Summary, Reflection, or Critical Reflection?

“Reflection” – an often-used but consistently-misunderstood term. Research confirms its importance in the learning process (Boud, Keogh, and Walker, 2013). School, state, and national standards include it as a mandatory component in curricula; yet, it remains largely misunderstood in actual classroom practice. The confusion may be resolved by distinguishing the characteristics of three terms that, too often, are used interchangeably:

Summary: a valuable reading strategy that encourages the reader to confirm the accuracy of who, what, where, when, and how as the foundation for asking “why.” If this surface level knowledge is inaccurate, determining why the author wrote the text or why an historical event impacted future events can lead to erroneous connections, assumptions, and interpretations.

Reflection: a strategy that allows learners to retell or rethink an event/experience/text. This retelling typically follows with the learners’ opinion about or personal connection to what they read, heard, or experienced. It is a necessary practice to make sense of daily life, to make a decision about whether to repeat a practice, an action, or an activity; however, it is not a practice that necessarily sparks an in-depth examination of a practice or a behavior.

Critical reflection: Enter Stephen D. Brookfield (1995), who helps us understand that reflection is not, by definition, critical. It becomes critical when you define the lens you purposefully use to question your assumptions and current practice. This type of reflection includes working to understand the power dynamics that may be at play in your practice and among your students. Brookfield suggests there are four important lenses through which educators should critically reflect:
• Through our autobiographies as teachers and learners
• Through our students’ eyes
• Through our colleagues’ experiences
• Through theoretical literature

Classroom teachers might wonder about the questions they have always labeled as reflection. How could they tweak those “reflection” questions to become a vehicle for “critical reflection” for their students?

Here is an example from my practice. Below are the questions that I pose to students at the conclusion of their personal narrative process – a reflection process:

• What is the most important change you made from your first to your final draft? How did that revision improve your narrative?

• What part of your narrative are you most proud of and why?

• What do you know about effective writing that you did not know before you began your narrative?

• What do you feel you need to work on in your next piece of writing? How can you improve this aspect of your writing?

Consider how the answer to these questions might change if I asked students to answer the same questions through the lens of the rubric I use to grade the narrative. This revision from reflection to critical reflection provides students an opportunity to reflect based on research about what makes an effective narrative rather than from their personal reaction to their narrative.

The introduction “hooks” the reader.
It makes the reader want to continue reading
Providing background about characters and setting.

The writer focuses on a specific incident rather than a broad story.

The writer provides detail so they reader can visualize the story.

It is evident that there is a point for sharing this specific story.

The writer uses descriptive language to sustain interest in the story.

The story flows smoothly as a result of word choice (e.g. transitions).

Authentic dialogue is used when appropriate.

The author makes use of varied sentence structure.

The author gains insight as a result of telling this story. There is an element of reflection present.

Another example:
Let me use the content of previous posts to illustrate the differences among the three terms from a teacher, rather than a student, stance.

Summary: I summarized the plans I use with my students to share stories about significant teachers in their lives – when I use this activity, what poem I read, how I design the lesson, and what I hope this accomplishes.

Reflection: At the conclusions of the three-day activity, I reflect on 1) whether I will use the same poem next year, 2) whether I will continue to facilitate the activity as a whole class or break into smaller groups, and 3) whether students provided insights that I need to monitor as the school year progress (i.e. those who were especially nervous sharing with the class).

Critical reflection: Ultimately, the activity is designed to provide a vehicle for critical reflection – a way to view my practice through the eyes of my students. The identification of the characteristics of effective teachers and the tool to provide feedback through the lens of those criteria moves this from a community-building activity to a forum for critical reflection.

Each of these strategies serves an important, but entirely different, purpose in learning and in the learning process. Being conscious of these differences helps us, as educators, to make decisions as we design the learning space for our students.

Future entries will share ideas for how to design critical reflection through the additional lens outlined by Brookfield. A closing testimonial – his text Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher will impact both your teaching philosophy and practice in an on-going and lasting way.


Brookfield, S. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Routledge, 2013.