Epistemology, phenomenology, and reflection: a "stop, look, and listen" for educators.
Childhood learning is full of easy-to-remember directions. Recall such advice as "Stop, look, and listen" before you cross the street and "Stop, drop, and roll" if your clot\hes catch on fire. These sayings are clear and concise with specific instruction about what to do in a critical situation. As a teacher educator who has been in the field for over 40 years, I find myself wishing for something equally simple to remember (without minimizing the complex nature of teaching and learning) that could guide my students toward becoming more effective educators.
To assist my students through their experiences, I emphasize such helpful tips as "children learn by doing." However, some concepts are easier to say than to put into practice. What should children be doing? How should they be doing it? Who should be doing it? And, why are we allowing them to do it?
In addition, while the enthusiasm of my students is contagious and refreshing, they also naturally experience high anxiety as they plan for curriculum and instruction. Part of their challenge is to confidently develop a knowledge base of best practices and learn why these practices are critical in effective teaching and learning. My challenge, as the instructor, is to assist them in cultivating the latter. To that end, the point here is to provide emerging and seasoned educators with three easy-to-remember keys to thoughtful teaching: epistemology, phenomenology, and reflection.
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy dealing with the origins of knowledge. It is a key concept, because it gives us an understanding of what knowledge is, where it comes from, and how it is organized. Jean Piaget is the name that usually comes to mind when we try to make sense out of how children think and learn (Ormrod, 2012). To be sure, Piaget's theory of learning, dating from the 1920s, continues to be a part of our training for teacher candidates. Ormrod lists seven principles and concepts that are key to Piaget's theory:
* Children are active and motivated learners.
* Children organize what they learn from their experiences.
* Interaction with the physical environment is critical for learning and cognitive development.
* Interaction with other people is equally critical for learning and development.
* Children adapt to their environment through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.
* The process of equilibration promotes progression toward increasingly complex forms of thought.
* Children think in qualitatively different ways at different age levels.
Phenomenology is a philosophical construct that examines structures and experience (e.g., first-person point of view and relevant conditions; the intention of an experience; and conscious experiences) (Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, n.d.). Classical phenomenologists describe an experience, interpret it, and analyze it (Landreman, Rasmussen, King, & Jiang, 2007). The underpinning factor is an awareness of the experience as it is occurring. This ability to acknowledge and value the experiences of self and others represents a second key to successful teaching.
When we teach, we naturally incorporate our experiences and emotions. In other words, we each bring to the teaching experience different filters that influence how we interpret and process classroom happenings. Thus, it is obviously important to continuously recognize and even deconstruct each of these happenings. However, recognizing and valuing our phenomenological experience as teachers is only half of the equation; the other part, equally important, is that of the phenomenological world and experiences of each of our students.
To illustrate the point, I recall a well-received piece I wrote over a decade ago titled Purple Suede Shoes (Fite, 1999). I believe the article was popular because it described my grassroots experience as a new teacher. In it, I tell of an "ah-ha" moment when I learned that the children I was teaching were "seeing" and "experiencing" lessons differently than I had believed. The gist of the story discusses a young teacher who is more concerned about her appearance and storytelling than about focusing on her lesson and understanding how her kindergartners viewed the experience. What she thought they were seeing and learning was different from what they were actually seeing and hearing. Recognizing and respecting the phenomenal world and experience of self and others is a huge part of successful teaching.
Over the years, I have come to deeply respect the power of reflective practice. It "requires a deliberate slowing down to consider multiple perspectives" and requires "an open perspective" (Merriam & Caffarella, pp. 172-173). As mentioned earlier, we often tell our teacher candidates that children learn by doing. "Doing" should probably be spelled "Dewing" because of the importance placed on meaning-making by John Dewey. Dewey's thoughts have filtered into my reading, as have Piaget's (e.g., "children act as 'little scientists,' trying to make sense of their world") (cited in Meece & Daniels, 2008, p. 129). In the end, this "Dewing" should necessarily be conducted in such a way that incorporates what Kirylo (2006) describes as the dialectical interweaving of reflection and engagement in a developmentally appropriate practice. In other words, our practice informs our reflection and our reflection informs our practice, which, in a sense, reflects Kolb's reflection-on-action and Schon's writing on reflection-in-action practice, necessarily impacting the continuous reshaping of our practice (Merriam & Caffarella, 2007).
An Example: Putting It Together
In a particular language development class I teach, we cover class-related content as well as plan and execute lessons in the field that foster language development. Through the text, lecture, and dialogue, we intensely work to understand the language development of young children and later compare what we learned relative to what we see happening as we work with children in an actual classroom setting. Moreover, I take a variety of photographs of my teacher candidates as they interact with the children. Later, when we meet at the university classroom setting, we carefully examine the various photographs and discuss what it means to be reflective practitioners. We metaphorically step back, taking both a macro and micro view of their experience, exploring how the teacher candidates acted and reacted within the classroom environment. The realization of what is prompting or inhibiting behavior, both theirs and the children's, is usually immediate, or, as the teacher candidates have shared, "in your face" because of its clarity. Looking "in" and "back" on their teaching experience allows them a unique opportunity to critically reflect and discuss the multiple classroom happenings. Seeing themselves in a teaching environment, as others see them, clearly helps my students connect their readings, lecture, planning, and instruction.
In the end, epistemology, phenomenology, and reflection are key conceptual filters that guided the above process, which, in essence, can be characterized as the "stop, look, listen" keys in our pursuit to become effective educators.
Fite, K. (December 1999). Purple suede shoes: "Seeing" a story as children do. Early Childhood News, p. 54.
Kirylo, J. (2006). Working with a diverse student population: The mission is not to save, but to reflectively teach. NCPEA Connexions. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from http://cnx.org/content/m 14073/latest/
Landreman, L., Rasmussen, C., King, P., & Jiang, C. (2007). A phenomenological study of the development of university educators' critical consciousness. Journal of College Student Development, 48(3), 275-296.
Meece, J., & Daniels, D. (2008). Child & adolescent development for educators (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Merriam, S., & Caffarella, R. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Ormrod, J. (2012). Human learning (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Stanford dictionary of philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2011, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ phenomenology/#1
Kathleen Fite is Professor of Education, Texas State University San, Marcos, Texas.