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The dilemma of promoting reflective practice in higher education: Between rhetoric and reality

Kantha Kumar Ramasamy
Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus
A distinguishing feature of higher education is its explicit purpose to make of its learners not mere empty vessels to be filled but 'to make of them reflective practitioners' (Barnette 1992, p.198). Reflective practice, according to Schon (1983, 1987) is a means of enhancing learners' critical and reflective abilities. Promoting reflective practice in higher education is a challenge that needs to be addressed by lecturers through conscious effort. Otherwise learning in institutions of higher education will degenerate into mere 'transmission learning' rather than 'transformative learning'. Transformative learning occurs when learners' existing assumptions about understanding, self and the world are challenged (Brockbank & McGill 1998).

In the face of many 'realities' of university education, lecturers are inclined to let the evaluation 'tail' wag the education 'dog'. If most secondary schools in the Malaysian context are being caught up in 'teaching to the test', university education is not becoming any less different. Performance in end of semester exams and coursework assignment datelines are becoming increasingly the major concern of both learners and lecturers. Students to a large extent, from my observation and discussion with them in my English language classes at Curtin Sarawak Malaysia, treat assignments and tests as hurdles or tasks that need to be completed and removed out of their way for the next task to be started on. In such circumstances, engaging students in reflective practice, emphasising processes rather than content alone, becomes an uphill task, as learners concentrate on 'surviving' through a course rather than becoming 'enlightened' by the course or discipline they are undertaking.

Reflective practice requires that the teacher intentionally engages the student in a reflective dialogue, modelling the process, and thereby making reflective practice accessible to learners who become more conscious of their own approaches to their learning and promote critically reflective learning (Brockbank & McGill 1998).

However such reflective dialogue often takes a back seat when the overriding concern is to complete the task or assignments, regardless of whether it entailed reflective thinking and learning. This challenge or dilemma is further compounded when lecturers deal with learners who are low performing ESL students. Language competency becomes an essential requirement to engage learners meaningfully in reflective learning. When lecturers have to struggle with learners' language inadequacy and at the same time face the pressure of completing course content, how does one engage learners in reflective thinking and learning? How do we ensure that tasks that are intended to promote reflection and critical thinking such as journals, peer discussion and 'learning about learning' strategies, are not perceived as 'burden' by learners?

Author: Kantha Kumar Ramasamy, Lecturer, Foundation Studies, Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. ph 60 8561 7500, fax 60 8561 7600, email kantha.r@curtin.edu.my

Presentation format: Dilemmas in teaching or teaching/learning research

Please cite as: Kantha Kumar Ramasamy (2002). The dilemma of promoting reflective practice in higher education: Between rhetoric and reality. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/abstracts/ramasamy-abs.html

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