Teachers’ critical reflexive positioning

The fourth positioning connects the teacher and their practices to a world-orientation - as critical reflexivity — where there is connectivity to intellectual, critical and caring approaches and an extensive toolkit needed for problem posing and radical interruption of practices and consideration of the wider moral, social and political issues of the day. The teacher understood within this critical reflexive positioning is involved in emancipatory and dynamic practices, where in addition to acting as cultural workers and public intellectuals - passing on cultural heritage and new forms of knowledge and value systems - they are using and making spaces that set the scene for a new social and political order to burst through. The educator therefore works within the paradox of a principled politics of resistance, looking back to the past while making space for the future in a holistic, ethical, aesthetic, political, moral, social and emancipator)' view of reflection and education.

Reflexivity can be understood as teachers seeking to position themselves inside multidimensional value systems taking the cultural milieu into account and, at the same time, developing sufficient detachment from practices to achieve a trustworthy even if unfinished awareness of self, practice and world-orientation (Greenbank, 2003; Mordal-Moen & Green, 2014). Some educationalists believe that greater reflexivity in research is “at best self-indulgent, narcissistic and tiresome” (Pillow, 2003, p. 176) and others suggest that reflexivity is not a panacea for transcendence and its limits need to be acknowledged. Pillow presents this reflexive work of self-analysis and political awareness as a necessary and yet imperfect way to do reflexivity that takes dilemmas into account, where “messy texts are many sited, intertextual, always open ended, and resistant to theoretical holism, but always committed to cultural criticism” (pp. 187-188). Pillow problematises “reflexivities of discomfort” (p. 188) for a “positioning of reflexivity not as clarity, honesty, or humility, but as practices of confounding disruptions — at times even a failure of our language and practices” (p. 192). Pillow argues this is a better way of being accountable to peoples’ struggles and our own self-representation:

this is not easy or comfortable work and thus should not be situated as such. The qualitative research arena would benefit from more ‘messy’ examples, examples that may not always be successful, examples that do not seek a comfortable, transcendent end-point but leave us in the uncomfortable realities of doing engaged qualitative research.

  • ( Pillow, 2003, p. 193)
  • (See also Pillow and others in Supplementary materials.)

Critical reflection and critical reflexivity are not about securing the status quo, but about using theory and an extensive intellectual and caring toolkit to interrupt and to ensure that classrooms and schools do not become unwittingly, and often unconsciously, agents of reproduction of inequity, whereby refonns simply result in more advantage for the already advantaged and continue to disadvantage the disadvantaged. We are reminded by Apple (2013) that an age-old question of the purpose of education has always been about whether society changes schools — given that curriculum is defined as a selection from culture - or whether schools can have an impact and change society? This is concerned with education’s social responsibility for public interest values (Lynch, 2015). This concern is particularly pertinent today when there is a slow suffocation of democracy in the public sphere globally (Browning, 2018) and where in public schooling, teachers’ democratic assignment has been reduced to simply teaching for or about democracy and about becoming compliant civic beings where citizenship is viewed as participation and duty with no affordance for questioning authority or critically reading the world (Edling & Mooney Simmie, 2018; Mooney Simmie & Edling, 2016, 2019).

What is at stake is the hard and uncomfortable work of critical reflexivity (see Figure 7.2) for a holistic and emancipatory view of education and teaching (Biesta & Miedema, 2002). This involves being willing to do the hard work of reflexive positioning of self as well as the work of interpretation of the wider world. Bleakley (1999) grounds his construct of critical reflexivity for holistic reflexivity in radical phenomenology, in the aesthetic rather than the functional, as a “fourth-order, as a radical reflection, or holistic reflexivity, that, as Sontag

The psychiatrist’s couch symbolizes the uncomfortable work of critical reflexivity

Figure 7.2 The psychiatrist’s couch symbolizes the uncomfortable work of critical reflexivity.

observes, offers a state of grace, a gift of aesthetic sensitivity and elegance that also constitutes a monitoring as a reflexive awareness” (p. 326). In this way, he offers a definition of holistic reflexivity as “reflection-as-acdon + aesthetic co-intentionality + ethical reflexivity (or ecological co-intentionality), within a house of being that is language at its limits” (p. 328). Bleakley’s construct of holistic reflexivity is an “inclusive ecological or caring act of reflection as well as an appreciative gesture, with an explicit concern for otherness and difference” (p. 328).

There are few examples of application of approaches of critical reflexivity in the research literature. One study by Thomas & Vavrus (2019) problematises this uncomfortable hard work of critical reflexivity by two international scholars involved in advocating for and promoting Learner-Centred Pedagogy (LCP), as a new reform in week-long workshops with Tanzanian teachers, between 2008 and 2015. During their critical reflexive study, the researchers started to question the prescribed nature of this universal pedagogy for its capacity to act as a Western colonization project, its uncritical stance in relation to allowing affordances for alternative pedagogies to be considered and its eschewing of traditional teacher-centred practices of Tanzanian teachers in their contexts, particularities and cultures.

Another critical reflexive study reveals disinclinations involved for skills-minded teacher educators to proactively engage with critical thinking, critical consciousness and a higher level of abstraction and theoretical knowledge for successful interruption of routinised practices. The study demonstrates Physical Education teacher educators’ pragmatic skill- based mind-set and their reluctance to engage in depth with reflexivity in one teacher education institute in Norway (Mordal-Moen & Green, 2014).

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