s publications* is, I suspect, not widely know about. It’s a study of 311 adult educators’ experiences of critical reflection collected over an 11 year period. For the purposes of his study, Brookfield identified critical reflection as three interrelated processes: 1) questioning and then reframing an assumption, 2) taking a perspective on an issue that is different than the perspective or position taken by a majority, and 3) examining how ideas and what they represent are accepted as “self-evident.”
In other words: thinking critically. (Yet so much more.)
Brookfield used a research method called phenomenography in order to identify 5 themes that emerged from these educators’ experiences . (I mention phenomenography here because most people confuse it with phenomenology, and because it’s the method I used for my dissertation research.) Here are the themes:
1) Impostorship – participants sensed that they possessed “neither the talent nor the right” (p. 205) to become critically reflective. They felt like impostors in a new community.
2) Cultural suicide – the “threat critical learners perceive that if they take a critical questioning of conventional assumptions, justifications, structures, and actions too far they will risk being excluded from the cultures that have defined and sustained them up to that point in their lives” (p. 208).
3) Lost innocence – meaning “a belief in the promise that if they study hard and look long enough they will stumble on universal certainty as the reward for all their efforts” (p. 209).
4) Roadrunning – “…understood as two steps forward, one step back, followed by four steps forward, one step back … and so on in a series of fluctuations marked by overall movement forward” (p. 211). Think of the roadrunner cartoon with Coyote realizing that he’s suspended in mid-air after hurling himself off the cliff in pursuit of the roadrunner. It’s a “state of limbo” (p. 212) in which the educators leave the security of their old assumptions and ideas behind but have not yet found solid ground for their new ideas and perspectives.
5) Community – The most hopeful theme and experience of these participants, it is marked by “the importance of their belonging to an emotionally sustaining peer learning community” (p. 212).
Though Brookfield’s study was focused on adult educators’ experiences becoming critically reflective, I have a sneaking suspicion that the themes of his findings could likely apply to most folks who are learning something new or, perchance, returning to college to complete a degree. In other words, though I cannot and will not generalize, I sincerely doubt that these kinds of experiences are unique to adult educators learning about critical reflection, and for this reason, I assign this article in my Preparing for Graduate School course. In fact, I suspect that for some people, these feelings may even be experienced somewhat sequentially. First we might feel like an impostor; then we concern ourselves with how who we are becoming and what we are learning may separate us from our home communities; in order to feel better about this, we might seek universal certainty; then we might move forward, but then back, but then forward again; and finally we might realize a sense of belonging. Just a hunch.
The experience that resonates most with me is roadrunning. Though I can recall times in which I struggled with great feelings of impostership (and still do!), Coyote’s experiences going off that cliff have a very familiar ring. Here’s what Brookfield says about this phenomenon:
At this moment there is a feeling of being in limbo, of being suspended above the canyon floor with the solid ground of familiar assumptions left behind and nothing new congealed in their place. This is the time when educators crash to the floor of their emotional canyons, when they face the crises of confidence … However, as happens with the coyote, whatever prompted their quest … invariably comes back into play. Sooner or later, the journey for critical clarity begins again, but this time there is a greater preparedness for the moment of suspension, and an ability to stay dangling above the canyon floor for a few seconds longer than was formerly the case. (p. 212)
In addition to how Coyote experiences learning new things and thinking critically about them, I think he also can offer us learners a few lessons:
- When driven and passionate about learning, we have a certain kind of energy that propels us forward, and this energy may even be somewhat instinctual. (Our last dog was a retired racing greyhound, and he was passionate about chasing plastic bags around the backyard at 60-mph and when he got that way, there was nothing that could stop him.) We might do well to tap into these passions and let them energize us.
- Like Coyote, we can also be clever (meaning resourceful) in the ways in which we pursue our goals. Coyote’s cleverness was somewhat destructive and violent; I suspect (I hope!) that our cleverness is more generative and supportive.
- In the cartoon, Coyote usually falls but is rarely seriously harmed, and when we next see him on the canyon floor he is in one piece and once again in pursuit of that roadrunner. He keeps going; he makes lemonade out of lemons; he doesn’t give up. Speed bumps may slow him down, but they are never stop signs.
So yes, I like Coyote and sometimes I am Coyote, suspended in mid-air, seeking the new while trying so very hard not to let go of the old and familiar and comfortable, but knowing that I probably should.
Are you sometimes Coyote, too?
*Brookfield, S. D. (1994). Tales from the dark side: A phenomenography of adult critical reflection. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 13(3), 203-216.