[Guest Post] Reflection FAQ

This time on ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections we have a guest post and it’s one I am very excited about sharing. There are many reasons for this but two of the main reasons are the topic and the author. The topic is one that is important to me (and in fact part of the name of this very blog). The author is a friend and mentor who in fact helped me develop my own skills in reflection. As he notes below, this post will eventually be translated into Uzbek and used in training programs in Uzbekistan. We thought it might be interesting to share it here first. I liked how he was able to add some powerful points in this accessible FAQ (a response to frequently asked questions.)

Readers are, of course, welcome to make any comments. My own questions for readers might include: 

  1. How would you try to introduce reflection to the teachers in the context that Thomas describes? 
  2. What are some benefits of reflection not explicitly mentioned in the piece? 
  3. What models of reflective practice have you found helpful? 
  4. Which of the phases described do you think it is the most difficult to follow? Why? 
  5. What additional tips for effective reflective practice would you add?

I hope you will enjoy this post as much as I did. I enjoyed it so much I even allowed him to sneak in some Canadian spellings.
Okay then, enough from me, let’s turn it over to Thomas!

So hey there guys!  For the last few months I have had the pleasure of helping to design a large and comprehensive continuous professional development programme for a number of secondary schools in Uzbekistan. The local teachers, especially those who do not speak English, have up to this point had quite limited opportunities to learn about “modern” teaching methodology.  An old Soviet-style training regime is still in place for public school teachers, lots of bureaucracy but not a lot of relevance. Fortunately the government has seen the need for reform, so there is a lot of movement for change lately.

Our training program aims to be quite progressive and is focused on teacher empowerment.  So how to introduce the ideas of reflection, learning communities, empowerment, and action research when these are all quite new and radical ideas?  Baby steps, let’s start with a 101 level FAQ.  This will eventually get translated into Uzbek, but maybe the wider world of internet English speakers could find some use in it too?   


What is it?

Reflection is, to put it in the simplest terms, “thinking about what you have done.” In the context of teacher professional development, it is the process of considering your actions as a teacher, identifying areas that were or were not successful in your lessons, and trying to identify the reasons why things did or did not work. After doing this, we are able to make more general conclusions about what does or does not lead to success, and to plan future actions accordingly.  

Why is it so important?

In some teacher education courses we are told what to do –given a lesson plan to follow exactly, or given rules about how to operate in the classroom.  This can lead to success, but it limits us as individuals practicing our craft.  In order to be the best we can be we need to think about why things do or do not work and we should not take the advice of others on blind faith.  We can rely on others’ experience and guidance, but always filtered by what we experience ourselves in the classroom, the results we see with our own eyes.

In this sense, becoming a reflective teacher is a tool for personal empowerment.  We learn and grow based on our own analysis and making our own conclusions, and being willing to experiment and try new things with an open mind. We do not do things “just because,” or because somebody else told us that this is the right way to teach.

Reflection leads to personal empowerment, personal responsibility, as well as growth and development as a professional.

How to do it?

First of all, we need to set aside time to reflect.  As teachers there are many needs both professionally and personally competing for our time, and making the time to reflect is a commitment.  Setting aside even a little bit of time when you are trying something new in your teaching – 15 minutes, shortly after your lesson, is a good start.

You should get in the habit of writing your reflections down. This is the main purpose of keeping a learning journal.  Almost all of us reflect spontaneously and naturally on what we have done, it is a normal psychological process.  But doing it “naturally,” just thinking inside your head, is not as effective as making it a formal and intentional process.  By writing in your learning journal, and following a series of specific steps when reflecting, you can become more effective at it. After all, reflection is a skill, something that you can develop with attention and practice.

Kolb’s Reflective Cycle?

One model for reflective practice often used in teacher training is the “Experiential Learning Cycle,” first described by Kolb in 1984.  There are many different models, and if you are interested you can read more deeply on this subject. But for the purposes of this article, as an introduction to the reflective process, we will use this 4 stage model.

This model is a “theory of learning”, meaning that we are supposing that this is actually how our brains naturally develop in learning any skill.  This model breaks down the learning process into 4 stages, like this:

The Concrete Experience is us actually practicing the skill we are developing (in this case, teaching).  We go and do the thing we are trying to develop our skills in.

The Reflective Observation phase is when we consider carefully what we have done, the details of what happened, identifying specific points of success or failure, etc.  At this stage we want to note as much detail as possible, almost as if we are replaying and watching in our head a video of what happened, or reading a transcript.  At this point we are trying not to jump to value judgement, but just noticing details, trying to identify cause and effect, trying to understand as richly and deeply as possible what happened and why.

In the Abstract Conceptualization phase, we try to make general conclusions about our teaching, based on the specific previous experience.  These can be thought of as hypotheses about teaching generally – “If we do X, then Y will happen,” or “we should try to avoid X because then Y.”

Active Experimentation involves planning our future actions, based on the new “theories” that we have developed in the previous stage.

This is called a “cycle” because it continues on in a cyclical/circular pattern, indefinitely.  Our new action plans inform our next teaching, which then becomes a new Concrete Experience for us to reflect on. In the next trip through the cycle we might continue to revisit the same areas or sub skills, or move on to new and different aspects of our teaching. As we go we build up new strength and confidence in the skill of teaching.

Some Tips for Effective Reflection

1) Write it down. It makes your learning and development more intentional, and it also gives you a record to look back on in the future.

2) Do not jump to conclusions too quickly.  It is common to say right away, when reflecting on a lesson, things like “my students were bored” or “they did not enjoy my lesson”.  Doing this is short-circuiting the process of reflection, and stops us from exploring in depth.

3) Try to keep emotion limited.  Sometimes, if a lesson has gone poorly, we will tend to “beat ourselves up” and think that we are bad teachers.  It is fine and normal to have an emotional reaction to your work, but also leave some space for more “scientific” analysis.  Some people find that there is a big difference between their “hot” perceptions, right after they have taught, and their “cold” perceptions, after some time has passed.  Be open to using both “hot” and “cold” reflection to see what works for you in different circumstances.

4) Become a part of a learning community of your peers, and reach out for feedback on your reflections with others.  Many people find that sharing their reflections on their teaching can help to strengthen the process and make it more effective.  Knowing that you are not alone, that other people are facing the same challenges that you are, and sharing advice and support, can all help you to become a more successful and happy reflective practitioner.

About the Author:
Thomas Topham has been an international educator and teacher trainer for over 25 years, in multiple countries around the world. 

REPRINTS and SHARING: Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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