Reflexivity: Towards New Learning

In the New Learning, we suggest a reflexive approach to pedagogy and curriculum that builds on and extends the insights of mimetic and synthetic approaches. Relations between expert knowledge sources (teachers and authoritative texts) and novices (learners) are reconfigured. Agency is rebalanced. More than mere copying or mimesis, and more than synthesis, which pulls presented knowledge apart in order to put it back together again in a more or less predictable way, a reflexive approach creates a dialogue in which students move between different knowledge processes.

Dimension 1: Pedagogy

Pedagogy is series of activities consciously designed to promote learning – the creation of knowledge and the development of a generalised capacity to make knowledge. The shape of pedagogy can be identified by tracing its sequence of movements.

See Reflexive Learning Case Studies.

Mimetic pedagogy teaches facts and theories assembled into disciplinary shape and unveiled to learners in a fixed sequence. Synthetic pedagogy emphasises experiential learning – through action, demonstration, experimentation or immersion.

Reflexive pedagogy is a more varied and open-ended process of knowledge making, moving backwards and forwards between different ways of making knowledge or knowledge processes. It is a to-and-fro dialogue between learners and teachers, peers, parents, experts and critical friends. Following are some of the main characteristics of learning activities in a reflexive pedagogy.

  1. Position the learner as the knowledge creator. The ‘answers’ are not necessarily pre-determined – the ‘answer’ in the textbook or the teacher’s head. Reflexive knowledge making links personal and local experience to more general bodies of human knowledge, such as biology or history. These balance knowledge that is part of a broad social heritage with the learner’s particular local situation and personal motivations. The learner is an agent in the knowledge-making process. They are always making new knowledge that connects broadly applicable concepts with their local realities. The concept may be life cycles, for instance, but ponds vary considerably. The Second World War was an event on a global scale, but different communities or families were affected differently. Learners need to be positioned as knowledge designers, using conceptual and informational resources provided to them by disciplinary frameworks, but always reframing the world in the modulations of their own voice and connecting with their own unique understandings and experiences.

See Kress on Meaning and Agency.

  1. Encourage the learner to undertake activities that are meaningful and realistically complex. Reflexive pedagogy is either connected to life, or is life-like. Deep, disciplinary knowledge is most effectively acquired in contexts that focus on whole, socially realistic and meaningful tasks. In the case of literacy, for instance, learning to write is more effective when situated in the context of communication within a socially engaged community of writers and readers. In the case of biology, students learn to act like scientists, developing hypotheses, searching for evidence, naming with scientific categories, analysing data and drawing their own conclusions.
  2. Challenge the learner to develop increasingly sophisticated and deeply perceptive conceptual schemas. Experts in a subject domain typically organise knowledge into schemas and make sense of new information through processes of pattern recognition. Such knowledge representations are useful tools for understanding, knowledge making and knowledge communication (Johnson-Laird 1983). Intellectual development involves building increasingly powerful intellectual schemas, capable of penetrating interpretations of the world. To achieve this, reflexive pedagogy engages the learner as co-constructor of concepts – as a definer of terms, a maker of theories, a careful analyst and a thoughtful critic. In the cognitive development of a child, Vygotsky regards the process of extending conceptual depth as critical. However, this is only possible in a ‘zone of proximal development’. Here, the learner is provided a conceptual scaffold whereby they can work just beyond – but never too far beyond – their current conceptual capacity (Vygotsky 1978).

See Vygotsky on the Zone of Proximal Development.

  1. Prompt learners to make their thinking or knowledge processes explicit. Recent cognitive science research shows that thinking is more efficient and effective when accompanied by processes of thinking about, monitoring and reflecting upon one’s own thinking (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking and metaknowledge is the capacity to reflect upon and articulate the processes of one’s knowing.
  2. Deploy a variety of knowledge media, representing knowledge in many ways. Until now, schooling has mostly divided modes of meaning neatly into different subjects. Language was for text; art was for visuals. Schools stripped away the richly multimodal life of preschool children by separating the mechanics of handwriting or phonics. Reflexive pedagogy uses synaesthesia – or mode shifting – as a pedagogical device. The new media make this so much easier, and so much more excitingly close to the ‘realness’ of contemporary media, such as digital TV, video games and the Internet (Cope and Kalantzis 2010). The ‘multiliteracies’ theory suggests that learner activities should involve a wide variety of representational modes: written, oral, visual, audio, tactile, gestural and spatial (Kalantzis and Cope 2012b).
  3. Encourage dialogue and group collaboration. Powerful learning occurs when it also enlists peers and the broader community in the construction of knowledge. At a localised, classroom level, this may take the form of reciprocal teaching (Palincsar and Brown 1984) and the creation of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). More broadly, learners will gain a sense of how to navigate a world in which knowledge is widely distributed, drawing on various sources of expertise, some of which are at hand in the form of people you can ask and some of which you can look up, on the web or in a library.

See Reggio Emilia on Educational Principles.

  1. Offer a broad range of task options to cater for the diversity of learners. Not every student needs to be on the same page at the same time. They may bring different experiences to the learning and create knowledge that expresses uniquely something of who they are. Reflexive pedagogy needs to be sufficiently open to allow variations in the knowledge created, and the way in which it is created, from one learner to the next. In collaborative work, reflexive pedagogy builds on the complementarity of differences, or the knowledge that is constructed by the group, which is greater than the sum of its parts. Different students bring different perspectives, knowledge and ways of knowing to a piece of collaborative knowledge construction, contribute from their strengths, learn from others and together create knowledge that no individual could have created alone. The differences, in other words, work. And the learners see that they work.
  2. Create a learning environment that gives learners continuous feedback on their learning. Reflexive pedagogy uses constant formative assessment. Summative assessment comes at the end of a sequence of learning and is designed to be an accountability mechanism. How well did the student do? How well did the teacher teach? Formative assessment, however, occurs during the learning process, providing direct and specific feedback that supports student learning. Formative assessment can look like a conventional test – a quick quiz at the beginning of a new unit of work for the teacher to identify areas of prior knowledge and diagnose areas needing attention. Often it will be less formal, a deliberate moment of self-reflection where students are prompted to ask themselves ‘What do I know already, and what do I need to know to do this task?’ Or it could be more formal peer review, with comments and suggestions on work in progress. Keys to reflexive pedagogy are regular and multiple forms of assessment and continuous feedback on learner performance.
  3. Offer a mix of activities that represent different knowledge processes. Reflexive pedagogy is a process of shunting backwards and forwards between different kinds of learning activities or ‘knowledge processes’.

See Cazden on Pedagogical Weaving.

In Chapter 7 we outlined a number of different ways of knowing. This is a way to categorise the different kinds of things learners can do in order to know. They represent the kinds of moves teachers can make as they plan and implement their pedagogical designs. These are the types of things you do, in a premeditated, reflective way, that distinguish the pervasively everyday reality of learning from the formal, systematic and focused form of learning that we call ‘pedagogy’.

See ‘Learning by Design Knowledge Processes’.
See Planning strategically ... pooling our pedagogies.

Translating this into lesson plans and learning resources, we can create an activity sequence that weaves between these different kinds of knowledge making. This is not a list of things you have to do, and certainly not a prescribed order. Each sequence of knowledge processes needs to be designed to suit a group of learners, an area of subject matter and the pedagogical orientation of the teacher or the school.

See Learning by Design in the Lanyon Cluster

Figure 8.6: Transformative education: levels of action

Dimension 2: Curriculum

A reflexive curriculum will allow alternative knowledge pathways to achieve social goals that, if not necessarily the same for every learner, are comparable from one learner to the next. Chapter 12 no longer has to follow Chapter 11. Reflexive curriculum allows greater scope for teacher–learner negotiation of navigational choices at appropriate points. ‘You’ve completed this,’ the teacher may say to an individual learner or a group of learners ‘so where would you like to take this next? Here are some suggestions and advice from me.’ In this way, curriculum becomes a negotiated process of co-design. It is a dialogue between teacher-expert and learner-novice.

This may be an ideally open setup, though never without its challenges in practice. The constraints of standards and curriculum may restrict the range of realistic choices. Here, it comes down to questions of what should be taught, and what can learners be allowed to choose. Should all learners be exposed to the ‘basics’ that will help them get along in life – literacy, mathematics and science? What things should every student ‘cover’? Should every learner undertake a ‘comprehensive’ or ‘core’ curriculum? Or should students be offered a broader range of curriculum choices according to their needs and interests? What is the place of multicultural education, or special education for learners with disabilities, or media education or environmental education? None of these areas fit neatly into traditional disciplines, so are they to become extras in the form of electives or special classes? Or are the concerns of each area ‘mainstreamed’ into the core curriculum? If they are left to be electives, some would argue this creates a ‘smorgasbord’, ‘shopping mall’ or ‘crowded’ curriculum. On the other hand, ‘mainstreaming’ these may mean that the issues of concern get lost in the mainstream curriculum.

Perhaps, however, it may be possible to create alternative paths to comparable or equivalent knowledge and social ends. Comparable may not mean the same knowledge content. But to be equitable it does have to mean that the social usefulness of the learning is comparable – its capacity to open opportunities for well-paid work, to participate in civic life and to develop in everyday community life in ways that are different but equivalent to others. The outcomes of learning do not have to be the same to be equal. They do, however, need to be comparable.

Institutional questions also arise. Where is curriculum made, and who makes it? Is it made in the school, or at the local, state or even national levels? Should government set ‘standards’ so all schools have a sense of what they should be achieving for their learners in different curriculum areas? How are these standards measured so the performance of one school can be measured against another, or even one country against another? We explore these issues in Chapter 10. What is the role of new technologies in learning? To what degree does this mean that curriculum can be self-managed? How does this change the role of the teacher and the nature of curriculum? And, finally, to what extent might learners themselves be co-creators of curriculum rather than consumers of textbooks?

In responding to these pressing questions, reflexive curriculum sets out to create new inside/outside relations. The inside of the educational institution connects in new ways with the outside world of learner experiences and disciplinary knowledge. Education also becomes ubiquitous: available anywhere and at any time, and in many forms – from just-in-time self-teaching help menus to full online education programs.