Changing the Lens: Critical Reflection Through Coaching

Critical Reflection and Coaching

It’s now quite some time since I first came across the work of Dr Stephen D. Brookfield whilst working in Initial Teacher Education. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (Brookfield, 1995) quickly became a text that I regularly returned to and often cite when discussing how we might seek alternative perspectives on our practice. I drew on this text as a leader of professional learning in schools, and more recently I have found myself reflecting on it in the context of coaching conversations.

According to Brookfield:

“Critically reflective teaching happens when we identify and scrutinize assumptions that undergird how we work. The most effective way to become aware of these assumptions is to view our practice from different perspectives. Seeing how we think and work through different lenses is the core process of reflective practice.”

The underpinning principles and aims of critical reflection proposed by Brookfield – uncovering assumptions and power dynamics; gaining perspective on our practice and context; gaining a sense of control and balance; helping support informed action; and creating conditions where people feel respected, valued, and heard – seem to me to have strong parallels with the aspirations of effective coaching in schools.

Brookfield’s Lenses

He proposes four lenses on our practice:


Each lens provides a different perspective from which to examine our practice. These can operate in multiple directions, allowing us to make sense of and ‘name’ what we do, as well as providing mirrors to reflect back different versions of how our actions are received and interpreted by others.

We Can’t Do It Alone…

Brookfield points out that few of us can critically reflect very effectively on our own. He argues that the personal assumptions that underpin our actions are often too close for us to see and examine.

“No matter how much we may think we have an accurate sense of ourselves, we are stymied by the fact that we are using our own interpretive filters to become aware of our own interpretive filters – the pedagogic equivalent of trying to see the back of one’s head while looking in the bathroom mirror.”

So, who do we use as our “mirrors” when attempting to stand outside of ourselves and see what it looks like when we do what we do? Brookfield warns of the dangers of seeking out people who share the same orientations or assumptions as us. This, he says, can lead to an unproductive conversational loop in which the same prejudices and stereotypes are reaffirmed.

“Rare indeed are the people who deliberately seek out books, conversations, and practices that they know will challenge or even undercut much of what they find comfortable and familiar.”
Enter Coaching…

Coaching is a powerful way of facilitating the reflective process and, importantly, supporting the inevitable call to action arising from true critical reflection.

Common to many definitions of effective coaching are the terms awareness and responsibility (Whitmore, 2009; van Nieuwerburgh, 2012). Awareness raising can serve different purposes: awareness of the current reality leading to clarity around the need for change and what’s wanted; and increased awareness of what is within the coachee’s control leading to clarity around next steps. The skill of the coach is paramount here: asking the best questions, listening deeply, and reflecting back through paraphrasing and further clarifying questions; all in the service of the coachee’s thinking. Underpinning all of this is a mutually respectful and trusting relationship. This relationship should begin with clarity of intent and expectation of the coaching partnership which invites another key ingredient of effective coaching: supportive challenge. This is sometimes provided through direct feedback and creates a positive tension in the conversation compelling the coachee to act.

Coaching Skills to Promote Reflection

Returning to Brookfield’s four lenses, it should be clear that effective questioning can help prompt the coachee to examine their practice at a deeper level and from different perspectives.

When looking through the “autobiographical” lens we might ask questions that help the coachee to “look in” on their classroom and provide a narrative about what they do and what beliefs underpin their actions. The process of talking aloud about what might at first appear to be idiosyncratic habits can in fact uncover assumptions based on our own experiences or preferences as learners.

Applying the “students” and “colleagues” lenses might involve seeking direct feedback on specific aspects of practice and/or relationships. The coaching relationship can provide a safe mediative space for the analysis of student and colleague feedback. Without a coach to act as an emotional buffer and sounding board, engaging with feedback can be a personally confronting experience for many people. The coach’s role is to help the coachee to explore the range of “stories” that the data might be telling them and to help them bring this back around to their role and what they can do about this. Importantly, feedback data can also provide the coach with the opportunity to affirm the coachee for what is going well and help them avoid defaulting to a deficit view of their practice. Overall, the process of seeking and analysing feedback should be a treasure hunt, not a witch hunt.

The Literature Lens

The lens that is perhaps not explicitly proffered so often by the coach is the “literature” lens. This might be considered a more natural perspective to pursue when coaching is being provided in support of a particular teacher development goal but it can also help us to make sense of the challenges that arise in our day-to-day practice.

A key point to note here is that academic literature and research provide a lens on practice rather than a definitive ‘playbook’ for teachers. We are not talking about leading the coachee to the latest edition of “Teaching 101” or the next chapter of “Teaching for Dummies”! We are talking about engaging with alternative (written) perspectives on the complexity of teaching and learning. This theoretical lens brings several benefits for teachers (Brookfield, 1995):

  • Provides multiple interpretations of familiar situations;
  • Helps us to make sense of our experiences and practices by “naming” them;
  • Illuminates generic aspects of what we thought were idiosyncratic events and processes;
  • Helps us gain perspective on our practice and clarify what is within (and out-with) our sphere of control.

This view of academic literature appears to land more respectfully with teachers and offers some reassurance and confidence in the value of their own contextual expertise. I wonder if viewing literature as a lens for reflection on practice, as well as for generating new ideas and possibilities, might serve to narrow the perceived gap between theory and practice?

“Practice alone is, of course, not enough, without some co-ordinating theory, some inter-connected ideas, purely practical subjects can ossify and degenerate into congeries of rules-of-thumb and obsession with technique. Practice without theory can become basely conservative; theory without practice can become arcane, unintelligible or simply trivial.” ~ Goodlad (1990)
What Might the Lenses Illuminate in Your Context?

In closing, I’d invite you to consider how coaching, or coaching approaches to professional conversations, could help you and your colleagues to critically reflect on practice in a way that is compelling, empowering and respectful.

  • Which of these lenses are already in place?
  • What questions would you ask yourself in attempting to “position” the lenses?
  • What questions could help teachers, and leaders, to gain perspective on how and why they do what they do?
  • Who has control of the lenses and the story they reveal?
  • What conditions are necessary for teachers to willingly engage in critical reflection in this way?
  • If you are already engaged in coaching, how might the notion of reflective lenses influence your coaching technique?
A Few Reflective Questions
  • What has resonated with you most in this article?
  • What challenged your thinking or provided a new insight?
  • What first small steps will you take in the next week to bring a fresh lens to what you do?

Additional Resources

Click to view presentation slides from a related Conference Presentation for the Australian College of Educators.


  • Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (1st edn). San Franscisco: Jossey-Bass. [Note: 2nd edition was published earlier this year.]
  • Goodlad, J. I. (1990). Teachers for our nation’s schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2012). Coaching in education: an overview. In C. van Nieuwerburgh (Ed.) Coaching in Education: Getting Better Results for Students, Educators, and Parents. London: Karnac.
  • Whitmore, J. (2009). Coaching for performance: GROWing human potential and purpose: The principles and practice of coaching and leadership (4th edn). London: Nicholas Brealey.