Reflective Practice 

Chris MaresBy Chris Mares

‘Reflective Practice’ is a familiar term to many teachers.  It has a positive connotation and intuitively seems like a good thing to do. But what is it really, and how do you do it in order to become a better teacher?  These are both interesting and important questions.

The first point is that reflection is more than simply thinking.  There needs to be a critical, analytic quality to the process and the results of any meaningful reflection need to be articulated thoroughly.  More precisely, reflection needs to be ongoing, purposeful, rigorous, and systematic. It also needs to have an outcome that informs our teaching.

Like all skills, ‘reflective practice’ takes time and organization.  I will suggest an approach that will model how reflective practice can be done.  This approach should be seen as an example only as there are other ways that would be equally valid.

The Premise

The premise underlying reflective practice is that you are prepared to take an ongoing systematic look at what you do as a teacher, you are prepared to critique yourself honestly, and that you are prepared to modify or change what you do and how you do it in order to be a more effective teacher.  For this to be a productive experience, you have to want to do it and not be afraid to confront aspects of yourself and what you do that might at times be unsettling.

For the sake of this post let’s simply assume that all teachers want to be better teachers.

Focus 

One strategy is to focus your reflection on a particular aspect of your teaching, for example, how you deal with student errors, how you give instructions, how you approach grammar, or how you raise schema.  An accompanying requirement is to develop a list of rigorous questions that will take you to the core of what you are focusing on.  All teachers are familiar with the visceral responses, “that went well” or “that didn’t quite go according to plan.”  These are acknowledgements of what appeared to happen rather than critical reflection.  Rigorous questions are ones such as, “Did I raise student schema before the activity?”, “Were my instructions clear and effective?”, “Did the students achieve the goal I had set for them?”  These questions provide you with useful and focused answers about what happened.  Essentially, they will result in data that can inform your teaching.  Leaving a classroom with a feeling that the students had fun or that they seemed bored does nothing to explain what happened or whether your goals were achieved.  On the other hand, principled reflection does.

Record 

Asking rigorous questions that get to the root of both your teaching and your students’ engagement and achievement is just the beginning of the process.  The next stage is the recording of these reflections.  I like to keep a journal in my bag which I use for making notes about what I have done in class.  I also use it to make quick reflective notes that I later type up and store electronically.  The process of writing by hand and then typing both allows for the possibility of refining and building on the initial thoughts you had when you began your reflections.

Review and Implement  

Having gone through the process of teaching, reflecting, and then writing up your reflections, it is necessary to review what you have written.  Over time you will begin to notice patterns and detect preferences.  Sometimes you will learn from what you have written specifically.  At other times you will learn from what you have not included.  For example, if you notice a sameness in your teaching, you will learn that you don’t often experiment with new techniques or activities.

Reflective practice when carried out thoroughly is an excellent way to get an accurate sense of what you actually do in your classes, not just what you think you do.  It also allows you to see patterns and possibilities, and to learn about your teaching style and activity preferences.

Conclusion 

Reflective practice requires meaningful disciplined reflection over time.  In this way it becomes a practice. If approached positively and with purpose, it also becomes a means of exploring your own threshold for honesty and self-examination.

And, as we all know, a life is only meaningful if it is examined.

 

Reflective Practice as a Way of Life 

Zhenya PolosatovaBy Zhenya Polosatova

In preparation to writing this post I was re-reading ‘Reflective Teaching’ by Thomas S. C. Farrell. One of the four principles of reflection outlined by the author says: “Reflective Practice is a Way of Life.” The post below is my reflection on this principle.

image 1 a way of life_Reflective Practice is often associated with and is a part of Experiential Learning, or ‘learning by doing’. This approach emphasizes the importance of trying things out and learning from that experience. Interestingly, life itself can be seen as “the experience of being alive” if you check the definition in a dictionary.

Reflective Practice is evidence-based, which means you need information, data, or facts before you start exploring something in detail. In teaching, it is information about observing (specific) student learning, progress, challenges, etc. In non-teaching (or real world), it might be data about our habits and lifestyle (what we eat, drink, how we spend money or time), about our communication patterns, thinking patterns… about anything, really. Anything we can call “our personal experience” and would like to examine or improve.

Reflection on teaching helps to review one’s professional beliefs and values and, in this way, shape and develop a unique teaching style or manner. Exploring beliefs often starts with some curiosity, with a “Why?” question: Why am I doing what I am doing? Where does this idea come from? Is there a different way? By asking these questions, a reflective teacher stays curious, alert, interested, and aware. In other words, the result of systematic reflection is less professional burnout and more job satisfaction, not to mention lots of student learning.

Reflection on teaching could be seen as a conversation, a dialogue with oneself, with colleagues, etc. In fact, if you actually ‘listen’ to the thinking in your mind, you will see that it is always a dialogue, or almost always. In this case, systematic, deliberate reflective practice simply uses what our thinking is naturally inclined to do.

 

After reading my mini promo speech about the benefits of Reflective Practice, you might have a logical question: How do you reflect? My own short answer is this: I use slightly adapted Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) to structure my reflective process (readers can get more detailed information about ELC in my blog post ELC or the Art of Experiential Learning).

I first learned this idea on my trainer training program with School for International Training (now SIT Graduate Institute). It was the summer of 2006, which means that I have been using, adapting, experimenting and enjoying reflecting though the ELC for the last 10 years! In simple words, the Cycle helps to structure teacher reflection process by inviting them to go through several concrete steps, or stages: selecting a specific part of the lesson (or experience) to reflect on; describing it in as much detail as possible; analyzing possible ways in which it might have been (un)helpful for the student learning; stating generalizations, or conclusions, insights and a-ha moments about learning/teaching based on this experience; outlining your plan of actions  that you are intended to try inspired by this reflection process. In other words, the reflective cycle will help you formulate a new ‘hypothesis’ about teaching/learning that you will be able to test, confirm, modify, and then bring it through the cycle again and again…

image 2 ELC 5 simple stages I like the simplicity of this model: it never takes too long to explain or demonstrate to readers, teachers on a training course, or colleagues. What I find interesting about seemingly simple things in life is that applying them in practice takes much more time and effort than learning the theory. For example, have you ever tried describing an event, to the tiniest detail, without adding your own feelings to what actually happened, without expressing your opinion or attitude to it? If you have done so before, you know how hard it might be not to switch into interpreting what happened rather than simply describing it. If you have not, select a moment of a lesson that stands out to you, describe it in writing (or audio record yourself), then take a look and see if this was a description or… not.

Another challenge teachers sometimes face is spending time on analyzing that situation/experience in a balanced way, listing multiple ways of how this particular ‘event’ influenced the others, or the outcome of the lesson. Jumping to generalizations is so much more comfortable! The danger here lies in reducing the process of reflection to a self-talk along these lines: “the lesson was terrible, that’s probably because of that [activity] which I will never use again”… or even worse, “it did not work because we should give clear instructions…”

I do believe that reflective practice is a way of life. Once you started to use the reflective approach to your teaching and saw its benefits, how can you stop using it outside your classroom? At home, can you angrily tell your child (or husband, mother, etc.) “This is what you always do!” instead of patiently describing what happened and sharing why it troubled you? It might sound really strange but I received a lot of feedback from my course participants on how they improved relationships in their families with the help of this approach, or how some other problems that had nothing to do with ELT were solved. This is usually not a goal of a teacher training course but could become an added value. By becoming more reflective in the classroom, you will start to be much more present with the students, observe them much closer, notice many more details which had been out of your ‘attention zone’ before and which you probably used to take for granted. You will eventually become much more present and aware in your everyday life, much more mindful, much happier.

Am I an expert in this reflective process? A guru? Am I perfect at it? Well… No. I am enjoying the learning, the new discoveries this approach brings. I use it for my training of new trainers programs, for the curriculum development projects I participate in, for the coaching and consultancy work I am doing. This process to me is a magic trick to keep loving what I am doing and, hopefully, to become a little better as a professional and as a human.

Reflective Journaling: An Endorsement 

Stewart GrayBy Stewart Gray

If you’re like me, you’re one of the many teachers who live with the fear of one day settling firmly and conclusively into a teaching routine, never to improve, experiment, or learn much of anything again. Well, the end to our anxieties is at hand; we have only to reach for a small notebook, and perhaps some colored pens.

I first encountered the practice of reflective journaling at a Reflective Practice meeting in Seoul, a gathering for teachers interested in sharing their experiences and concerns, and collaborating in the process of reflecting on their teaching. At this meeting, it seemed to me that the other teachers in attendance, cool as they were, had already been journaling for years. The idea was pitched to me as a personalized means of engaging in reflective practice: you keep a journal, be it paper or electronic, in which you jot down your observations and musings after each (and ideally every) class, and based on these writings you make plans to improve areas in your practice you find to be lacking. Then you can make those changes, see how they go, make further notes, plan further changes, and proceed in this fashion until you hit mandatory retirement age.

As a result of that meeting, I became convinced that reflective journaling was the solution to the problem of my afore-mentioned anxiety about professional stagnation. With a new semester looming, and gripped somewhat by a desperate desire to seize the reigns of my own professional development, I went out at once and purchased a small, pink notebook, on the cover of which I scribbled ‘reflective journal.’ What follows is an excerpt from my first ever reflective writing which I noted down after finishing that semester’s first class:

Aug 24 – Class was quite boring. Too much talking from me, all-round. This frustrates me. HOW CAN I STEP OUT OF THE LIMELIGHT? (Caps in original)

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It was an inauspicious start but, crucially, I had started, and so I proceeded to make notes regularly after class throughout the semester. At that point I had received one piece of advice about the content of reflective notes (from Chris Miller, of Daeil High School) that had really stuck – that it makes sense to push myself to write a certain minimum length, say, eight lines per entry. As the weeks wore on, though, I was able to refine my technique considerably thanks to conversations with many sage, introspective teachers, who shared with me the wisdom I shall now share alike:

1 – Try to make initial, observational notes as objective as possible. At first, write down what you saw, heard, felt, describe the organization of the classroom, what the students did and when; only then commit to expressing feelings and judgments about the meaning of what happened. If instead you begin your reflections with “That class was so terrible,” you may miss something valuable in your haste.

2 – Try Kolb’s cycle. Kolb’s is a simple, four-stage format for organizing the process of reflective thinking which I use in my own journaling: 1. Making objective observations of in-class phenomena; 2. Contemplating the reasons for those phenomena occurring; 3. Considering the implications of all of this; 4. Making plans for a change. I always write the different stages in different colored ink, for ease of visual organization, for example:

May 27 – Students spoke English with surprising confidence in the partner activity. (Black)

–> Maybe the example questions on the board helped, and maybe they’re getting used to this type of speaking activity over time. (Green)

–> I should provide visual assistance (examples) to support speaking activities. (Pink)

–> Before the discussion in the next class, I will work through a few examples with them on the board. (Light blue)

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3 – Collaborate on reflection. Once you’ve got a journal going, there’s no obligation to keep its contents to yourself. Participating in a group of reflective teachers in person or online can help to keep you accountable for your reflections and improve your approaches. This has certainly been my experience; everything I know about reflection I got from the advice and shared experiences of others.

If any of the above ideas appeal, I wholeheartedly recommend giving them a try. Perhaps, though, you are thinking that color pens and reflective group meetings are not your style, or that Kolb’s cycle seems a bit restrictive. Not to worry, for whether you prefer to do things by yourself, in your own way, or exclusively in black ink, journal writing can still provide great benefits to your practice. For me, it has provided a greater sense of control over the direction of my ongoing professional development, a means to respond to challenges in my teaching practice as and when I encounter them, and a valuable record of my past teaching experiences. I only hope I can keep it up until retirement.

Happy journaling.

Self-Made

Marc profile picby Marc Jones

Shrill bleep. I open my eyes, unplug my phone, go to the kitchen to make coffee and eat breakfast, then wash, shave, brush my teeth. I sometimes leave the house before my wife and son are awake but this is growing less common. Usually I read the news but if I’m in a slack period, I check all the job sites I use, and then I go to work.

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I work three days a week at a school, one day at a university, and for the rest of my time I teach corporate clients, often through agencies. I have a love-hate relationship with the agencies because there is always a Faustian bargain in mind: what meaningless paperwork can be requested in order to justify the price to the client? This makes English teaching just another component of big business, like two-hour meetings and Gantt charts on the office wall. On the occasions I work independently, there is no paperwork bar invoices: all my students know how they are progressing in their courses because there is always feedback. I do paperwork on the train on my phone or tablet if possible, when files are urgent and formats compatible. I check Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, the job sites and think about whether Craigslist is pointless or toxic. I go to the staff room, print what I need, and then greet my students.

Between lessons I kill time reading or planning lessons in the park if the weather is nice, else it’s a coffee shop. I used to teach in coffee shops but the number of cancellations from private students just meant that the work wasn’t tenable. When I finish the planning or the book gets to the end of a chapter, I check the job sites again, just in case I missed something. I usually have: something I’m hideously unqualified for that pays numbers I can’t count to. I seethe and make plans to set up my own business, knowing that I have too much on my plate to be able to quit jobs to do it.

If it’s a really busy day I might need to rush home to cook dinner for my family before going back out to teach at a company. My cooking is awful and this is exacerbated by the pressure to leave the house in decent time to get to the next gig. I also know all my concentration has been spent on the morning lesson and shouting at the Internet.

I drink a can of coffee on the train and will usually have a snack or twelve to keep my energy up. My wife warns me about diabetes but I’m more immediately concerned with the supply of energy to my brain and limbs. I greet my students with a caffeinated smile and hope that I don’t fall asleep in the middle of the lesson.

I say my goodbyes after setting homework or listening to arguments against it and get on the train home. I might wake up in time to get off at my local station or else I change platforms to the same train in the opposite direction and look forward to another exciting day full of autonomy, free from outside influences and the anxiety of working for The Man. I am a freelancer!