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5.2.2 - Reflective practice: why reflect?

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify multiple benefits to adopting a reflective approach to teaching practice
  • Articulate reflective practice with processes of planning and teaching
  • Consider the relationships that reflective practice has with issues such as diversity, inclusion, and equality
  • Consider potential limitation and constraints to reflecting on your teaching practice, as well as to consider ways of overcoming those issues

What are the benefits of reflective practice?

Engaging in reflective practice helps with developing one's self-knowledge, but there are also practical benefits associated with reflection. This section itemises ten such beneficial aspects, adapted from the work of Roffey-Barentson and Malthouse (2009).

Improving teaching practice

Engaging in reflective practice offers the potential to trouble-shoot one's own teaching, to give acknowledgement when matters went well, or when matters went as well as they could in each problematic situation. Reflection also has a diagnostic aspect, offering guidance on where there are improvements to be made, where alternatives may have presented themselves to a given situation, and where similar issues may be averted before they have an opportunity to arise in the future.

Learning from reflection

Reflection helps make connections, not least by, as the example methodologies outlined in the previous chapter have indicated, linking theory to practice, and by drawing insight from the opinions and perspectives of others.

Developing problem-solving competencies

By engaging in reflection, one can work to develop abilities in problem-solving contexts, in part by working to generate effective solutions to issues based on experience, and in part by being better prepared to think through such situations to arrive at meaningful alternatives or improvements to what has gone before. 

Developing critical thinking skills

Reflective practice is a key component of becoming more adept at critical thinking (Cottrell, 2011). Critical thinking relates to analysis and to evaluative competencies developed through a logical process, resulting in assessment being made based on the available evidence.

Decision-making competencies

Reflective processes can be outcome-based; we are being prompted to arrive at positions based on the reflection, and to make assessments of previous practice so that we can improve for the better in the future. Reflection supports decision-making through giving an evidence base for the conclusions and courses of action being determined, which should further give confidence to those decisions.  

Development of organisational aptitude

Reflection encourages a practical approach to working, allowing you to focus on the elements of the role which need prioritising, as well as supporting the more efficient working which can pair decisiveness and clarity of thinking. This support organisation, as priorities and efforts will be based on sound assessments rather than on snap judgments on panic being exerted by competing pressures.

Managing personal change

Reflective practice involves consideration and being thoughtful, and in so doing, making rational assessments of difficult situations. Personal change and growth outside of work may also be subject to reflective thinking processes, and so be augmented consequently.

Noting personal ethics and values

Engagement with reflective thinking will support the clarification of ethical positions, of value systems, and of personal morality as it relates to the subjects being reflected upon.

Giving advice to oneself

Being self-critical is perhaps an inevitable part of being a teacher; as educators, we tend to see the negative aspects of taught sessions, and can focus too much on perceived weaknesses than on strengths. Reflective practice offers a way to give oneself structured and reasoned advice which is fair, even-handed, and which can prioritise the most significant aspects relevant to the situation being considered.

Moving towards self-actualisation

Reflection can be freeing, as it gives the educator more control over their actions and their direction. Such a sense of freedom can support teachers, and can further help them harness their effectiveness, their confidence, and their development of their sense of self.

How can reflective practice influence planning and delivery of specific sessions?

Engagement with reflective practice helps us in our professional journeys, as this chapter aims to evidence. One of the ways in which reflection can support our development is in offering frameworks for the planning and delivering of teaching sessions.

As experience and expertise in reflective thinking develops, so too will competencies in being able to make assessments, based on our experience and past reflections, in the teaching moment. This is the mark of the fully reflective practitioner for Schon: one who can not only react to events, but to pre-empt and to predict events which might have otherwise have been unforeseeable, and act accordingly (Smith, 2013).   

Following such development, planning and reflection become inseparable, as one informs and influences the other, being mediated by the experience of teaching the planned lesson. This supports the integration of reflective practice into teaching, rather than it being an add-on which comes after the teaching event. In addition, a full consideration of the ramifications of the lesson in advance, both in terms of its context and its contexts (the class being taught and the challenges or opportunities they might represent, for example) means that potential issues can be addressed or at least prepared for (Lawrence-Wilkes and Ashmore, 2014). Planning should therefore involve not just session content, but a consideration of identifying potential issues, formulating an approach to such issues, and planning action as appropriate; this action may then be reflected upon after the session (Bolton, 2010).

Petty (2009) suggests separating reflection from lesson evaluation. Lesson evaluation should restrict itself to the assessment of the practicalities of the session, and of consideration of the success or otherwise of the lesson's objectives being met. Reflection may come after this. If, for example, session outcomes were not met, then engaging in reflective practice may support an investigation into why this was the case.

How does reflective practice tie into other elements of practice?

Reflection is not solely concerned with personal efficacy, or with work-related performance; reflective practice can inform our approach to other areas in new and constructive ways.

Diversity

Look back at chapter 2.1, and in particular the section on Brookfield's four lenses approach to reflection. This model of reflection encourages a consideration of multiple sets of stakeholders in the learning experience. By using appropriate models of reflection, we can better interrogate our learning materials, our long-term and session planning, and so seek to determine where they may be issues from the point of views of others.

This may not always be wholly successful, because to some extent there will be a second-hand consideration at work as we mediate what we think others may perceive, but

a reflective approach to our teaching practice may provoke interesting answers to questions which might have otherwise gone unasked.

Equality

A full and open engagement with reflective practices allows the teacher to interrogate their approach and their materials with regards to matters related to equality. Larrivee (2000) observes that, unless unchallenged, not least from within, there is a tendency over time for teachers' own value-systems, assumptions, judgments, and wider cultural perceptions can go unchallenged. Part of the project of becoming a fully reflective practitioner is to develop a professional identity in which there can be an appropriate blending of personal beliefs and value systems and corporate and wider directives. The development of this kind of professionalism, which articulates the personal through wider professional, legal, and subject-specific standards helps support the positive fostering of a code of conduct (Larrivee, 2000).

Inclusion

Developing ideas on the inclusivity agenda in education, whereby the previously firm barriers between mainstream and special educational needs and disability (SEND) education have increasingly been critiqued, means that processes of reassessment of the nature of what inclusivity means in classrooms and in wider society are appropriate (Somogyi, 2010). This can mean ongoing reflection on issues related to inclusivity, including challenging one's own ideas surrounding norms, difference, and dis/ability.

Furthermore, there is an imperative for the teacher to act as a role model to others in inclusivity and in other areas, and to reaffirm the idea that the role of the teacher is not merely to deliver subject-specific education, but to informally and formally refocus the development of their pupils, to challenge intolerance where it may occur, and to be committed to upholding full inclusivity as a goal (Somogyi, 2010).

Does reflective practice have any limitations?

Like any aspect of education, there are limits to the usefulness of reflective practice, and to its application in practical contexts. This section examines some of those limitations, in part so that the informed educator can assess for themselves where they are being hampered by not engaging in reflective practice, and in part so that there may be a fuller appreciation of the positives which reflection may bring when applied with diligence and with rigour.

Time

Teachers are busy people. The job can be demanding, stressful, and can involve the juggling and the constant reassessment of priorities as circumstances change. This means that our attention and focus can be prioritised to the items on the top of the to-do list: lesson preparation, marking, meetings attendance, answering correspondence, tutorials with learners. These practical and necessary matters will tend to take precedence, which can mean that the time one might wish to have to engage in reflection might be taken away. Reflective practice may be replaced instead by focusing on pressing operational matters, on the immediate, and on the time-sensitive. Reflection, if it occurs at all, may be little more than focused worrying or self-recrimination on an issue rather than a structured and impartial assessment of the self.

Kennett (2010) suggests that it important to build in regular blocks of time so that reflective practice can be entered meaningfully, and that this time is protected from other constraints. This might feel easier said than done, but telling oneself that you are too busy to think about things, because the pressure is there to be active and productive in the here and now is counterproductive to good working.

Awkwardness

A second limitation which might be faced is not feeling as though one is a natural reflector. Some people are, and they engage well with themselves in reflective practice; however, others are less comfortable with the practice, seeing themselves as practically-minded rather than introspective, and preferring action rather than contemplation.

The challenge here is to try reflection to assess the benefits it affords. In the same way, as one might argue that aspects of life which may not be the most fun (like following a balanced diet, or taking regular exercise) may not always be the most fun or productive in the moment, they are nevertheless only sensible; so is reflection. Even if the practice is initially an unnatural one, there will be positive impacts on specific problem-solving aspects of teaching, on making more general considerations, and on undertaking a post-mortem when something has gone wrong.

Emotions

This third limitation to reflective practice is related to the last - thinking back on one's actions (or omissions) can be an unwelcome prospect. If, for example, you are having doubts about yourself, or about an aspect of your teaching, then there might not be any pleasure in confronting those potential issues through reflection. Emotional states may arise where the notion of engaging in reflection is concerning in some way, and so that engagement is deferred or avoided altogether (Kennet, 2010).

It may be that earlier experiences of reflection have been to at least some extent negative, in that they have drawn attention to faults or deficiencies. That does not mean, though, that reflective practice is the problem. Rather, taking a more even-handed standpoint, which sees reflection as ultimately developmental and thus positive is perhaps the way to approach engaging with oneself.

Culture

The fourth, and last, limitation of reflective practice examined in this section is that of organisational culture. The extent to which reflective behaviour is supported within individual settings, or within departments inside those institutions, may vary.

Sometimes the barriers to engagement with reflective practice may stem from individuals, particularly if a colleague is disaffected for some reason, and acts in ways which tend to discourage the discussion of reflection among others. In other contexts, there may be institutional barriers, such as the workload and other pressures being applied, or in a lack of opportunities to engage with other colleagues so that teaching may be meaningfully discussed (Lebor, 2013). It is worth appreciating the cultural contexts of one's working as an educator, and seeking to find ways to acknowledge these in the assessments being made and the action taken for the future.   

Conclusion

Reflective practice is an integral aspect of your development as an engaged and forward-thinking educator. This chapter, and its predecessor, have advanced the position that to improve, to be more efficient, and to have a more holistic appreciation of the contexts and consequences of what we do as teachers, then it is only appropriate to reflect.

Bibliography

Bolton, G.E.J. (2010) Reflective practice: writing and professional development. 3rd edn. London: SAGE Publications.

Cottrell, S. (2011) Critical thinking skills: developing effective analysis and argument (Palgrave study skills). 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hillier, Y. (2005) Reflective teaching in further and adult education. 2nd edn. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Kennett, K. (2010) 'Professionalism and reflective practice', in Wallace, S. (ed.) The lifelong learning sector: Reflective reader. Exeter: Learning Matters, pp. 66-82.

Larrivee, B. (2000) 'Transforming teaching practice: becoming the critically reflective teacher', Reflective Practice, 1(3), pp. 293-307. doi: 10.1080/713693162.

Lawrence-Wilkes, L. and Ashmore, L. (2014) The reflective practitioner in professional education. London: Palgrave Pivot.

Lebor, M. (2013) 'War and peace in the classroom: moments of reprieve; a strategy for reflecting on - and improving - students' classroom behaviour', Teaching in lifelong learning: a journal to inform and improve practice, 5(1), pp. 21-31. doi: 10.5920/till.2013.5121.

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Roffey-Barentsen, J. and Malthouse, R. (2009) Reflective practice in the lifelong learning sector. Exeter: Learning Matters.

Schön, D.A. (1991) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action (arena). 2nd edn. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

Smith, M. (2013) Donald Schon: Learning, reflection and change. Available at: http://infed.org/mobi/donald-schon-learning-reflection-change/ (Accessed: 26 November 2016).

Somogyi, K. (2010) Teacher education for inclusion: an international literature review. Available at: http://www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/TE4I-Literature-Review.pdf (Accessed: 26 November 2016).

Zeichner, K.M. (1987) 'Preparing reflective teachers: an overview of instructional strategies which have been employed in preservice teacher education', International Journal of Educational Research, 11(5), pp. 565-575. doi: 10.1016/0883-0355(87)90016-4.


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