Reflection entangled with diffraction: thinking more about critical practice in education

I written in the past about Reflection and Diffraction as a concept in education. Reflection is a BIG part of [initial] teacher education and practice. Many of the reports I have read written by mentor/supervising teachers, and those I have liaised with, usually make some kind of comment about a preservice teacher’s ability to effectively reflect on their practice in order to do better next time.

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I read a paper yesterday which looked at the difference between reflection/reflexivity and diffraction and I am going to try to think through the implications of the paper practically, so I welcome feedback.

Bozalek and Zembylas raise an interesting point. Reflection is very rarely defined when preservice teachers are asked to do it and there are at least 3 different understandings (so what they are expected to do in different situations can be confusing):

  1. Individuals are responsible for their own choices, therefore responsible for the problems they experience. This idea sees reflection as a skill which can be learned and therefore, mastered. This type of reflection I see most often in education. What strategy did you use? Did it work? No? You might have done it wrong and you need to work out how in order to do better tomorrow.
  2. Individuals can interrogate their knowledge, including their own subjectivity. In doing this practitioners can begin to understand the reasons certain events may occur because they are aware of the political and power relationships in their experiences. A type of “hard objectivity”. This type of reflection I see more often among experienced teachers. They understand that their classroom activity may have failed because they got into a power play with one of the students. They understand that they maybe should have approached the student differently and will do so next time.
  3. Individuals can critically examine the factors which lead to knowledge production, especially in relation to emotions. I see this type of reflection in the comments about and by preservice teachers when they talk about “passion” for subjects and/or students. Being excited about teaching goes a long way towards successful classroom experiences for everyone, regardless of approach, because passion is catching.

Bozalek and Zembylas describe these types of practice in reflection as entangled. Separately they may be problematic but in cahoots they are excellent tools for reflection. They suggest that diffraction is not something that should be done in opposition to reflection, but is, in fact, also entangled.

Diffraction is used as an alternative optical metaphor by Donna Haraway to suggest reflection is insufficient. The optics of reflection are to copy and reflexivity to copy copies. Within this metaphor, to reflect or be reflexive is to repeat what we did in the past, not just in practice, but politically. For example, if new teachers were to copy practices developed by experienced teachers, would they be destined to continue to clone the education system as it stands? How would teaching practices move forward? Likewise, if preservice teachers were to deliberately do things differently to how they have always been done, would their practices allow for deep critical knowledge and understanding? What happens to the wisdom of the ages?

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Diffraction is extrapolated to a methodology by Karen Barad as a process by which someone is attentive to differences and wonders why and how they are made. But it goes further than that. Diffraction as a method does not let the teacher sit outside the issue they are facing. The teacher is asked to be a part of the problem and question how their actions affect the problem they are trying to solve. So a diffractive approach to the above critical problem would be to directly ask how their personal actions might support or reject their current understanding of effective and improvement focused teaching. Diffracting teaching would also feel discomfort about teaching without consultation and partnerships. People can only speak to their experiences and their experiences are positioned as no better or worse than anyone else’s. No one gets to be the better teacher. Diffracting teacher practices is about finding the hot spots that resonate, the discomfort and the difference between the individualised stories and concentrating on them. The attention shifts from what everyone is doing to what everyone is doing differently.  Diffraction would ask teaching practice to become a collaboration rather than individualised. The pronoun shifts from “I” to “we”. It takes work, but I think work worth doing in order to make a difference.

What do you think? What have I overlooked? What resonated? What made you uncomfortable? I’d love to know.

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