The reflective teacher

By Teresa Green,2014-06-14 22:02
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The reflective teacher

What’s this learning journal all about?

    (This is an extract from „Teaching Today‟ starting p485, some is in „Evidence Based Teaching‟ p 319)

    I remember a trainee teacher I once taught , I will call him Jim, who did not believe in reflection, or in learning theory. He thought how to teach was common sense, that theories of learning were dreamed up by academics to justify their own existence, and that they made them as complicated as possible to try and make themselves look clever, and us stupid! For Jim, reflection and theory had nothing to do with the real world experience of teachers in classrooms. He could not have been more wrong, and to his credit, Jim‟s views changed considerably as he progressed on his course.

    Every teacher and every learner has a theory about learning. You are no exception and you will have a set of beliefs, ideas, and assumptions about the nature of learning, and teaching. You will believe that certain practices bring about learning, and certain others don‟t. You will use this theory both to plan your lessons, and to decide what to do while you teach. Schön called this your ‘theory-in-use’. Never mind what you might write in an

    essay or tell your tutor, it is your „theory-in-use‟ which guides what you do, and informs you

    as you plan and teach your lessons.

If you ask yourself „how shall I teach this topic‟ you will consider your „theory-in-use‟ to help

    you decide. If a student started playing up in one of your lessons, you would use your „theory-in-use‟ to decide what to do about it. If a lesson did not go well, it would be your „theory-in-use‟ that you would use to explain to yourself why it went badly, and to decide how to make that lesson, or the next one, go better.

     Your theory-in-use Your lesson plans, What you believe problem solving in the How you learning to be, and classroom, teach how you believe explanations for what teachers can bring worked and what didn‟t learning about. in past lessons etc

As your „theory-in-use‟ guides your every action it is clearly very important. If it

    faithfully describes the reality of how your students learn, then it will be an accurate guide for you, and you will be able to teach very well. If it doesn‟t describe that reality very well, then you will never teach effectively, except sometimes by accident! It is clearly crucial to get this „theory-in-use‟ as right, and as comprehensive, as you can

    get it. So how can you go about that?

    One way of course is to do what you are doing right now - to read about learning and teaching. Another is to attend an initial teacher training course. These can help, but in the end you must integrate this learning into your own „theory-in-use‟ for it to affect

    what you do. This requires that you make your own sense, of these learning

    experiences, and work out how to teach as a consequence. For example, to learn about Maslow‟s theory of motivation, and even to write about it is one thing, to integrate it into your „theory-in-use‟ is quite another. That would require you to work

    out what Maslow‟s theory means in practice for your students, and then to use this understanding to improve your student‟s motivation. That is very demanding, and will require much thought and practice!

In the end you will only develop a fully effective „theory-in-use‟ by teaching, and most

    particularly by reflecting on your experience of teaching. It is important, and difficult, to go right round the reflective learning cycle considered in chapter 30, just doing and reviewing is not enough!


    Here are the „theories-in-use‟ of Jim, and Carole. How would these two teachers

    approach the problem of a learner who is finding the current topic hard to understand?

An excerpt from Jim‟s „theory-in-use‟.

    ; A teacher needs to explain everything that they know about the topic very clearly. ; Learning takes place when students remember what they have been told.

     Some students are bright and motivated and they usually learn pretty well. ;

    ; If a student doesn‟t understand then you need to explain it again more slowly, but

    usually a student either „gets‟ this subject, or they don‟t, depending on their I.Q..

An excerpt from Carole‟s „theory-in-use‟.

    ; Learners need to apply their learning if they are to make sense of it. ; When they apply learning, students begin to make up their own „story‟ of what the

    topic is all about, and use this understanding to answer questions and to do other tasks I set.

    ; You can use a student‟s work as a window into their current understanding

    ; You can use question and answer to discover students‟ misunderstandings: a

    good start is to ask them how they arrived at an answer that they got wrong.

    It is important to recognise that Jim‟s theory is not entirely „wrong‟. Some of it is part right, but it is incomplete in important respects, and so it misleads Jim into using ineffective strategies, for example blaming students who „don‟t get it‟. Carole‟s theory is nearer the truth, and so a better guide for her decision making. She will proably become a better teacher than Jim, not because she is more talented, but because she has a more truthful conception of how teachers bring about learning.


As you reflect your „theory-in-use‟ improves and so you become not only more

    effective, but also more adaptable and better able to solve problems. Effective teachers are always changing what they do, this is because they are continually learning how better to teach.

    Pablo Casals, one of the world‟s greatest cellists, was asked why he still practised at the age of over eighty. He answered “because I think I am beginning to make progress”. Learning never stops, especially for the most able, and it was this

    inclination to learn that made them so able in the first place.

    Learning and teaching are not simple, and if your experience is anything like mine you will never arrive at a final decision about the nature of learning and teaching, but

    will continue to develop your understanding all your career. You will never „arrive‟, but that is not a problem, as the journey is so fascinating.

So how do we improve and add to our „theory-in-use‟? By high quality reflection.

    And one of the best ways of encouraging high quality reflection is to talk about your teaching with others, and to write your ideas down. This is where your reflective journal comes in. This is not a cunning means for your tutor to spy on your thoughts! It‟s a way to encourage you to learn from your experience as we considered in chapter 30.


    John Biggs characterises three common assumptions behind a teacher‟s „theory-in-

    use‟. That learning mainly depends on either:

    1. the nature of the students: their intelligence, motivation, maturity, behaviour etc. 2. what the teacher does

    3. what the learners do

    The more you think about learning, and experience teaching, the more you will realise that it is No. 3 that is much nearer the truth. But why? And why do many novice teachers think it is No 1 or No 2?

    “Hostility to theory usually means… an oblivion of one‟s own.”

    Terry Eagleton

How to reflect

    You will probably begin to reflect the moment the lesson is over, if not before. Don‟t come to any fixed conclusions straight away however, especially if the lesson has gone badly. You may well benefit from making some immediate notes, but will probably think more clearly after you have „slept on it‟.

    Don‟t blame yourself if a lesson has gone badly. This is inevitable. Indeed, if all your lessons go well you are probably not taking enough risks. Mistakes are necessary if you want to learn at the maximum rate. Ineffective lessons are very helpful to you, and ultimately to your students, if you can work out why they didn‟t work and then

    make use of this insight. The same of course is true of effective lessons, but again they are only helpful if you can work out why they worked, and use this insight in your

    future teaching.

Let‟s look at two examples to show what I mean. Notice that in the second column

    the teacher is learning general principles, which she then applies in new contexts.

    She does this by going right round the Kolb learning cycle.

    Reflect on

     experience: She asks herself “ what happened?”

    Learn: She asks herself why did this happen? and tries to learn some

    general principles of effective teaching

    Apply: She tries to use the general principle to see how she could have

    made the lesson better, but mainly how she can make future lessons


    Do: She makes use of what she has learned in her future teaching

    This is „bridging‟ as described in chapter 31 on learning from experience. Note that a key result of this process is that she has improved her „theory-in-use‟

    DO: A teacher has just delivered a lesson which was quite successful. What went best was a „decisions-decisions‟ game where students had to classify examples of figures of speech such as „metaphor‟, or similie‟ on cards.

REVIEW: „That lesson went really well, and they really enjoyed the game.‟

LEARN 1: „The game was effective. They LEARN 2: „I suppose the main reason the

    were working away like beavers on it, I lesson was successful was the

    was really impressed.‟ classification game. They enjoyed it, but

     it also enabled me to check their learning. APPLY 1: „I‟ll have to use that lesson plan And it made them think. It also made

    again next year. It‟s the best one so far I them apply their learning, but in a playful reckon.‟ way. And they really had to make sense

     of figures of speech to play the game….‟

    DO 1: The teacher applies the same

    lesson plan again next year APPLY 2: „…I wonder if I could use a

     similar approach when I do tenses with

    (Note that in the above case there is no them? What other games are there that

    could check learning? Perhaps a quiz? attempt to learn the general principles of

    effective teaching from the lesson.) Or perhaps I could use decisions-

     decisions again. I could get them to

     classify sentences with different tenses or

     with mixed tenses…..

     DO 2: (The teacher devises another

     game to check learning next week, and

     some more decisions-decisions games

     for later lessons.)

    Note that in the second case some general principles of good practice have been learned (e.g. games can be a good way to check learning) and she then applied these principles in another lesson.

    You will find that the internal dialogue that you go through when learning from your lessons will be much more detailed, complex, and difficult than the example above. But the principles are the same. Review, then Learn general principles (as general

    as possible), then Apply these principles in new contexts.

In the chapter on praise and criticism we looked at the idea that learners need:

    ; A medal which describes what they have done well

    ; A mission which describes what they could do to improve their


    Perhaps you are a learner as well as a teacher, and you need to give yourself

    medals and missions as well as your students!

    Also we discovered that grading student‟s work took their eye off the ball of how to improve it. The same goes when you think about your teaching: don‟t evaluate it: „that was/was not a good lesson‟ learn from it!

    Here are some more examples of teachers „reflecting‟ to learn in their learning journals. One goes right round the learning cycle, but the other two miss out at least part of the cycle. Identify the review, learn, and apply sections in these reflections to see which one is the most effective.

Reflections 1 and 2 are two possible refections on the same lesson:

    Reflection 1: “They really found that worksheet hard. I thought I explained it all really

    clearly too, and I can‟t have done that badly as at least half of the class

    got the right idea. It was Jennifer‟s group that had most difficulty ….

    again! They just aren‟t motivated and don‟t seem to remember

    anything from their GCSE. If they concentrated a bit more they would

    do a whole lot better.”

    Reflection 2: “They really found that worksheet hard. I explained the topic pretty well

    too, so why couldn‟t they do it? Perhaps they just weren‟t listening. So

    how could I get them to listen? I suppose I could use more question

    and answer, perhaps ask a few of Jennifer‟s group especially. And just

    keep asking questions until I‟m pretty sure they can do the questions on

    the worksheets. I‟ll give that a go.”

Reflections A and B are two possible refections on the same lesson:

    Refection A: “The activity went pretty well in some respects, everyone got down to it

    and produced a still-life of sorts, but there was lots of chatting about the

    problems with the new bus timetable and their approach was rather

    rushed and lacking in thought. With the exception of Phil anyway. I

    need to find a way to make them think more, experiment more, set

    themselves higher standards. Actually it‟s interesting, they don‟t like

    me looking at their work, it‟s as if they know it‟s not as good as it could

    be. What if I got them to present their work to each other next time?

    That might make them take more pride in it. Also I could tell them to

    take the full half hour, and if they finish do another quick one.”

    Reflection B: “The activity went pretty well I suppose, they are all very polite and well

    behaved this lot, very mature. They took it at a cracking pace and at

    first I was pleased but then it all seemed to look rushed and ill

    considered. They don‟t seem to have very high expectations of

    themselves. They seem to think is a social club, not an art class. I

    mean, I don‟t mind chatting and everything, but it ought to be about art

    not the bloody bus service. They might learn something if they only

    talked about what they were doing. It‟s not fair really, they know I‟m not

    as experienced, or as confident as their normal teacher, and they are

    just taking liberties.

     „The worst is not, so long as we can say, “this is the worst”‟

    Shakespeare, King Lear


    Who do you blame for a bad session? And who takes the credit if the learning goes well?!

    In the chapter on Motivation we looked at the active and passive learner, but we teachers can be active or passive too. An active teacher may understand that the nature of the students, such as their lack of prior learning, may be in part to blame for an ineffective lesson. But instead of blaming their students they will concentrate on how to make the learning more effective. Chapter 50 considers this in more detail. Look at reflections 1, 2, A, and B above. Who is being blamed for the difficulties?

    If you attribute the problems to something outside your control there is a danger you will not feel a need to change your practice to put the difficulties right.

But this lack of blaming works both ways. Don‟t blame yourself either. Instead get

    busy thinking how the lesson could have been made to go well, and to learning general principles you can apply in the future to ensure it doesn‟t happen again.

     “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Checklist for using reflection to learn how to teach

    Do you always find time to reflect on your lessons?

Do you consider what went right as well as what went less well?

    Do you ask yourself „why did it go like that?‟ and try to establish sound learning points that you can apply in future teaching?

    Do you deliberately try to learn from one lesson how to improve the next?

    Do you manage to avoid too much blaming of students, and of yourself?

    Do you seek out opportunities to talk about your teaching with those that might help?

    Are you able to give yourself a „medal and a mission‟ after each lesson however well or badly it went?


    Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (This suggests the idea of „theory in use‟ on page 8)

    Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning in University. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

    Brockfield, S.D. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Hillier, Y. (2002) Reflective Teaching in Further and Adult Education. London:


    Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Schön, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Towards a new Design for

    Teaching and Learning in the Professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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