Educational Biography as a Means of Critical Reflection
The main target of this paper is to present educational biography and its potential to become a critical reflection tool for the development of adult educators. Educational biography is understood as an oral or written testimony of a person in relation to the sum of his/her learning experiences, either within or outside the education system. Individual educational biographies expressively expose the way that people interact with their educational environment and construct their professional identities, as well as their thinking manners. On the other hand, critical self-reflection is a term that has many interpretations and definitions. However, it remains the main cognitive process that may lead to individual and social transformation. In this paper, beyond, a clear presentation of the concept of critical reflection, its content and its function towards the transformation of a person’s frame of reference, I present the structure of an educational biography workshop that has been successfully implemented with adult educators and other teachers in Greece.
Keywords: Educational biographycritical reflectionadult educators
Critical thinking and critical reflection are learning outcomes that have been in the agenda of adult
education for many decades. Both these concepts have been part of the more well known philosophical
and practical approaches of our field of practice. On the one hand, Paulo Freire’s complex process of
conscientization has as a prerequisite the development of the critical awareness of one’s social reality
through reflection (Freire, 1996, 1998). For Freire and his devotees, the exploitation of the intrinsic but
lethargic critical reflection skills of the adult learners is the cornerstone for the next step, that of political
action. Critical reflection and political action constitute praxis which is the ultimate outcome for any adult
educational activity within the Freireian philosophy.
On the other hand, Jack Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning, which advocates for an
education that could lead to the transformation of one’s frame of reference, is directly depended to a
process of critical reflection through rational dialogical means (Mezirow, 1990). The Mezirownian
perspective of adult education is grounded on a process of deep and extensive examination of a person’s
dysfunctional assumptions in order to ameliorate the discrepancy between a person’s biography and the
current comprehension of social reality (Mezirow, 1991).
Therefore, in the framework of any of the above educational philosophies, adult educators are
more or less expected to facilitate within their sessions the development of the participants’ critical skills.
Indeed, for many developmental psychologists like Robert Kegan the adult phase of human life is
distinguished from the previous life stages (i.e. childhood, adolescence) due to the tacit competencies of
critical reflection which may well be further developed. Kegan seems to be very convinced about this
relation and he makes an explicit suggestion about it in his proposed association between “curricular
forms and appropriate audiences” (1994, p. 291).
At this point however, questions rise: is it possible for an educator to foster a process of critical
reflection if in the past she/he has not engaged herself/himself in the same process? How is it possible to
facilitate an “unknown” process? The aforementioned questions are of a rhetorical nature. It is well
known that it is not possible for any educator even a gifted one to facilitate something when there is no
personal-direct experience about its content, context and process. Thus, the real question is in what ways
we can involve an adult educator in a critical reflection process? What kind of assumptions or which part
of an educator’s frame of reference may we examine to assist her professional development? Are there
any examples of such processes and how are they structured?
In this paper, I will try to address these questions drawing examples from my own practice. To
achieve this aim I will start by presenting my conception about critical reflection, its content and its
function towards the transformation of a person’s frame of reference. Then I will present educational
biography and I will focus on its potential to become a critical reflection “tool”. Finally, I will present the
structure of a workshop that has been successfully implemented with adult educators and other teachers in
Critical Reflection and Transformation
The learning value of critical thinking is discussed by several authors from both the fields of
pedagogy and that of adult education. Nevertheless, this very important mental process is frequently
interpreted in many different ways and is often confused or identified with other cognitive processes such
as analytical thinking (analysis of the components of a problem or a case) or logical thought, which is
factually the formulation of a conclusion after a series of logical arguments.
In my view, which is influenced by the educational philosophy of Paulo Freire (1974) for critical
awareness as well as from the practical and theoretical approach of Brookfield for radical teaching
(Brookfield & Holst, 2011), critical thinking is a process that aims to lead a learner in a careful, insightful
and in-depth examination of the assumptions on which rests her or his perception of reality.
Critical thinking is all about the thorough enquiry of the foundations of this perception. This
process is not without a structure. It is not a chaotic quest for deep-rooted assumptions. Although there is
no proposed order, Brookfield (1988) suggests that a mental exercise may be characterised as a critical
thinking process when it includes four fundamental activities: (a) assumption analysis – this activity
includes the challenging of a person’s values and cultural practices in order to analyze their impact on
everyday life, (b) contextual awareness which involves the realization that our individual and collective
beliefs are created in a particular historical and cultural context which should be recognized, (c)
imaginative speculation or the search for alternative ways of thinking about various social phenomena in
order to challenge the dominant ways of thinking and acting and (d) reflective scepticism, which includes
challenging the claims and generalizations of all those grand narratives that lead to uncritical interaction
This process of critical thinking is leading to challenging the validity of the prior assumptions of a
person’s frame of reference or in other words of the conceptual toolbox that a person uses to interpret the
world and her/his relations with the self and the others. This process is actually the core of the process of
transformative learning which was introduced by Jack Mezirow (1991) and is one of the most influential
theories of learning in the field of adult education.
Educational biography as a critical reflection process is based on the assumption that seeking
understanding of our life course could enhance learning and could potentially be a transformative force
on both individual and social levels. Educational biography as a research method is considered part of the
biographical and life-history research approaches that flourish within the qualitative research paradigm
(Alheit et al., 2007). Indeed, biographical research endeavours may be found nowadays in many journals
with a variety of terms such as i.e. auto/biography, personal narrative, biographic narrative etc.
Biographical research may take the form of investigation into the lives of others, or of reflection on one’s
own experience, history or identity, or a mixture of both (Merrill & West, 2009).
Plummer (2000) indicates that educational biographies are thematic documents of life where the
information is organized around the life stages or other categories of an individual’s learning experiences
and highlight the frame of reference of the learning process through which individuals construct their
lives, acquire their skills and develop their understanding about learning and teaching. It is more than
apparent that such a process maybe of extreme value when the individual whose educational biography is
analysed is a teacher. Several studies have indicated that the biographical elements that constitute the
frame of reference of educators and especially those that refer to the past learning experiences, shape their
“teaching identity” (i.a. Larsen, 1999; Koulaouzides & Palios, 2009).
The idea of examining the educational biographies of learners and more specific of educators in a
form of a structured and organized process was introduced by Dominicé (2000) who recognized the
educational biography as a critical self-reflection process:
Educational biographies can help adult learners recognize social and interpersonal influences on their lives and educational activities. Preparing a life history focused on learning can also clarify the interdependence of biographical themes, major life transitions and educational activities calling learners’ attention to both processes and outcomes in their lives and learning….
These narratives can also reveal formerly hidden influences such as cultural traditions and beliefs.
(Dominice, 2000, p.6)
In the aforementioned quoted paragraph we may clearly identify the first elements of critical
reflection as defined previously by Brookfield that of assumption analysis and contextual awareness.
Based on the above thinking, Dominice, organized for many years an Educational Biography Seminar at
the University of Geneva that was addressed to adult learners who wished to be involved in adult
education as professionals. He developed a workshop where learners after being exposed to the
theoretical foundations of biographical research, they were expected to prepare written narratives. Then,
through a year-long group-work process a through analysis and discussion of every narrative took place.
This process that satisfied the third and fourth element of the abovementioned critical reflection process,
gave to the participants the opportunity to recognize alternative understandings and qualities but also to
realize that their competencies regarding learning and eventually teaching are socially constructed:
As professionals make explicit the assumptions, influences plans, activities and results of their past learning, they can become more reflective practitioners and acquire better guides to their future learning.
(Dominice, 2000, p. 57)
It is clear to me that the recognition and examination of an educational biography that has as a
consequent result the illumination of the individual learning paths is an internal dialogical process, a
process of critical self-reflection. The construction of an educational biography by an educator and its
shared analysis and interpretation urges her/him to stand firmly against old and new doctrines and to
question the structural assumptions that constitute her/his individual frame of reference and thus shape
her/his professional identity - i.e. teaching style, relation to the learners and other qualities that form the
profession of an educator - (Koulaouzides, 2010).
Description of an Educational Biography Workshop
As I presented above, Pierre Dominicé showed us the way by offering us a clear theoretical and
practical field of practice. However, his brilliant seminar had as a timeframe a whole academic year. Our
experience has showed us that in continuing professional education courses, adult educators rarely have
the luxury to devote a whole academic year for similar activities. Therefore, having all of the above in
mind, together with a colleague who has also been involved in biographical research (see Pazioni &
Koulaouzides, 2016), we decided to implement a shorter self-reflection workshop through the use of
educational biography aiming to (a) familiarize the participants with the biographical research approaches
and (b) introduce a self-reflection methodology that may assist them in recognizing a particular part of
their frame of reference: their assumptions about the role of the adult educator.
We argue that although this workshop is rather short (usually it requires two long weekends) the
overall experience may become the stimuli for the initiation of an internal dialogical process that may lead
individuals and more particular individuals in the educational profession to develop into reflective
practitioners. Our argument is not only supported by the relevant literature (i.a. Dominice, 2007) but also
and perhaps more importantly by the feedback comments we have received after having implemented this
workshop several times. It is noticeable that the participants in all their comments show an increased
awareness regarding the relation between their biographical paradigm and their assumptions about the role
of the teacher. The structure of the workshop is as follows:
We divide the group of the participants in smaller groups and we implement a short acquaintance
exercise using a series of especially prepared cards. The cards have on them quotes that refer to the theory
and practice of adult education from various known scholars. The cards are prepared in duplicates to give
the participants the opportunity to create randomly formed couples. We then ask every couple to proceed
with short interviews of each other and to discuss the quote found on their common card. As a next step
we ask every participant to introduce to the rest of the group his/her couple and then to share with the
group thoughts regarding the quote. In this part our aim is on the one hand to create a familiar
environment and on the other hand to offer a first indication about the content of the session (biographical
information – theory and practice of adult education). At the same time implicitly the whole group
acquires a first idea of the existing assumptions about adult education during the commentaries of the
participants on the printed quotes.
Then, we distribute to each participant two pages that contain two different exercises. The pages
are colored differently and each group has its own color. We ask the participants to start with the first
page where we ask them to think and write a short educational biographical account explaining to them
that they should include as many educational experiences as they can, from any level of education. Once
this is over, we ask the participants to take a break and then perform the second exercise which is asking
them to write as explicitly as possible their opinion regarding the role of the adult educator based on their
own experiences. We ask them then to attach the two pages together and to place both pages in a folder.
As a next step we collect the folders from each group and we distribute them so that each group
receives the collected forms from a different group. We then invite the groups to open the folders and
place the documents upside down. Then we ask each member of the group to pick randomly one set, to
read the first the biographical account carefully and then to read the accompanied statement about the role
of the adult educator and discuss it. The discussion is at the beginning an individual exercise and then a
collective activity within each group. We urge the participants to comment the relation, if any, between
the educational experiences described and the stated assumptions about the role of the adult educator. We
also encourage them to discuss as thorough as possible all the cases in their folder and to decide about the
presentation of each case to the rest of the group.
When all the groups are ready, we start the presentation of each account and the related statement
about the role of the educator and the associated comments that took place from the discussion within the
group. At this point, we ask the participants not to react when they hear their own biography but to keep
notes and wait for the completion of the presentations. Once all the presentations are over we ask the
participants to share on a voluntary basis with the rest of the group their reactions (agreements,
disagreements, emotions and so on) and to comment about the content of the whole process.
After the implementation of this phase we present for a short period some theoretical elements
about educational biography and its potential use a tool for the initiation of an internal dialogue, as means
for critical self-reflection. Finally, we distribute a blank page to the participants asking them to illustrate
the whole experience with a paragraph, a phrase, an image or anything they find appropriate. We urge to
participants to post their appraisals on a board. This last activity concludes the workshop.
In this paper I demonstrated the potential use of educational biography as a tool for critical self
reflection. I strongly support the idea that educational biography may foster and facilitate the dialogue of a
person with himself/herself and the others. For those who are in the professional field of education,
educational biography may found to be of extreme importance since the educational biography of a
teacher, not only includes issues of educational and professional experiences but also encompasses
aspects of family life, school life, personal characteristics, values, worldviews, and special features that
are essential influences to career choices, i.e. to the teaching profession (Koulaouzides, 2010).
Through the presented workshop we try to foster critical self reflection since we consider
educational biography as a powerful tool that is able to make people aware of their meaning-making
process. Human beings have a rich and highly varied mental and social life reflected in all their
relationships and institutions in which they live. Thus, recognizing and understanding the ‘biographical
experience’ (on which meaning-making is based) is of key importance in educational theorizing, practice
and research. The educational biography seen as a particular set of experiences of the self is a source of
knowledge and a valuable pedagogic resource which can be utilized for learning as well as personal and
professional development of educators.
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