Reflective practice: why reflect? Lecture

This chapter develops from its predecessor in extending the module's investigation of reflective practice in education. Where chapter 2.1 focused on outlining a selection of models of reflection, and indicating some of the strengths and limitations of each of those models, this chapter instead covers four interrelated aspects which together explore why we might, as educators, engage in reflective practice.

The first main section makes an argument for reflection, in summarising a series of ideas on why reflective practice is relevant to teaching practitioners: because it offers benefits to the engaged and reflective teacher over those who do not - or cannot - reflect. The second part examines reflective practice as a possible influence on enhanced competencies in planning and delivery. The third section takes as its focus other elements of teacherly praxis which may be developed through a reflective mindset. The fourth and final substantive element takes a critical stance and explores the limitations of reflection in education. Prompts after each section of input ask you to think back on the material you have just covered, and asks you to contextualise that section of the chapter to your own educational experiences and to your ongoing development as an educator.     

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify multiple benefits to adopting a reflective approach to teaching practice
  • Articulate reflective practice with processes of planning and teaching
  • Consider the relationships that reflective practice has with issues such as diversity, inclusion, and equality
  • Consider potential limitation and constraints to reflecting on your teaching practice, as well as to consider ways of overcoming those issues

What are the benefits of reflective practice?

Engaging in reflective practice helps with developing one's self-knowledge, but there are also practical benefits associated with reflection. This section itemises ten such beneficial aspects, adapted from the work of Roffey-Barentson and Malthouse (2009).

Improving teaching practice

This is perhaps the most straightforward and practical advantage of reflection. Engaging in reflective practice offers the potential to trouble-shoot one's own teaching, to give acknowledgement when matters went well, or when matters went as well as they could in each problematic situation. Reflection also has a diagnostic aspect, offering guidance on where there are improvements to be made, where alternatives may have presented themselves to a given situation, and where similar issues may be averted before they have an opportunity to arise in the future. Each of these represents an enhancement to current teaching practice. 

Learning from reflection

Reflection helps make connections, not least by, as the example methodologies outlined in the previous chapter have indicated, linking theory to practice, and by drawing insight from the opinions and perspectives of others. Reflection helps make these associations meaningful, and exemplifies abstract ideas by having personal case studies to work with, and to apply those theoretical ideas to.

Developing problem-solving competencies

Particularly when beginning one's career as a teacher, issues and unexpected situations will develop. Such occurrences may become known both inside and beyond the classroom. By engaging in reflection, though, one can work to develop abilities in problem-solving contexts, in part by working to generate effective solutions to issues based on experience, and in part by being better prepared to think through such situations to arrive at meaningful alternatives or improvements to what has gone before. 

Developing critical thinking skills

Reflective practice is a key component of becoming more adept at critical thinking (Cottrell, 2011). Critical thinking relates to analysis and to evaluative competencies developed through a logical process, resulting in assessment being made based on the available evidence. Thinking critically not only aids clarity of judgment, but also supports self-knowledge, as well as efficiency in making decisions in ways which are less likely to be clouded by overly-emotional or subjective elements.

Decision-making competencies

Reflective processes can be outcome-based; we are being prompted to arrive at positions based on the reflection, and to make assessments of previous practice so that we can improve for the better in the future. Reflection encourages decisiveness, and supports decision-making through giving an evidence base for the conclusions and courses of action being determined, which should further give confidence to those decisions.  

Development of organisational aptitude

Reflection encourages a practical approach to working, allowing you to focus on the elements of the role which need prioritising, as well as supporting the more efficient working which can pair decisiveness and clarity of thinking. This support organisation, as priorities and efforts will be based on sound assessments rather than on snap judgments on panic being exerted by competing pressures. Organisational abilities may well extend beyond teaching itself towards general administrative and clerical abilities, as well as to wider life (Roffey-Barentson and Malthouse, 2009). 

Managing personal change

Reflective practice involves consideration and being thoughtful, and in so doing, making rational assessments of difficult situations. These do not have to be limited to the practical and the immediate aspects of teaching, but may be extended into continual professional development, to the considering of career change or of other new opportunities within the profession. Personal change and growth outside of work may also be subject to reflective thinking processes, and so be augmented consequently.

Noting personal ethics and values

Engagement with reflective thinking will support the clarification of ethical positions, of value systems, and of personal morality as it relates to the subjects being reflected upon. Such ethical positions may be unclear unless given the opportunity to be clarified by their exploration vis reflective methods. Across a teaching career, may perspectives on teaching and education in general terms will be encountered, and there will be times when one's ethics and values will be challenged in perhaps unexpected ways. Being an engaged reflective practitioner, though, not only supports the articulation of one's own positions on a series of topic areas, but can help you put those values into practice in ways which support your teaching and professional development.    

Giving advice to oneself

Being self-critical is perhaps an inevitable part of being a teacher; as educators, we tend to see the negative aspects of taught sessions, and can focus too much on perceived weaknesses than on strengths. This can be less than constructive as an approach; reflective practice offers a way to give oneself structured and reasoned advice which is fair, even-handed, and which can prioritise the most significant aspects relevant to the situation being considered, rather than on being overly-negative or otherwise unhelpful.

Moving towards self-actualisation

Though reflective practice by itself would be insufficient in giving someone total clarity and insight over their professional capabilities and their sense of work and effectiveness, there is nevertheless a strand which suggests that when taken together, the sum of the benefits which reflection offers as outlined in this section promotes the agency of the individual. Reflection can, in short, be freeing, as it gives the educator more control over their actions and their direction. Such a sense of freedom can support teachers, and can further help them harness their effectiveness, their confidence, and their development of their sense of self.  

Reflection

Of the ten elements outlined above, which of them makes the most sense to you? Which of them makes the least sense? Why have you made these choices?

Are there any other benefits of reflective practice which you can identify?

What concerns you about reflection? Why might that be? How might you address those concerns, and work to find out if they are valid or not?

How can reflective practice influence planning and delivery of specific sessions?

Engagement with reflective practice helps us in our professional journeys, as this chapter is aims to evidence. One of the ways in which reflection can support our development is in offering frameworks for the planning and delivering of teaching sessions. There are several aspects to this, which this section outlines.

Reflection may be used in considering the design and flow of the session when it is being planned. This was indicated in chapter 2.1 when Kolb's experiential cycle was introduced. The four-stage design of that cyclic approach could be adopted in the planning process to guide the design of the lesson's flow as the learners make their own journey within the session through the four stages:

  1. Concrete experience
  2. Reflective observation
  3. Abstract conceptualisation
  4. Active experimentation

The same process can then be used in considering the effectiveness or otherwise of the session afterwards. Kolb's cycle suggests both a means of planning and of teaching the session, as well as a mechanism by which to reconsider its effectiveness after the event.

The concept of reflection in-action was introduced in chapter 2.1 also. This idea, which derives from the work of Donald Schon, who is central to the development of the notion of the reflective practitioner, relates to the ability to think on our feet, and to reflect in the moment of teaching, as opposed to treating reflection as a summative event which occurs separate to and after the session (Schon, 1991).

As experience and expertise in reflective thinking develops, so too will competencies in being able to make assessments, based on our experience and past reflections, in the teaching moment. This is the mark of the fully reflective practitioner for Schon: one who can not only react to events, but to pre-empt and to predict events which might have otherwise have been unforeseeable, and act accordingly (Smith, 2013).   

Following such development, planning and reflection become inseparable, as one informs and influences the other, being mediated by the experience of teaching the planned lesson. This supports the integration of reflective practice into teaching, rather than it being an add-on which comes after the teaching event. In addition, a full consideration of the ramifications of the lesson in advance, both in terms of its context and its contexts (the class being taught and the challenges or opportunities they might represent, for example) means that potential issues can be addressed or at least prepared for (Lawrence-Wilkes and Ashmore, 2014). Planning should therefore involve not just session content, but a consideration of identifying potential issues, formulating an approach to such issues as are identified, and planning action as appropriate; this action may then be reflected upon after the session (Bolton, 2010).

Petty (2009) suggests separating reflection from lesson evaluation. Lesson evaluation should restrict itself to the assessment of the practicalities of the session, and of consideration of the success or otherwise of the lesson's objectives being met. Reflection may come after this. If, for example, session outcomes were not met, then engaging in reflective practice may support an investigation into why this was the case.

Petty (2009) advocates a simple check-list approach to lesson evaluation after each session, with the option of taking a more considered reflective examination if the session warrants it. The advantage of this approach is that it limits and focuses reflection, and it also helps support an evidence base for that reflection.   

Reflection

To what extent has a perception of reflection as a summary activity been challenged?

To what extent do you feel confident in integrating reflection with teaching and with planning and preparation?

Does everything need reflecting upon? How might you assess what needs to be considered in depth, and what might not?


How does reflective practice tie into other elements of practice?

Reflection is not solely concerned with personal efficacy, or with work-related performance. Reflective practice can inform our approach to other areas in new and constructive ways. This section outlines three related areas in which reflective practice can enhance our engagements with others.

Diversity

Look back at chapter 2.1, and in particular the section on Brookfield's four lenses approach to reflection. This model of reflection encourages a consideration of multiple sets of stakeholders in the learning experience. By using appropriate models of reflection, we can better interrogate our learning materials, our long-term and session planning, and so seek to determine where they may be issues from the point of views of others.

This may not always be wholly successful, because to some extent there will be a second-hand consideration at work as we mediate what we think others may perceive, but nevertheless a reflective approach to our teaching practice may provoke interesting answers to questions which might have otherwise gone unasked. Such questions may include:

  • Do the materials support and welcome diversity?
  • Is diversity recognised appropriately within the lesson?
  • Are there biases or exclusions apparent in the materials or the teaching approach?
  • Is the lesson differentiated appropriately? Think in terms of intellectual ability, of preferred learning styles, and of Bloom's taxonomy
  • How might the class under consideration represent a set of diversity-related approaches from that of other classes being taught the same material?

A consideration of such elements in a critical and honest way beforehand can only support a more fully inclusive and diversity-appropriate teaching and experience for all.

Equality

In a similar vein to the above, a full and open engagement with reflective practices allows the teacher to interrogate their approach and their materials with regards to matters related to equality. Larrivee (2000) observes that, unless unchallenged, not least from within, there is a tendency over time for teachers' own value-systems, assumptions, judgments, and wider cultural perceptions can go unchallenged.

Part of the project of becoming a fully reflective practitioner is to develop a professional identity in which there can be an appropriate blending of personal beliefs and value systems and corporate and wider directives and agendas. The development of this kind of professionalism, which articulates the personal through wider professional, legal, and subject-specific standards helps support the positive fostering of a code of conduct (Larrivee, 2000). Though one might expect teachers to be conversant with the appropriate equality-minded policies, as well as the underpinning cultural values supportive of such procedures, there is nevertheless the imperative to use reflective practice to periodically reassess oneself to ensure that biases or other potential issues have not become manifest.  

Inclusion

Developing ideas on the inclusivity agenda in education, whereby the previously firm barriers between mainstream and special educational needs and disability (SEND) education have increasingly been critiqued, means that processes of reassessment of the nature of what inclusivity means in classrooms and in wider society are appropriate (Somogyi, 2010). This can mean ongoing reflection on issues related to inclusivity, including challenging one's own ideas surrounding norms, difference, and dis/ability.

Furthermore, there is an imperative for the teacher to act as a role model to others in inclusivity and in other areas, and to reaffirm the idea that the role of the teacher is not merely to deliver subject-specific education, but to informally and formally refocus the development of their pupils, to challenge intolerance where it may occur, and to be committed to upholding full inclusivity as a goal (Somogyi, 2010). This might take the form of incorporating such debates into classroom activities and into continuing professional development as appropriate, to privilege social models of disability and inclusiveness over medical models (models which see society's reaction to others as the as the true disability, rather than the medical model which focuses on physical or mental impairment or deficiency), and to better inform the non-inclusive teacher education which many educators have enjoyed with fresh perspectives taking more fully the needs of all of society into full consideration.  

Reflection

To what extent do you think that there is a place for a reconsideration of your assumptions and approach to questions related to diversity, inclusiveness, and equality?

Would you add any other aspects to these three? If so, what are they? And why have you chosen them?

Imagine that you held personal prejudices. How might you develop a properly professional persona so that your personal feelings could not possibly impact on your ability to teach all without discrimination or favouritism?


Does reflective practice have any limitations?

Like any aspect of education, there are limits to the usefulness of reflective practice, and to its application in practical contexts. This section examines some of those limitations, in part so that the informed educator can assess for themselves where they are being hampered by not engaging in reflective practice, and in part so that there may be a fuller appreciation of the positives which reflection may bring when applied with diligence and with rigour.

Time

Teachers are busy people. The job can be demanding, stressful, time-consuming, and can involve the juggling and the constant reassessment of priorities as circumstances change. This means that our attention and focus can be prioritised to the items on the top of the to-do list: lesson preparation, marking, meetings attendance, answering correspondence, tutorials with learners. These practical and necessary matters will tend to take precedence, which can mean that the time one might wish to have to engage in reflection might be taken away. Reflective practice may be replaced instead by focusing on pressing operational matters, on the immediate, and on the time-sensitive. Reflection, if it occurs at all, may be little more than focused worrying or self-recrimination on an issue rather than a structured and impartial assessment of the self.

Kennett (2010) suggests that it important to build in regular blocks of time so that reflective practice can be entered meaningfully, and that this time is protected from other constraints. This might feel easier said than done, but telling oneself that you are too busy to think about things, because the pressure is there to be active and productive in the here and now is counterproductive to good working.

Reflective practice can be time-saving rather than consuming, as time spent in reflection encourages clarity of thinking, and therefore can lead to better decision-making in the future. Lessons from past issues or doubts will be learned, and that learning will have the chance to be applied. The more that reflective practice is engaged in, the more the benefits accrue. In addition, engagement with reflection becomes easier and swifter as one becomes accustomed to how reflection works, and how the advantages with it offers are impacting positively upon work. To do this, though, the advantage of the reflective input needs to be secured by making and guarding the time in which to make that reflective commitment to your development as a practitioner.      

Awkwardness

A second limitation which might be faced is not feeling as though one is a natural reflector. Some people are, and they engage well with themselves in reflective practice; however, others are less comfortable with the practice, seeing themselves as practically-minded rather than introspective, and preferring action rather than contemplation.

The challenge here is to try reflection to assess the benefits it affords. In the same way, as one might argue that aspects of life which may not be the most fun (like following a balanced diet, or taking regular exercise) may not always be the most fun or productive in the moment, they are nevertheless only sensible; so is reflection. Even if the practice is initially an unnatural one, there will be positive impacts on specific problem-solving aspects of teaching, on making more general considerations, and on undertaking a post-mortem when something has gone wrong.

One way to address problems engaging with reflection is not to see the practice as introspective, but as diagnostic (Zeichner, 1987). Treating reflection as fault-finding, as a health check, or in another practically-minded way may erode some of the stigma that might make some feel disinclined to engage with the practice. In addition, reflection can be difficult at times, as what might originally present itself as reluctance to reflect may well be a reluctance to face up to the realities which reflection may present.   

Emotions

This third limitation to reflective practice is related to the last - thinking back on one's actions (or omissions) can be an unwelcome prospect. If, for example, you are having doubts about yourself, or about an aspect of your teaching, then there might not be any pleasure in confronting those potential issues through reflection. Emotional states may arise where the notion of engaging in reflection is concerning in some way, and so that engagement is deferred or avoided altogether (Kennet, 2010).

It may be that earlier experiences of reflection have been to at least some extent negative, in that they have drawn attention to faults or deficiencies. That does not mean, though, that reflective practice is the problem. Rather, taking a more even-handed standpoint, which sees reflection as ultimately developmental and thus positive is perhaps the way to approach engaging with oneself. Reflection can be challenging, but the challenge is always to find ways to be better, and that can never be a bad thing.  

Culture

The fourth, and last, limitation of reflective practice examined in this section is that of organisational culture. As you will doubtless appreciate by now, reflective practice informs much teacher training, as well as continuing professional development in education at all levels and in many other professional sectors. However, the extent to which reflective behaviour is supported within individual settings, or within departments inside those institutions, may vary.

Sometimes the barriers to engagement with reflective practice may stem from individuals, particularly if a colleague is disaffected for some reason, and acts in ways which tend to discourage the discussion of reflection among others. In other contexts, there may be institutional barriers, such as the workload and other pressures being applied, or in a lack of opportunities to engage with other colleagues so that teaching may be meaningfully discussed (Lebor, 2013). There might also be tendencies evident which tend to frame reflection not in terms of its potential, but with reference to the culture within which the teacher is working (Melerdirk, 2012). Such occasions may impact on the breadth and depth of reflection which may be engaged in. There are not always easy answers to this, but it is worth appreciating the cultural contexts of one's working as an educator, and seeking to find ways to acknowledge these in the assessments being made and the action taken for the future.

Reflection

Of the four constraints or limitations discussed above, which of them might have most relevance to you? Why is that? And what might you do to overcome the kinds of limits suggested?

Of the four listed above, which of them represented the least concern to you as an educator? And why might this be?

Can you think of other limitations besides the ones listed here? If so, what are they, and how might they impact on your ability to put reflection in to practice?

Conclusion

Reflective practice is an integral aspect of your development as an engaged and forward-thinking educator. This chapter, and its predecessor, have advanced the position that to improve, to be more efficient, and to have a more holistic appreciation of the contexts and consequences of what we do as teachers, then it is only appropriate to reflect.

As time goes on, the separation between proactive and reflection will become blurred; reflection will become more organic, simpler, and more straightforward to execute. Part of classroom teaching will involve reflecting in the moment, not only engaging in reflective activity after the event, but as a troubleshooting and as a predictive tool. All this goes towards making teaching more straightforward, and it makes teaching perhaps a little easier too. 

Reflection

Now we have completed the chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify multiple benefits to adopting a reflective approach to teaching practice
  • Articulate reflective practice with processes of planning and teaching
  • Consider the relationships that reflective practice has with issues such as diversity, inclusion, and equality
  • Consider potential limitation and constraints to reflecting on your teaching practice, as well as to consider ways of overcoming those issues

References

Bolton, G.E.J. (2010) Reflective practice: writing and professional development. 3rd edn. London: SAGE Publications.

Cottrell, S. (2011) Critical thinking skills: developing effective analysis and argument (Palgrave study skills). 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hillier, Y. (2005) Reflective teaching in further and adult education. 2nd edn. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Kennett, K. (2010) 'Professionalism and reflective practice', in Wallace, S. (ed.) The lifelong learning sector: Reflective reader. Exeter: Learning Matters, pp. 66-82.

Larrivee, B. (2000) 'Transforming teaching practice: becoming the critically reflective teacher', Reflective Practice, 1(3), pp. 293-307. doi: 10.1080/713693162.

Lawrence-Wilkes, L. and Ashmore, L. (2014) The reflective practitioner in professional education. London: Palgrave Pivot.

Lebor, M. (2013) 'War and peace in the classroom: moments of reprieve; a strategy for reflecting on - and improving - students' classroom behaviour', Teaching in lifelong learning: a journal to inform and improve practice, 5(1), pp. 21-31. doi: 10.5920/till.2013.5121.

Meierdirk, C. (2012) The limitations of the reflective practitioner. Available at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/214830.pdf (Accessed: 26 November 2016).

Petty, G. (2009) Teaching today: a practical guide. 4th edn. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Roffey-Barentsen, J. and Malthouse, R. (2009) Reflective practice in the lifelong learning sector. Exeter: Learning Matters.

Schön, D.A. (1991) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action (arena). 2nd edn. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Smith, M. (2013) Donald Schon: Learning, reflection and change. Available at: http://infed.org/mobi/donald-schon-learning-reflection-change/ (Accessed: 26 November 2016).

Somogyi, K. (2010) Teacher education for inclusion: an international literature review. Available at: https://www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/TE4I-Literature-Review.pdf (Accessed: 26 November 2016).

Zeichner, K.M. (1987) 'Preparing reflective teachers: an overview of instructional strategies which have been employed in preservice teacher education', International Journal of Educational Research, 11(5), pp. 565-575. doi: 10.1016/0883-0355(87)90016-4.


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