Reflective practice

What does the research say?

Effective teachers continually reflect on, and improve, the way they do things, but reflection is not a natural process for all teachers. Some teachers think that the toolkit is enough.

Biggs (2003) eloquently highlights that a toolkit will not necessarily lead to excellence in teaching:

Learning new techniques for teaching is like the fish that provides a meal for today; reflective practice is the net that provides the meal for the rest of one's life.

Reflective practitioners take an inquiry stance in that they actively search for understanding, and are always open to further investigation.

Timperley, Wiseman and Fung reinforced the fact that teachers need to be constantly updating and improving their practice, and engaging in lifelong learning:

It is important, therefore, for teachers to continually update and expand their professional knowledge base and to improve or revise their practices so as to meet the learning needs of their increasingly diverse students… The ever-changing knowledge base in our society means that a teaching force that uses yesterday’s professional knowledge to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s society can no longer be tolerated.

The advantages of reflective practice

Reflective practice provides a means for teachers to improve their practice to effectively meet the learning needs of their students. Brookfield succinctly describes the advantages of reflective practice to teachers as:

  • It helps teachers to take informed actions that can be justified and explained to others and that can be used to guide further action.
  • It allows teachers to adjust and respond to issues.
  • It helps teachers to become aware of their underlying beliefs and assumptions about learning and teaching.
  • It helps teachers promote a positive learning environment.
  • It allows teachers to consciously develop a repertoire of relevant and context specific strategies and techniques.
  • It helps teachers locate their teaching in the broader institutional, social and political context and to appreciate that many factors influence student learning.

Reflective practice attitudes and attributes

Attitudes

Dewey was the first to describe the 3 attitudes that form the basis of reflective practice, namely:

  • open-mindedness - a willingness to consider new evidence as it occurs and to admit the possibility of error. It involves being open to other points of view, appreciating that there are many ways of looking at a particular situation or event, and staying open to changing one’s own viewpoint. Part of open-mindedness is being able to let go of needing to be right or wanting to win.
  • responsibility - the careful consideration of the consequences of one’s actions, especially as they affect students. It is the willingness to acknowledge that whatever one chooses to do (for example decisions about curriculum, instruction, assessment, organisation, management) will impact on the lives of students in both foreseen and unforeseen ways.
  • wholeheartedness - a commitment to seek every opportunity to learn and a belief that one can always learn something new.

Attributes

Larivee further identified the attributes of practitioners who have these attitudes (open-minded, responsible and wholehearted) saying these practitioners:

  • reflect on and learn from experience
  • engage in ongoing inquiry
  • solicit feedback
  • remain open to alternative perspectives
  • assume responsibility for their own learning
  • take action to align with new knowledge and understandings
  • observe themselves in the process of thinking
  • are committed to continuous improvement in practice
  • strive to align behaviour with values and beliefs
  • seek to discover what is true.

Essential modes of, and lenses for, reflection

The modes of reflection

Reflective practice is undertaken not just to revisit the past but to guide future action. Reflective practitioners use all 4 of the essential modes of reflection:

  • Reflection-in-action is taking note of thinking and actions as they are occurring and making immediate adjustments as events unfold. Re-evaluation occurs on the spot.
  • Reflection-on-action is looking back on and learning from experience or action in order to affect future action. Reflecting after an event is probably the most frequently used form of reflection.
  • Reflection-for-action involves analysing practices with the purpose of taking action to change (Killion and Todnem). It includes reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. This type of reflection is proactive in nature. Often called 'closing the gap' reflection, it focuses on closing the gap between what is and what might be.
  • Reflection-within is inquiring about personal purposes, intentions and feelings. Teachers might question what is working well, what's keeping them from taking action, what's keeping their perspective limited, or why they reacted in a particular way. This is very similar to self-reflection.

The lenses for reflection

Additionally, within each mode of reflection, it's useful to reflect through various lenses. Brookfield suggests using the following 4 lenses for reflection.

The autobiographical lens, or self-reflection, is the foundation of critical reflection. It requires teachers to stand back from an experience and view it more objectively. This lens allows teachers to become aware of aspects of their pedagogy that are effective or that may need adjustment or strengthening.

This lens allows teachers to view their practice from students’ perspectives and is often a consistently surprising element for teachers. Both self-reflection and engaging with student feedback may reveal aspects of teaching practice that need adjustment.

While good teachers will engage with the first two lenses, excellent teachers may also look to peers for mentoring, advice and feedback. Engaging with colleagues and hearing their perspectives allows teachers to check, reframe, and broaden theories of practice, and to consider new ideas and approaches. It also makes teachers aware that many of the challenges in teaching are common, which can be profoundly reassuring.

The fourth lens found in theoretical literature fosters critically reflective teaching. An engagement with both colleagues and scholarly literature supports teachers and also clarifies the contexts in which they teach. The theoretical literature extends understanding and appreciation of learning and teaching practices, and helps teachers to see the links between their personal development path and the broader educational context.

In summary, reflective practice incorporates reflection in, on and for action as well as reflection within.

Seeking information from various lenses serves to further strengthen reflective practice.

Use the Reflective practice questions to support reflection in action. The questions use the 4 modes of reflection and a variety of lenses.

References

  • Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership. (2014) Learning from practice - workbook series.
  • Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does (2nd ed.) Berkshire: SRHE & Open University Press.
  • NSW Education Standards Authority Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.
  • Brookfield, S. 1995 Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Dewey, J. 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Killion, J. & Todnem, G (1991) ?A process of personal theory building? Educational Leadership, 48(6).
  • Larrivee, B. (2006) An Educator?s Guide to Teacher Reflection, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Timperley, H. Wiseman, J. Fung, I. (2003) The Sustainability of Professional Development in Literacy, Part 2. Final report to the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Education, Wellington New Zealand.
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