January 28th, 2010

Metaphorical Mirrors


I strongly believe in reflective practice. In this blog and the newsletter I try to show teachers the value of looking closely at our teaching selves—what we believe and how those beliefs play out as classroom policies and practices. Teachers don’t learn much from experience unless that experience is examined closely, carefully, and with an openess to critique.

The problem is that much of what we do in the classroom is habitual. We do it so often that we can look at it and still fail to see the underlying assumptions. The question then, raised by the authors of the article referenced below, is this: “How do individuals discover and challenge tacit taken-for-granted assumptions in their teaching practice?” The authors suggest that teachers use “metaphorical mirrors.” They do a workshop during which they challenge faculty to probe a personal pursuit (hobby, activity, interest, or sport) and extract from it metaphors that might point to assumptions they make about teaching and learning. Let me explain how that might work.

Knitting is my favorite personal pursuit. With string and a couple of sticks, somebody figured out that you can create socks, afghans, sweaters, hats, mittens, dog coats—I love it! I assume I can be equally creative with my students. Most of them start out looking pretty elemental, but my efforts give them a new form and function. With knitting I am in control. I teach as if I were in control and probably don’t give students who want to be scarves the opportunity when the course I’m teaching is about making mittens (figuratively). I like the patterns that are a part of knitting. In the beginning I’m just following the instructions. I don’t understand how the pattern works but as I knit I learn the pattern. Before long I don’t even need the instructions. When I first meet a class or a student, I don’t know how they work. But when I have them in class, I assume I can figure them out and understand how they learn. I put students in categories (bright but cruising; shy, dependent learner; not bright; too motivated to please)—it easier to deal with known groups than unique individuals. But I can never know a student the way I come to understand a pattern. Patterns reveal all; students do not.

I think this might be a useful exercise. The authors offer this motivation: “As teachers, we spend an enormous amount of time and energy learning about our subject and our students, yet perhaps less time knowing ourselves. Without understanding self, we run the risk of thinking good intentions and subject knowledge trump the unintentional consequences of take-it-for-granted assumptions we unwittingly bring into the classroom.” (p. 504)

Reference: Wagenheim, G., Clark, R., and Crispo, A. W. (2009). Metaphorical mirror: Reflecting on our personal pursuits to discover and challenge our teaching practice assumptions. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20 (3), 503-509.
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