In the second issue of the Blog devoted to Reflective Practice, Josette LeBlanc walks us through the process of setting up a reflective practice community, Matthew Noble shares a story of his creative experiment in reflection, and our new blogger Aziz Soubai offers a few practical ways to be a reflective teacher.
Something powerful happens when teachers gather to talk about their teaching. I’m not referring to gathering at a conference or a weekend workshop, although these provide their own kind of inspiration. I’m referring to teachers who voluntarily meet on a regular basis to discuss their journeys in learning and teaching. In such a setting, a quality of confidence and community arises that provides individual members with the sustenance needed to keep teaching another day. Such gatherings have been happening all across Korea since 2011 with teachers in Seoul, Gwangju, and Daegu meeting at their respective Reflective Practice Special Interest Groups (RP SIGs) to share a better understanding of their teaching.
Since the formation of the Daegu group in 2012, I’ve often been asked what’s involved in creating and maintaining a reflective practice group. Upon the inception of our group, I wrote a post (Our Reflective Community) which partially answered this question, but its revision has been long overdue. It’s my hope that this new post will provide a useful roadmap for anyone interested in starting a group in their part of the world.
Why have a reflective practice group, and what is it anyway?
Who comes to the reflective practice group meetings?
At each meeting you’ll find teachers from various contexts (i.e. private academies, universities, public schools, teacher training programs, etc.) who have a desire to develop their self-awareness and evolve their teaching. Since membership is voluntary, motivation to learn and grow seems to be quite high, especially since they gather on the weekends. We all know how precious a teacher’s weekend is!
Volunteer coordinators usually organize meetings. This can be an individual or group endeavour. The coordinators may also act as the meetings’ facilitator, though I encourage the idea of asking members to run meetings as well. This helps distribute the responsibilities more evenly, and also promotes a sense that everyone has an important role to play in the community.
How do you run a reflective practice group?
A meeting usually starts off with an icebreaker. This is a good way to acquaint newcomers with people they may soon start divulging their most challenging experiences with.
In essence, a meeting is much like Chris Mares describes in his last iTDi post: we focus on a question or topic; we may record what we reflected on; and then we implement and review the results of the reflection.
This implementation and review may happen at the end of a meeting when each member creates a goal to work on until the next meeting. At some point during the follow-up meeting – either after the icebreaker or with ample time at the end of the meeting – members review their success or challenges with their goal.
Having a tangible model of reflection can aid this implementation and review. Referring to Zhenya’s post again, she shares an approach that can serve as a foundation for group meetings: the Experiential Learning Cycle. The cycle provides a concrete way to talk about reflection. Such a solid model can be valuable since it is easy for group discussions to get off track. The cycle helps members to come back to the intention of the group, which is to understand teaching at a deeper level.
As valuable as it is for members to discuss the content of their experiences, it is equally as important to help them find avenues to explore this content. For his post in this blog series, Stewart Gray, who is the coordinator for the Seoul RP SIG, shares a technique for reflection: reflective journaling. If this were the topic of the meeting, members might set a goal to journal during the month, and then share their experience at the following meeting.
Other approaches to these meetings may involve reading through articles or books on reflective practice, and doing personal reflections around this. The possibilities are endless. The important point is to stay open to what your community needs and go from there.
When do you hold your reflective practice group meetings?
Members preferably meet once a month and the duration is up to your group. The Daegu group meets for two hours every third Sunday of the month. This seems to be enough time, though we’ve been known to go over two hours when the discussion gets juicy.
Where do you meet?
The location can be summed up in three Cs: centrality, comfort, and coffee (or tea, of course). It’s important to meet where it’s easy for the majority of people to travel to. Also, a private space is better than a public one, especially when discussions become a bit more personal. Finally, reflection absolutely requires refreshments.
I hope this roadmap was helpful. If I missed anything, please leave a message in the comments below. I also recommend exploring Linda-Marie Koza’s group in San Francisco, USA, and Anna Loseva’s group in Tokyo, Japan, for different examples of how reflective practice groups are run.
Recording and transcribing classroom interactions for analysis and reflection has long been recommended as a powerful tool for teachers to improve their teaching. Keeping a written reflective journal has also been frequently cited as an effective way for teachers to scaffold continuing reflection on what happens in the classroom. What follows is a brief account of a time I used both of these techniques together, with a twist.
It was 2012 and I was working on an MA TESOL after teaching abroad for the first 7 years of my career. Perhaps my most frequent experience in MA classes (and sometimes an overwhelming one) was the triggering of memories of multiple critical incidents in the face of research and new insights from my professors, and me thinking to myself, “Wow, I feel like I know exactly howthat goes, I’ve just never seen it explained!” and, “Oh my, if I’d known this then, I wouldn’t/wouldn’t have…!”
One of my written projects was primarily a response to this experience, an attempt to acknowledge what could be described as “a sense of loss” when looking back at my previous ignorance and ineptitude, but at the same time an attempt to extricate and productively account for what I knew I could learn from. After all, I had close to 10,000 hours of (what felt like) wonderful “raw experience” in the classroom. Surely it warranted some close attention, even if some of it sometimes felt forgettable…even regrettable!
I called the project “Muddles into Maxims: Personal Principles for Teaching Wrought from Novice Teaching Experiences.” Transcriptions of classroom discourse and written reflective journal entries were the two main elements of it, but with one particular (and perhaps peculiar) wrinkle: neither the transcriptions nor the journal entries were “authentic”; none of it was fully real.
You heard me right: I made it all up! Well, not exactly. Let me explain…
The classroom transcriptions were crystallized aggregations of typical critical incidents which occurred during those first few years of my teaching career and concentrated into imagined classroom events. It would remind a dream-record of what I thought I would have likely transcribed from recordings during that period had I been doing such a thing then. I created about twenty of them, one or more representing each of the following nine areas of concern:
The limits of “native speaker intuition”
Teacher-talk: Quality and uses
The trap of over-elicitation
Affect and corrective feedback
The function of warm-up activities
Planning and its discontents
I called these semi-fictional snippets from my early classrooms “A Fly on the Classroom Wall”, though a few times I had the spy-fly landing on the staffroom wall as well. Here are two of them, from areas #5 and #9 respectively:
The journal entries, too, were “informed but imagined”, composites written years later as the words I think I would have written after classes had I been keeping a well-organized reflective journal. They represented what 2012 Matthew envisioned 2006 Matthew writing in his reflective journal and in this sense were a kind of reflection on reflection. Here is an excerpt from one that followed the first transcript above:
Following each journal entry, there were sections called “My Muddle”. In these sections, I looked at both the initial experiences (represented by the transcripts) and as my perceptions of them (represented by the journal entries) and took stock of the confusion and the effortful enterprise which marked my approach to learning teaching mostly “on the job”. Here’s an excerpt from the “Affect and corrective feedback” section:
As a novice teacher I was extremely wary of even semi-directly correcting students, and I had a pile of seemingly good reasons for this at the time. I didn’t want the ‘negativity’ of correction to affect the students’ motivation. If the teacher focused on expressing meaning and emphasized positive emotions, I thought, students would come away with a satisfying and motivational experience. Clearly they would be ‘weighed down’ by the imposition of corrective judgements! Little did I know that a) corrective feedback need not be delivered in a way that involves any ‘negativity’ and b) students are most motivated by appreciating the results of learning itself, not by simply the superficial atmosphere of the classroom.
Finally, what I saw as the product of the process was a straightforward maxim, or dictum, which expressed the essential principle I wanted to take forward with me. Here are a handful:
This project of reflection helped me both intellectually and affectively. As for the former, I was able to clarify and consolidate more of what had been tacit teaching beliefs, turning them into more explicit, practical thinking tools. As for the latter, I was able to better and more positively appreciate the value of my early experiences as a learning teacher. As I created the transcriptions, I could recognize and value how I employed the understandings I had at the time and the sincere effort I made using what I knew. In writing the journal entries, I gave voice to confusions I remembered but also to the spirit of striving, to the sincere concern for understanding I brought with me from my very first class ever onwards. and found myself truly appreciating my own path of growth.
This project also helped me to take ownership of the tools of transcribing and journaling in a purposeful and creative way. I believe experimentation and creativity are vital elements of teacher development, so I would encourage anyone to look at the tools of reflection as flexible, malleable instruments which can be ‘played’ in many different ways. Didn’t record your class? Reconstruct it, consider it a ‘reflective dictogloss’! Haven’t been keeping a journal? Give it a go…and consider a little time traveling! Reflection itself can be a bit of a “muddle”, so let me offer a final maxim: Whatever twist you put on it, make reflecting fun!
As a language teacher, I face numerous daily challenges ranging from classroom behavior to grammar issues and learners’ lack of motivation. Without an effective strategy, a technique that would help me see and analyze what’s right and what’s wrong in my classroom practices, I will keep repeating, reproducing the same patterns and getting the same results. In this way teaching can be a vicious cycle. To avoid this, to make my instruction effective, to set clear objectives, I feel that engaging in some sort of regular reflective practice will do the trick.
That’s right! Reflection. That’s the magic word every language teacher needs to be aware of. Reflection involves thinking and thinking may be the hardest work in the world which many of us will go to great lengths to avoid. My intention, however, is not to make you avoid reflection. My intention is to share with you some of the tools I use to become a critically reflective teacher. These tools include compiling teacher and student portfolios, writing journals, and getting involved in professional development networks and groups.
The first most important thing in reflection is to be patient and enthusiastic in the whole process. Why patient? Simply because change in one’s teaching style and methodology is not easy; it takes a great deal of time, a lot of energy and passion. There are obviously many ways a language teacher and educator can use to reflect on his/her teaching: recording classes, doing peer observations and assessment, engaging in regular professional discussions, etc. You might wonder why I have chosen the reflection tools that I mentioned earlier. What makes them unique? In what fashion will they aid teachers in professional growth? Let me explain the reasons behind my choices in detail.
A portfolio is a ‘private collection of evidence’, which might offer the teacher a clear, detailed picture of his/her teaching style and possible ways for future improvements. The same is true for the student – a portfolio will enable a learner to track his/her own progress, increase classroom motivation and even language retention.
Writing journals is also a ‘private’ activity and might help teachers to gain a number of insights about their practices through the process of writing and collecting specific information about classes. That does not mean that recording lessons or inviting colleagues to observe them is something wrong or counterproductive. The simple explanation is that not all teachers have an opportunity to do that. Besides, bringing a camera to class is restricted in many schools around the globe. So, by offering to keep a journal I’m basically trying to focus on something practical that any teacher with no exception can do.
Professional development networks (especially online, such as Facebook groups or iTDi courses) are a great way for language teachers to share their thoughts about teaching, interact with a large professional audience, and improve their own learning and teaching styles.
A teacher is always learning from his/her students. A good teacher is a learner at the core. Sometimes, reading learners’ faces and gestures can tell you a lot about what’s going on in class and whether you need to slow down, speed up, or completely change what you are doing or saying. That’s why I encourage my students to write down their feedback comments about different class activities. For example, students can evaluate certain aspects of a class activity or a whole lesson (such as teacher’s speech, interaction, clarity, presence) using rating scales. In my class this is done anonymously. Some might argue that students are not in a position to assess or, let’s say, help teachers to reflect on their methods and refine them accordingly. But I would say that you will be amazed at how much knowledge and details your own students possess! It seems such a huge waste not to exploit that knowledge for the sake of better teaching and learning experiences. I would even go as far as to say that your learners can help you engage in a continuous process of self-observation and self-evaluation better than your supervisors, no matter how trained and skilled they can be.
In my understanding, the process of reflection begins with the first phase of collecting information to build your teaching portfolio. Your portfolio can include:
copies of students’ work (essays, presentations, projects, tests, and quizzes);
notes, feedback on your classes and students’ performance in general;
records of what you do to improve your teaching (workshops you attended, courses you took both online and offline);
a statement of your teaching philosophy;
a summary of any planned future professional development activities with a time frame for accomplishment;
your conference presentations, awards, and publications;
any materials from those who observed your class (supervisors, colleagues, or mentors).
After collecting and selecting enough evidence, I always like to refer to Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle, which is composed of six basic phases:
Description (What happened?)
Feelings (What were you thinking and feeling?)
Evaluation (What was good and bad about the experience?)
Analysis (What else can you make of the situation?)
Conclusion (What else could you have done?)
Actionplan (If a similar situation happened again, what would you do?)
As a final point, I would like to say that it is only by carefully examining what we do in class that we become successful language teachers. In the words of Dr Phil McGraw, “you can’t change what you do not acknowledge.”
What does “reflection” mean in life and teaching? How is it different from Reflective Practice? What are some ways for teachers to go about reflective practice? In the new issue of our blog, Chris Mares, Zhenya Polosatova, and our new blogger Stewart Gray will share their answers to these questions, and more.