Process Of Reflection Enhance Trainee Education Essay

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The present study was an attempt to understand how a process of reflection helped five foreign language student teachers throughout their first teaching experience. This study was conducted in the classrooms of five public schools in Colombia where English was taught to high school students. Data were collected through classroom observations, students' reflective journals, lesson plans and semi-structured interviews. Findings revealed that reflection is a way to help foreign language student teachers to improve their first teaching practice. The analysis was based in the light of two theories, reflection in action and reflection on action (Schön's, 1987); and Van Manen's (1977) three levels of reflection.

Key words: Practicum, reflection, Schön, student teacher, Van Manen

El presente estudio fue un intento para comprender cómo un proceso de reflexión ayudó a cinco estudiantes profesores de lenguas extranjeras en su primera experiencia de enseñanza. Se llevó a cabo en las aulas de cinco escuelas públicas en Colombia, donde se enseña Inglés a estudiantes de secundaria. Los datos fueron recolectados a través de observaciones, diarios de reflexión, planes y entrevistas. Los resultados revelaron que la reflexión es una manera de ayudar a los estudiantes a mejorar su primera práctica docente. El análisis se basó en dos teorías, reflexiones sobre la acción y en la acción Schön (1987), y los tres niveles de reflexión de Van Manen (1977).

Palabras clave: estudiante practicante, práctica, reflección, Schön, Van Manen

Introduction

The Foreign Language (FL) program in which this research took place seeks to educate an effective and reflective teacher who is able to face realities, challenges and problems related to the educational settings in which learning and teaching a foreign language occurs. This study focuses on the FL practicum, developed in the classrooms of four public high schools, in which the student teacher is required to put theory into practice, and develop a project on teaching, research, administrative skills and community engagement. This is aligned with what The Ministry of National Education in Colombia expects from schools of education in that they should provide pre-service teachers with opportunities to interact with pre-school, primary or high school students from different contexts to facilitate the development of professional competences. [1] 

Therefore, this study allowed trainee teachers to be engaged in a process of reflection as a way of giving them the opportunity to identify problematic situations and look for ways to improve their first practicum experience. In other words, trainee teachers embarked upon a process in which they were able to identify critical instances in the classroom, and to consider actions that responded to the identified situations.

Theoretical Framework

Taking into account that the central phenomenon of this study is reflection and teaching practicum, it is necessary to establish some theoretical foundations that contextualize this study. According to Dewey (1933), reflective thinking "involves a state of doubt, hesitation, perplexity, mental difficulty in which thinking originates and an act of searching, hunting and inquiring to find material that will resolve the doubt and settle and dispose of the perplexity" (p. 12). In a more recent concept, Richards and Lockhart (2005) stated that reflection "involves examining teaching experiences as a basis for evaluation and decision making and as a source for change." These concepts allowed the researchers to be aware of the importance of reflection for trainee teachers facing their first teaching experience as a way to increase their success and maximize the benefits of the practicum for them.

The researchers adopted Schön (1987) and Van Manen's (1977) notions and levels of reflection through the different stages in the development of the project. The researchers used Schön's (1987) concepts of reflection in action and reflection on action in order to identify the type of reflection student teachers went through during their first teaching experience. According to Schön (1987) "we may reflect in the midst of action without interrupting it" (p. 26). This type of reflection is defined as reflection in action as we reflect while actions are taking place. "Our thinking serves to reshape what we are doing while we are doing it." (p. 26). On the other hand, "we may reflect on action to discover how our knowing-in-action may have contributed to an expected outcome." (p. 26).This reflection takes place after actions are carried out.

In order to evaluate the extent to which students were engaged in reflection, data were also analyzed using Van Manen's (1977) model. According to this model, reflections can be organized into three levels: technical, practical and critical. 1) Technical Reflection, the lowest level of reflection, concerns the effective application of skills and technical knowledge in the classroom setting. In other words, it focuses on reflecting on how effective the means are, in order to achieve a specific objective; 2) Practical Reflection involves reflections on assumptions that support teachers' actions and the consequences of such practices. According to Van Manen (1977) practical reflection facilitates "an interpretative understanding both of the nature and quality of the educational experience, and of making practical choices" (p. 226); 3) Critical Reflection, the highest level of reflection, incorporates moral and ethical issues. It may also include aspects from the two lower levels of reflection.

Several studies have been published in this particular field in Colombia. Most research conducted on FL pre-service teachers has focused on language learning and use (Farias & Obilinovic, 2008). Some studies have focused on the strengths and weaknesses that practicum supervisors have identified in their trainees, (Quintero, Zuluaga & López, 2003); the use of blogs and journals when reflecting (Insuasty & Zambrano, 2010), the use of the counselor's notes to support student's preparation (Viáfara, 2005), and the design of reflective tasks to prepare pre-service teachers (Viáfara, 2004).

Participants and Setting

Participants, who ranged in age from 21 to 26, were five undergraduate pre-service teachers: Marcia, David, Alice, Martin and Caroline (pseudonyms) and belonged to the Foreign Language Program at the Universidad de Pamplona, where they were educated to become effective and reflective teachers able to face realities, challenges and problems related to learning and teaching a foreign language. Participants were chosen on a voluntary basis after having expressed their willingness to participate in the project. All of them did their practicum in English at five public high schools, and their language proficiency ranged between B1 and B2. [2] . This field experience took place on the final semester of the undergraduate program just before students face teaching at a professional level. Prior to their practicum, students participating in this project had only sixty hours of teaching with no experience on reflective activities.

Methodology

This research involved the study of an issue through five cases bounded in time and space (Creswell, 2005). In other words, this study was conducted during 16 weeks; and focused on the first-teaching experiences of Marcia, David, Alice, Martin and Caroline in order to better understand how a process of reflection could help them to improve their teaching practice.

During the study, researchers collected qualitative data from several instruments: classroom observations, reflective journals and semi-structured interviews. Data, gathered mainly through the participants' journals, classroom observations and semi-structured interviews, provided the participants' perspectives and reflections as they went through their first teaching experience. Lesson plans complemented the information gathered from the other instruments. Participants' reflections were guided through a specific questionnaire (See Appendix 1). Researchers conducted three classroom observations per participant that allowed them "to record information as it occurs in a setting…" (Creswell, 2005, p. 211.) For example, during these observations, two researchers were seated at the back of the classroom taking notes. At the end of the study, researchers interviewed participants for 30 minutes using a semi-structured questionnaire (See Appendix 2).

With regard to data analysis, each case was analyzed separately by coding and identifying salient themes. Cases then were compared and contrasted to elicit relevant information in order to understand how student-teachers reflected and which their main concerns were. This analysis allowed the researchers to identify several categories that resulted in a narrowed number of themes.

Findings

The researchers evaluated the information gathered from a) participants' journals; b) classroom observations; c) semi-structured interviews; and d) lesson plans. Several themes emerged from this analysis and were mostly associated with the process of reflection, when and how it took place; the novice teacher's main concerns, and the changes implemented as a result of their reflective process. The following section presents the way the researchers categorized those findings according to Schön's (1983) concepts of reflection in action and reflection on action; and Van Manen's (1977) hierarchical model.

Reflection in Action

Taking into account that when reflecting in action, "we may reflect in the midst of action without interrupting it" (Schön, 1987, p. 26.). Participants found themselves making sudden changes in the middle of an activity in order to overcome difficult situations. For example, the researchers found that the student teachers decided to change the way a class activity had been planned in order to catch their students' responsive attitude and actively engage them throughout the class. Making these on-the-spot decisions allowed practitioners to find a solution in order to keep the class organized and working. Only two participants reflected while engaged in teaching. It seemed that they sorted out difficult situations by means of reflecting in action. For example, in her journal, Alice described when her students showed a lack of preparation and interest in participating in a specific task or when they were not able to participate because of a lack of preparation for the assigned task; she thought of a plan B in order to overcome this situation without interrupting the activity itself.

Similarly, Martin reflected in action when his students misbehaved and when the pace of the lesson became monotonous, as reported in his journal:

I have found myself making some instant decisions in the classroom despite the time spent planning a lesson plan since in the moment things would work better if changed. For instance, something that was not homework became homework; the activity was intended to be worked in pairs but because of bad behavior was individually done.

Reflection on Action

Researchers found that all participants experienced ups and downs during their practicum, and that reflection on action allowed them to think back on what they had done while teaching their lessons, the amount of content taught, the strategies used, the pace of their lessons and some discipline issues. Identifying what went wrong in previous lessons would enable them not to make the same mistakes and to modify future actions. The following excerpt from Alice's journal explains how this reflective process allowed her to assess what she had done during a previous class in order to introduce certain changes to avoid difficult situations.

I have to change some activities in the planning for the next group; the first activity that I have to change is the use of role-plays. I have to give students a sheet of paper with the text because in this way they can follow the performance, the role play, and they will understand the topic if they do not know some kind of vocabulary.

Likewise, after a class, David reflected on the way he made decisions to manage the class more effectively, as he noted:

Tuve que reorganizar el salón y tomar medidas de disciplina como tomar nota de la actividad que tenían que hacer y también darles un pequeño llamado de atención una que otra vez. A pesar de ese pequeño problema, la lección fluyó muy bien.

In doing so, David decided to change their original plans in the hope of catching and retaining the students' responsive attitude throughout the lesson, and keeping the class flowing. It can be seen that the student teachers took some distance in time and space from the events to find feasible solutions and make decisions for the subsequent planning.

From Technical to Critical reflection.

Opposed to Schön (1983), who presents reflection as a process in which people may reflect in action and on action; Van Manen (1977) sees it as a hierarchical scale organized into three levels of reflection: technical, practical and critical. This study found that all the participants achieved the technical level of reflection; while two of them reached the practical and the critical ones.

Technical Reflection

At a technical level of reflection, student teachers' main concerns were how to develop their lessons and reach the goals set. Therefore, all participants considered the technical application of educational knowledge while reflecting on themes such as class activities, materials, classroom interaction, group arrangement, explanations, delivery of instructions, use of the native or foreign language and student's correction. For example, from Alice's journal, researchers noticed that she was confident about helping student develop their receptive skills as she worked on grammar.

I used a listening exercise and some visual posters to catch student's attention; the listening exercise was a great tool in the development of the class because with this exercise students were involved in the most important aspect of the class, to remember the structure of continuous tenses, students liked this activity since this kind of exercise is not used in most of their English classes.

In their journals, pre-service teachers reflected on how students responded to the class activities. This helped them to make decisions during planning or when teaching. For example, they admitted being frightened about not having enough activities for their classes, giving less or more time to a specific activity and finding the suitable material. In the following quote, Alice described her opinion about the changes she made when reflecting on her actions:

I have to change some activities in the planning for the next group, the first activity that I have to change is the use of role plays. I have to give students a sheet of paper with the text because in this way they can follow the performance, the role play, and they will understand the topic if they do not know some kind of vocabulary.

Aspects concerning the classroom interaction are also explored in the pre-service teachers' journals. At the beginning of their practicum, Carolina, Martin, Alice asked themselves about the way they were giving instructions or explaining a topic and whether or not students understood what they had taught. They were also concerned about how a specific group arrangement facilitated the classroom interaction, as stated by Martin:

In several classes I have used this kind of arrangement; first, by teamwork but it didn't work so well because students kept talking all the time about things different to the class activity; second, in pairs, it seems to be more manageable and makes me conclude that individual work or maximum two people is the advisable limit.

Likewise, the use of the mother tongue and the target language in the classroom is one of the most recurring themes among participants. Maybe, because it is one of the most challenging decisions for them to make as practitioners. Researchers identified planning, teaching and reflecting as the instances in which they used their L1 and L2 interchangeably. Although planning is done using the target language, the extended use of the foreign language in class was not a commonality among participants. During the classes observed, English was not used for a considerable period of time. Pre-service teachers used L1 for different purposes; for example, to manage class better, to give instructions, to ask questions or explain the L2 system, to translate a word or a sentence or to contextualize a topic or an activity.

Using the L2 seemed to be a dilemma in the practitioners' teaching experience. In spite of these difficulties, during the classes observed, English was spoken to maintain classroom discipline, to give instructions or to explain some language features. Deciding what language the student teacher used in the class was a key choice that they made at an early stage in their experience. However, it changed while facing the reality of the lesson since using L1 or L2 facilitated or interrupted the classroom interaction. From the classes observed, it can be concluded that when the target language was used students got more involved and attentive to the class and their participation increased while the use of L1 resulted in disruptive behavior.

Participants reflecting at a technical level also wrote about correcting students to improve language accuracy. For instance, Alice involved the whole class in correcting mistakes while performing a role-play. David corrected mistakes differently; while the students were reading aloud, he corrected their mispronunciation immediately.

Generally speaking, technical reflection enabled participants to assess what they were doing in the classroom and look for ways of improvement, which resulted in overcoming methodological flaws.

Practical Reflection

When students were developing their practicum, two of them were concerned with how their actions were supported by their theoretical views on language learning and language teaching. Practitioners reflecting at this level examined the relationship between their actions and the theories. In the following journal entry, Martin reached a practical level of reflection because he wanted to support what he did in his classroom with a specific theory, as he stated:

I have tried to use all the information contained in the concepts shared in the theory, for example the role of motivation when using games and class activities, oral ability and vocabulary acquisition. Activities proposed benefit the four skills and the lexicon component.

In addition, David reflected on the way his actions and assumptions about classroom environment were rooted on theoretical basis. David always favored a peaceful, comfortable and fun learning environment. As he said: "Me gusta seguir esta pauta que está contemplada por Enright and McCloskey en su modelo llamado Integrated Language Teaching." Moreover, when reflecting on activities David did in the light of Krashen's Input hypothesis in the sense that he exposed students to quality input through a varied set of listening activities.

Critical Reflection

A further concern that some student teachers implied was the focus on teaching values among their students. These reflections are associated with Van Manen's (1977) third and highest level of reflectivity because they deal with the questioning of moral and ethical issues related directly and indirectly to teaching practices. Martin devoted some time in his classes to cultivating good manners among his students. As he stated, "I contribute the best I have and I am, not only in academic issues but in those aspects of life like respect, discipline and responsibility." This exemplifies that there were non-linguistic aspects that practitioners kept in mind when teaching. In other words, the student teachers' responsibilities went beyond teaching an FL, encompassing aspects such as moral values and well being, in order to guarantee a safe and respectful environment for the learning process.

David talks about his choices when evaluating and following his own values. He reflected about his responsibility for the grades students had obtained, and how the scores were their main interest. He analyzed how the evaluation process might be used to punish students. David wrote this in his journal:

…entonces yo simplemente tomaba la atención del grupo y por uno pagaban todos y pues nunca tomé represalias en cuestión de notas, porque ese es otro valor que yo tengo, que a mí no me parece que la parte disciplinaria tenga nada que ver con la parte académica.

Questioning one's ethical issues related directly to evaluation practices is one example of what Van Manen defines as critical reflectivity.

In addition, the way others perceived pre-service teachers was also regarded to be a factor that shaped their posture in the school community.

…de décimo hacia adelante ya uno es más que un profesor, ya es diferente. El cambio de roles ya es demasiado drástico como para afrontarlo así de una sola manera, entonces que a uno lo llamen profesor allá y acá todavía uno sigue siendo un estudiante de la universidad.

Despite the fact that they realized the context in which they were functioning, taking responsibility for their actions was challenging for them. During the interviews, practitioners talked about assumptions when being a teacher, how they were seen by others and their role at the educational institution. Although only two participants reached this level of reflection, honing among all student teachers this critical posture would be the first step towards understanding not only their classroom realities and school community but also the complexities of the context in which they act.

Conclusion

Participants in this study reflected on important aspects which gave the researchers enough data to draw substantial conclusions as follows: (1) The act of reflecting on or in action is directly linked to the circumstances or events that occurred during the class, for example, reflection on action is sometimes due to a previous analysis which led them to change those actions in future events. On the other hand, reflection in action is observed in how they learned to handle situations that are unexpected or got out of hand due to changes given at the time of the class, and how they changed their routine. (2) All participants reflected in different ways and at different moments; this kind of reflection made them go beyond the simple act of being in front of the class teaching a specific topic or lesson. (3) Reflection gave them the opportunity to analyze how and why they acted as they did and how they could think of changes or new ways of teaching. (4) When reflection took place during teaching, trainee teachers adapted their actions whilst the class was occurring.

With regards to Van Manen (1977) levels of reflection, this study found that all the participants reflected at a technical level to solve immediate difficulties in the classroom setting. The second level of reflection, practical, was reached by two of the participants who supported their classroom actions on theoretical assumptions. Similarly, two participants engaged in critical reflection as a way to support their actions with their values.

Since the findings of this small scale project identified reflection as a way for the student teachers to restructure their performance, to face problems from a different angle, and to overcome obstacles during their teaching experience, the foreign language program should provide its students with formal training on the issues of reflection at earlier stages through effective questioning, classroom discussions, workshops and seminars.

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