Developing people, developing schools


Reflective practice is the process which supports and maintains professional teaching expertise. It is an iterative process which lends itself to the professional development of all teachers, regardless of whether they are student teachers or teachers who have been practising for many years. (Pollard, 2008). The idea is that reflective teaching should be a personally fulfilling endeavour for teachers, whilst continuously adding to the quality of education provided for learners. The teachers I am predominantly addressing in this article are practising teachers, not pre-certificated student teachers.

The challenges within reflective practice

It is not my intention in this article to describe reflective practice in detail, but I do see it as one of the chief cornerstones of professional development. The work of Dewey provides the essential reflective practice research in teaching (Dewey 1933). Instead, I am more interested in the perception many teachers have of reflective practice. Some of course are keen advocates and competent reflective practitioners; others, however, see it as a stressful process by which negative feedback leads to increasing self-doubt and diminishing confidence about one’s teaching ability. Undoubtedly, we all engage in reflection to some extent or other. Like observation, we reflect naturally following particular events or occurrence in our lives. But, following the hundreds of observations and feedback sessions I have conducted over the years, informal evidence suggests that many teachers are either ambivalent or negative about reflection, or simply not very good at it.

And before that comes across as a damning statement it is important to stress that being an effective reflective practitioner is not as easy as it might seem. Reflective action requires a willingness to constantly engage in self- appraisal and development. As Pollard et al (2008) explain, in order to be effective reflective practitioners, we must embrace reflective practice as an on-going, never- ending, cyclical process of self-monitoring and self-evaluation. It also requires that we are competent at gathering and analysing evidence-based research, and that we have time to conduct this research.
It further requires that we are open-minded. As Dewey put it, open-mindedness is:

An active desire to listen to more sides than one, to give heed to facts from whatever source they come, to give full attention to alternative possibilities, to recognise the possibility of error even in the beliefs which are dearest to us. (Dewy 1933, p.29)

As Pollard notes, ‘open-mindedness is an essential attribute for rigorous reflection because any sort of enquiry that is consciously based on partial evidence, only weakens itself. (p.19)

I have noted a number of behavioural characteristics of poor reflectors over the years. We have all been there and can no doubt identify with some of the behaviours in ourselves from previous experience. A reflection situation is less than beneficial when reflectors:

  1. mostly reflect by themselves, on their own, in their own minds 

  2. tend to be too hard on themselves 

  3. tend to be emotive, and emotional 

  4. may be too generalist in their overall 
evaluation, drawing simplistic 

  5. may not choose wisely what to reflect on for learning purposes 

  6. draw on too limited knowledge and experience from which to analysis and draw conclusions on performance, e.g. they may use observational clues (e.g. student response) as evidence of success or failure and draw sweeping conclusions from this, often incorrectly 

  7. don’t reflect constructively with a view to exploring new learning 

  8. don’t pay enough attention to the details 

  9. have under-developed self-analysis skills 

  10. fail to reach the action planning phase within the reflective process – which is the most important bit! 

Developing an open mind

To my mind, open-mindedness is perhaps the hardest characteristic for the reflective practitioner to develop. Points 1-7 above all relate in some way to the state of open-mindedness. (8 and 9 are linked to analysing skills and 10 to actual consolidation of learning.) The paradox is that open-mindedness is crucial for real learning to take place but being open to learning is a challenging condition to attain. We bring to every potential learning situation our beliefs, attitudes, knowledge and experiences of life to date; we bring our own learning preferences and our own motivations and interests; we bring our fears of embarrassment, failure and of being judged by others.

Given the complexity of self-identity, it is therefore very difficult as an adult to find oneself thrown into the professional domain in which you are suddenly expected to expose yourself, refute your own logic, and lay yourself open to feelings of stupidity and uncertainty. Given how daunting such an expectation is, it is hardly surprising that we shut our minds instead of opening them up!

Despite the size of the challenge that such a context poses for the professional teacher, I continue to belief that it is worth embarking on the difficult journey of learning to be an effective reflective practitioner because the destination makes it worthwhile. Once you have developed the state of open-mindedness that is needed for learning to occur, learning will occur quite naturally, as an on-going process, whenever the opportunities for learning arise. But, as Dewey stipulates, it is important that this learning is a shared process in order for it to be effective and this calls into question the roles played by both the learner and the person helping the learner. This is where coaching comes into the reflective practice process.

See Reflective Practice: Part 2