Towards the end of the school year, I go through this process where I think about the things that worked well and not so well with my students. I figured that most teachers would have some sort of process similar to mine.
As I began to gather information to write this blog post, I was surprised to learn that there wasn’t much information on teacher reflections. This was interesting because throughout my career I’ve always been taught to allow students time to reflect after an activity. The question that pops up in my mind is, how can a teacher who doesn’t reflect on his/her own teaching practice teach students to use reflection to build student agency?
One of my chief complaints about the current education system is that teachers are never given enough time to think. We’re constantly building the plane while flying it. Closing learning gaps requires that teachers are given time to reflect on their teaching practice.
Philosopher John Dewey said, “Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance.”
I experienced this mental unrest and disturbance firsthand about ten years ago when my son told me that high school doesn’t prepare you for life. That one conversation in the aisle at Wal-Mart forever changed how I viewed teaching and learning for black and brown students.
What is Reflective Teaching?
Reflective teaching is a process whereby teachers reflect on their teaching practices in order to examine the overall effectiveness of their instructive approaches. Improvement or change in teaching methods may be required, depending on the outcome of this analytical process, which is based on critical reflection.
In this day of high stakes testing, many teachers base their overall effectiveness on how well their students do on one test. This is evident in educator Facebook groups at the end of the school year. Instead of examining the effectiveness of the math instructional strategies and their delivery of instruction, many teachers tend to focus on student deficits as the cause of low test scores.
Self-reflection is the foundation for reflective teaching. Going further than self-reflection to understand student experiences is, for author Stephen Brookfield, “of utmost importance” to good teaching.
The Critical Reflection Process
In the book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, the author states that the path to discovering the worth of your teaching is through a process of critical reflection.
So, what makes reflection critical?
According to the article, The Role of Critical Reflection in Teacher Education, reflection becomes critical when it has two distinctive purposes. The first is to understand how the considerations of power undergird, frame, and distort so many educational processes and interactions. The second is to question assumptions and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier, but that actually end up working against our best long-term interests- in other words, those that are hegemonic.
In the context of classroom practice, Open Learn offers the following key features of reflection as widely accepted:
- Reflection results in learning, through changing ideas and your understanding of the situation.
- Reflection is an active process of learning and is more than thinking or thoughtful action.
- Reflection involves problematizing teaching by recognizing that practice is not without dilemmas and issues.
- Reflection is not a linear process, but a cyclical one where reflection leads to the development of new ideas, which are then used to plan the next stages of learning.
- Reflection encourages looking at issues from different perspectives, which helps you to understand the issue and scrutinize your own values, assumptions, and perspective.
Is Your Teaching Worthy?
The goal of the critically reflective teacher, for Brookfield, is to acquire an increased awareness of his or her teaching from as many different viewpoints as possible.
“Critically reflective teachers, for Brookfield, are excellent teachers who continually hone their personalized “authentic voice”, a “pedagogic rectitude” that reveals the “value and dignity” of the teacher’s work “because now we know what it’s worth” (46-7). Vigilant critical reflection delivers several boons: inspirational self-assuredness, the regular achievement of teaching goals, and motivated, critically reflective students.”
The path to discovering the worth of your teaching is through critical reflection. Brookfield proposes four lenses that can be engaged by teachers through critical reflection: (1) the autobiographical, (2) the students’ eyes, (3) our colleagues’ experiences, and (4) theoretical literature. Good teachers may engage with the first two lenses, excellent teachers will deeply engage in those processes and may also look to peers for mentoring, advice, and feedback.
It’s not enough to collect feedback (from self, student, peer, or scholarly lenses) but actually changing your teaching methods and goals, documenting those changes and any progress toward goals, and becoming a student-centered, flexible, and innovative teacher is the most important aspect of critical reflection.
Brookfield argues that excellent teachers, “[I]n a deliberate and sustained way”, continually attempt to shape teaching and learning environments into democratic spaces of knowledge exchange (44). While this may seem idealistic, the constant and ongoing search for ways to improve their own teaching and learning environments is, nonetheless, the worthy occupation of excellent teachers.