In Engaging Practitioners in Critical Analysis of Adult Education Literature, Stephen Brookfield is trying to “…encourage students to acquire the habit of asking certain critical questions each time they are confronted with a piece of published academic writing.” (p4)  He introduces four categories of questioning: methodological, experiential, communicative and political. In this piece I will reflect on Brookfield’s four categories of questioning, and answering the following questions: what is my most comfortable category of questioning; what is my most important category of questioning; and, what is my least often used category of questioning, and why this is so?

What is my most comfortable category of questioning?

At first glance I would have said that I am most comfortable with methodological questioning. With a background in science, experience as an environmental systems auditor and with a love for forensic novels, reports and processes, the evidential nature of methodological questioning and its search for empirical evidence is a good fit.  However, when I reflect on my actual practice, I see that I tend to ask experiential questions. I look at connections, discrepancies and omissions in relation to my own adult education practice. I look to hone my existing adult education practice first. I create new practice when situations occur that are of a more profound nature. For me this is a rather new phenomenon, as I begin to look for value in what I do and sort through potential life paths in relation to benefits in my life practice. This personal process has been aided by professors in academic settings who encourage, rather than avoid, drawing students’ experiences as adult learners in analysis of academic literature — unlike Brookfield’s experience.

What is my most important category of questioning?

When considering the most important category of questioning for me personally, I must admit that I feel they are all important. Each of the areas of questioning gives a different perspective on the writing. It is important, for example, to know whose voices are being heard (communicative), if the author is addressing ethical issues (experiential), the empirical evidence for statements (methodological), and the power processes involved in the writer’s work (political). Limiting oneself to a single line of questioning has the very real hazard of leaving an important piece of knowledge uncovered. This means we would be making a less informed decision about the validity and usefulness of an academic work.

A non-academic example, which for me highlights this need for many perspectives, comes from my teenage years. As a teen living in Germany, I was able to meet with Albert Speer, the former Minister of Armaments and Supply in Nazi Germany. When asked if, in retrospect, he would have acted differently than he did during the Second World War he answered yes. However, he went on to say that if conditions were the same as they were at the time, he would say no. He saw Hitler as the leader of his country fighting for a better world. He did not look at the ethical issues, the empirical evidence nor the power processes taking place. The legitimacy of Speer’s answer aside, this event has stayed with me for the over 40 years as an example of needing to view events from several perspectives. I now add to this, the need for critical assessment of those perspectives in analyzing different views of adult education theory and practice. That is not to say we can always be fully informed, but certainly we try to be as knowledgeable as possible.

What is my least often used category of questioning, and why this is so?

The area of questioning that I utilize the least is political questioning. It is only recently that I began to connect academic writing to political, power issues. I did not question whether a piece of research was improving social or political conditions or give insights into increasing fairness or justice. Still, I am not comfortable with this line of questioning.  As highlighted by Brookfield, this may be due to a number of barriers: reverence held for published academic writers, vision of the whole effort as an abstract intellectual process, interpretation of critical andragogy as left of centre, or lack of practice of academic writing. Probably all of these are true in part. If I were to highlight the most important barrier though, it would be my limited experience in socio-political dialogues. I still have difficulty figuring out what is ‘to the left’ and what is ‘to the right’. I have read about liberation theology, pedagogy of possibility, culture and power and other theories. But to borrow an image from Donald Schon, I’ve walked on the hill but have yet to trudge through the swamp.

Stephen Brookfield, Engaging Practitioners in Critical Analysis of Adult Education Literature, 1992

This is the third in a series of blogs that looks at the underpinnings of education and the thought leaders who have helped to inform our educational evolution.