“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”
“While we cannot learn or be taught to think, we do have to learn to think well, especially acquire the general habit of reflection”
For many of us, John Dewey springs to mind when we think about the importance of reflective thinking to education. Not only was his work influential in creating a paradigm shift in the way we thought about education, but some would say it was nothing short of revolutionary as it was at the forefront of early educational reform with the introduction of the concept of ‘learning by doing’ and the emphasis on a child-centred approach to teaching.
In fact, looking at changes to curriculum and teaching and learning practice in the last 10 years shows just how much his work was ahead of its time and its influence on contemporary education. We now see explicit links between Australian Curriculum content across all learning areas and the explicit development of critical and creative thinking skills. We understand that students must not just take in information, but also make meaning and connections between what they learn in the classroom and the world around them.
Most teachers will agree that they encourage their students to reflect on both their learning and their lives on a daily basis, as they recognise the importance of making connections in order to process knowledge and work towards mastery. However, as teachers we may often neglect to see ourselves beyond being the knowledge brokers and recognise that we are also lifelong learners who can use these tools to develop our own professional skills.
Critical reflection can assist us in analysing our performance, our actions and our thinking in order to yield solutions and improvements that make us better at what we do, regardless of our field. Beginning teachers are often well aware of areas for improvement, yet in reality, we can all challenge and stretch ourselves, regardless of how skilled we are or how many years we have been educators.
Stephen Brookfield (1995) suggests that teachers can reframe their teaching by viewing their practice through four unique lenses: their autobiographies as teachers and learners, their students’ eyes, their colleagues’ perceptions, and theoretical literature. In this way, we are able to go beyond simply asking ourselves if our teaching achieved the curriculum outcomes and move towards a critical and comprehensive understanding of where we are at in relation to a range of contexts.
We know from the research that teachers play a critical role in student learning. This means, that as educators, we have a duty to critically reflect on our practice if we want to continue to improve results for our students and create positive educational outcomes in our schools. More importantly though, it reminds us that we can make a difference.
Reflection takes courage, because it challenges us to change, to take risks and be brave enough to fail. It reminds us that every group of students we teach are different, that a one size fits all approach has never been a viable solution, it encourages us to fine-tune our strategies and get creative.
If we are to truly embrace authentic education and the significant role we play in the lives of young people, we must be willing to at least think about how to continue to develop ourselves, how to adapt our pedagogy to a changing world and increasingly diverse and rapidly evolving student needs. We must learn to embrace this change and learn to ride the wave, rather than feeling as though we are barely keeping our heads above the rising water.
To guard against the effects of the pressures we may face, it is vital we not only reflect on our professional practice, but to also on our personal motivation to be a part of this profession in the first place. It’s so important to regularly remind ourselves of why we love what we do and the reasons that make it all worthwhile.
So in this new year, take the challenge to critically reflect on your teaching regularly, not just to fulfil requirements or tick a box, but to get a sense of what you have learned about yourself, how working with such a diverse range of students has enriched your practice and what you would like to change in order to keep inspiring and motivating the young people in your care in future, so that they too, can go about changing the world.
A few reflection questions that may be useful to begin with…
- Why did I choose teaching? What is it about it that I love?
- Would I like my students to think/feel/say about me?
- My proudest moment as a teacher was when…
- In what ways have I improved since my first day on the job?
- What is my biggest challenge in moving forward?
- Three strategies I could use to overcome this challenge…
- How can I improve my practice to be even better than I am now?
- Three things I would like to achieve this year…
Practical strategies for teachers
- Take the time to write it down – time is precious and scarce, but even just a few minutes after a lesson of writing can do wonders, and it saves you from trying to remember it later on. What lit them up? Which bits didn’t work? What was both fun and delivered content? How could you go that one step further and think outside the proverbial box?
- Keep a journal – be candid about your challenges as well as the highlights, go back to previous entries at a later date to marvel at how far you’ve come or to reinspire you after a hard day.
- Get feedback from your students – yes this can be scary and hard to swallow at times, but what better way of finding out how you’re doing than asking the ones who you intend to engage?
- Blog it – you might think no one wants to know about your successes and failures but the truth is that other teachers go through the same things. Perhaps you’ll inspire someone?
- Talk to other teachers – not just about what drives you crazy but about the good stuff too. Share ideas, ask for insights, be honest about what you need to improve and recognise your successes. Better yet, if you dare – invite them to observe and give feedback. Scary as it may seem, it can often make you aware of things that you can improve on.
- Use self-assessment evaluation forms, questionnaires or a rubric e.g. see the Thoughtful Classroom Teacher Effectiveness Framework – Teacher Self- Assessment Guide by Silver Strong & Associates (2011) at http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/teachers-leaders/practicerubrics/Docs/SilverStrongSelfAssessmentRubric.pdf
Additional reading on reflective practice
Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Chapter available online: The Getting of Wisdom: What Critically Reflective Teaching is and Why It’s Important at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/51acea8be4b02783f894c272/t/53628f3be4b0bddd58665b76/1398968123150/Brookfield-Getting+Wisdom.pdf
Danielson L. M. (2009) Fostering Reflection. In Educational Leadership (66)5, retrieved from
Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think. Boston, D. C. Heath & Co.