What is reflective practice?
In 1983, Schon introduced reflective practice. In a nutshell it’s about thinking about what you do, why, what you learn from it, and about giving yourself the opportunity to develop your thinking from other view points. There are many theories out there, and this post aims to highlight a few of the key concepts and theories. Reflective practice can run quite deep. I’m sure this is something I’ll keep coming back to in my career, but for now, the main point for me is to find a model that works for me in my busy schedule.
I feel reflective practice comes somewhat naturally. For example, I ran a whole class activity with a group of learners who had substance misuse, mental health, and learning difficulties. It was impossible to give instructions, nevermind differentiated instructions. So, I stopped trying to fit them in my pre-made teaching box, and never did a whole group class again. An activity here and there, but never the whole thing. Reflection can be as easy or difficult as its purpose.
It’s important, but I believe it shouldn’t be exhaustive. It should lead to learning for yourself as a teacher, and principles of reflective practice can be used with learners as an aid for them to measure their own experiences.
What does it look like in reality?
For the purposes of satisfying teacher training qualifications, it looks like a box on the end of your lesson plan, and a reflective journal. I’ve never been one to separate these along with my records of what I’ve learnt. There’s a snowball going on and one informs the other. It might not be as easy to mark, but it’s all there somewhere.
A journal should ‘… record and reflect upon incidents and experiences from which something useful can be learnt that will help us to develop and enhance our professional practice’ Wallace (2001). For me, this is what it all boils down to.
The difference between descriptive and reflective writing
It’s quite easy to explain what happened in a lesson, and marginally less easy to actually reflect on it. I think it’s OK to sometimes just write what your thoughts or feelings were. Sometimes you just have a shit lesson. To justify the writing of feelings, it ‘fits’ with some models below, as long as not all journal writing takes this form; some need to go full circle. I think it’s equally important to sometimes just let your thoughts run free, and address issues later. Sometimes we just have to sleep on it. Albeit for a week.
Good journal writing though includes thoughts, feelings, details of what happened and how practice can be improved in future, possibly with an action point thrown in too.
Schön (1987) distinguished between two types of reflection:
‘Works on getting to the bottom of what is happening in the experiencer’s processes, decision-making and feelings at the time of the event or interaction’.
Reflection in action involves thinking on your feet and happens naturally.
‘Works of sifting over a previous event to take into account new information or theoretical perspective available in conjunction with the experiencer’s processes, feelings and actions.
Reflection on action is when we think about something that’s happened before, and make sense of it by writing it down (usually).
How to apply the theory
An example of this is when I had a learner who was being aggressive. I decided to give them some space and virtually ‘ignore’ them until they reached a stage where I could try to ‘save’ the situation. I made a decision based on my own ethics that something really bad has got to happen before I ask someone to leave my class. The person in question wanted an argument with me, so in my head, I was trying my hardest to not give them an argument in order to diffuse the situation, and used language such as ‘I can see why you feel like that’. Everything I tried didn’t work. I eventually just started speaking to other people. In the end, they participated, but the whole lesson was affected, and other learners ‘played up’ too following this.
Using reflection on action, I could see that I probably should have asked them to leave. Whilst my actions may not have worked this time, they might in future, so I don’t want to dismiss the idea of working with people until I see a point for them to leave. Just that the point for them to leave should have been a lot sooner than I had anticipated. I work with learners who will behave in this way, and I think it’s sometimes counter-productive for respect and trust to form if the authoritarian always steps in in the first instance. Change the context to a college, and there is no way I would stand for the way I was spoken to. The learner returned the next week and we had a little bit of banter about it, and they apologised. They continued to attend for the next few weeks.
For my learner, I can’t say if they looked at their own actions and feelings in as much conscious depth, however in order for me to receive an un-prompted apology, there had obviously been some reflection on action for them. I asked what they could have done differently, and we discussed some options, with them leading the discussion. In terms of behavioural management, I believe this has built a little respect, whilst showing that I am ‘not to be messed with’ as although I want my classroom really informal to reflect the needs of my groups, there still needs to be one person ‘in charge’ which is non-negotiable for a whole host of reasons.
Lots of my lessons don’t go to plan because of external factors. Often, learners turn up to class already in the ‘wrong’ frame of mind. Learners often have difficulties with other areas of their life including negative thinking and wellbeing difficulties, which do have an impact on a literacy classroom. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that some who have low literacy levels, have low speaking and listening skills, including how to deal with situations and interact with others. This is something which I want to explore further in future in a more positive way.
– Concrete experience (doing)
-Reflective observation (reviewing)
-Abstract conceptualisation (rule making)
– Active experimentation (applying)
Gibbs’ Cycle of reflection
Description – what happened?
Feelings – what were you thinking and feeling?
Evaluation – What was good and bad about the experience?
Analysis – What sense can you make of the situation?
Conclusion – What else could you have done?
Action Plan – If it arose again, what would you do?
Dreyfus – The Learning Staircase
1. Unconscious incompetence: We don’t know what it is we don’t know
2. Conscious incompetence: We realise that we know what it is we don’t know
3. Conscious competence: We know what we know if we concentrate hard and keep thinking about it
4. Unconscious competence: We become so proficient that we don’t have to think about it anymore
This theory is something I’ve always related to in terms of my own development. I am, a Conscious Incompetent! I know that there is loads of stuff I don’t know. This has more than panicked me in the past, and I’m sure it will continue to do so. There was a time I was so bewildered, I wondered whether teaching was for me. Since then, I have moved in some areas into Conscious Competence, but I think the only things I’m truly Unconsciously Competent at are things like brushing my teeth and writing emails. I cant give any examples of Unconscious Competence !
I like this theory though as it translates to learners well as it is not defined by skill levels. For one learner, it might be to use a dictionary to mastering relative clauses, but it can give you, and them a means to easily measure their progress.
Boud et al (1985)
- Returning to the experience
- Attending to feelings
- Re-evaluating the experience
Edward De Bono’s (1985) Six Thinking Hats
- White hat – facts and figure
- Red hat – emotions and feelings
- Black hat – negative assessment
- Yellow hat – positive speculation
- Green hat – creative and constructive
- Blue hat – evaluative, focused and progressive
Broadbank & McGill, 1988 (ref)
Reflection on the description of the reflection in action
Description of the reflection in action
Reflection in action
FOUR activities are central to critical reflection (Brookfield 1988) and are in a more usable format here.
1. Assumption Analysis
This is the first step in the critical reflection process. It involves thinking in such a manner that it challenges our beliefs, values, cultural practices, and social structures in order to assess their impact on our daily proceedings. Assumptions are our way of seeing reality and to aid us in describing how the order of relationships
2. Contextual Awareness
Realising that our assumptions are socially and personally created in a specific historical and cultural context.
3. Imaginative Speculation
Imagining alternative ways of thinking about phenomena in order to provide an opportunity to challenge our prevailing ways of knowing and acting.
4. Reflective Scepticism
Questioning of universal truth claims or unexamined patterns of interaction through the prior three activities – assumption analysis, contextual awareness, and imaginative speculation. It is the ability to think about a subject so that the available evidence from that subject’s field is suspended or temporarily rejected in order to establish the truth or viability of a proposition or action.
I’ve always really related to Dreyfus’ competence levels. It’s easy an helps me to organise my thoughts. I do prefer Schon’s reflection in action and reflection on action for more detailed analysis though.
What do you do? Do you regularly reflect in writing? Do you find it futile? Doe you find it beneficial?