Whether you’re new to your role as an educator, or you have been in the classroom for a long time, we all need to reflect on our practice. What’s the purpose of reflecting, and how can we make sure it is useful? Diving deep is the answer.
What is reflection?
With any topic you contemplate, it’s important to make sure you have a clear understanding of what it is and what it is not. There are a variety of explanations of what it means to reflect as an educator, but most essentially contend it is the practice of looking back at ourselves and our practice with the goal of moving forward. The two parts of that definition are key, as I’ll discuss below.
Why should an educator reflect?
Real reflection helps us to grow. No pre-service educator I know has said they aspire to be a mediocre teacher. Everyone deep inside wants to be selected Teacher of the Year or be the teacher that inspires a child to a new life trajectory. However, it takes sincere reflection to improve our practice so that we don’t become stale.
Reflection with an eye toward change is what all mature professionals do. Beginning teachers need to reflect, but veterans do as well. We’re never too experienced to learn something new about ourselves or the way we are implementing our practice.
Reflection is also part of the life-long learning process. Illeris (2007) describes adult learning as a comprehensive process with two dimensions. The Internal-Acquisition process involves the influence of content and incentive on the motivation of the individual to learn. Is the content so compelling that it spurs learning, or are there incentives to drive the acquisition of new knowledge and skills?
The other process is External and includes interaction between the individual and their environment. We all know that we learn better in some environments than others, and this process gives credence to that claim. The External process may also include the influence of a more knowledgeable other person. Often, we need others to show us what or how we can learn.
Why do some educators reflect less than they should?
Let’s face it. Reflecting can be difficult. Sometimes we simply can’t clearly see what we are doing well or what we are not. That’s where interaction with a knowledgeable other person is key. A trusted friend or mentor can speak truth to us in kind ways to help us see what we’re blind to in our own practice.
At other times, we can see what we’re not doing well, but it’s hard to admit it. I think this is particularly true of veteran teachers. If a practice has worked in the past, it can be difficult to see that it is no longer as useful or effective as it could be with our current group of students.
Finally, we may sometimes tend to point to outside circumstances as the cause of our less than stellar practice. This blame may be properly placed, but it may also be a deflection away from the true source – ourselves.
How do we reflect as educators?
There are two levels of reflection. We can stay on the surface, or we can choose to dive deep.
Surface Level Reflections
These are reflections that are self-derived from our own thinking. We simply stop and think back about what we said or what we did. This thinking process may or may not lead to action.
Imagine you’ve planned a fun learning activity for your students. They will create projects to culminate the recent science unit. Art supplies and working with partners will be involved. In order to save time, you place all of the art materials on their desks while they are at lunch.
When they return to class, you show an example of the project outcome and explain they will be working with partners. You attempt to explain the instructions, including details of what you are requiring for the finished project. However, no one is listening anymore! Students are exploring the art supplies and negotiating with classmates to determine who will be partners. Soon, you are extremely frustrated because you cannot have the students actually begin the project work until they know what to do, but they will not stop talking long enough to listen.
After this incident, your surface level reflection concludes this is a class that cannot handle projects. You were naïve to think they could, but next time you’ll know better. No more projects for them!
Deep Dive Reflections
Surface level reflections can be important, but they may or may not make you a more effective teacher. To improve your practice, you need to do a deep dive when it comes to reflecting.
This involves thinking AND action. Freire (1972) calls it praxis. It is the intertwining of reflection and action. A never-ending cycle.
It also involves critical self-reflection in community with others. This is not critical in a negative sense, but instead it is looking or thinking between the lines. It is asking questions of ourselves and others. Why did I do that? What was I thinking? Why was I thinking that way? Is there something else going on here that I don’t yet understand?
It often requires looking at the situation from another’s perspective and considering alternatives or solutions to try. Most of the time we can’t get to this deeper level of reflection without interacting with others. We need to hear their stories and perspectives in order to understand the situation more fully and then consider how we might respond.
Consider the project fiasco described above. Imagine you share what happened with your colleague who is a veteran teacher…
He/She says, “Think about it from their perspective – they get to use art supplies, they get to work with a friend. Is it any wonder they’re too excited to listen to you? It’s not that the class can’t do projects. You just have to teach them how. You should give the instructions and then pass out the materials. NEVER tell them they will have to find a partner until it’s time to begin!!”
Suddenly, these fresh eyes on the situation help you see it differently. Perhaps you can change things about your thinking or your practice, and your students will be able to learn effectively through project work.
Without this deeper reflection, you may have found yourself using less effective worksheets for the remainder of the school year.
Deep Dive Reflecting about English Learners
You may have colleagues who need to do a deep dive when it comes to teaching their English learners. Perhaps you can be the knowledgeable other person for them.
They may complain that their English learners seem to speak English just fine on the playground and with their peers in class but are not successful when asked to complete grade-level tasks during Science class.
Their surface level reflections may conclude that the ELs aren’t trying to—or simply can’t—do the work. They endeavor to just keep trying their best and hope the students eventually catch on. Perhaps they even ask you, the EL Teacher, to work with them more.
However, you might encourage them to take their reflections deeper and learn the difference between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS – everyday language) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP – academic language). Once you explain that BICS takes six months to two years to acquire, but that CALP learning can stretch from five to seven years, they may change their thinking about their students. You can provide them with tools for making their teaching more effective in the classroom to the benefit of ELs who are in the process of learning both content and language.
A teacher willing to do a deep dive reflection in this instance will most likely become a more effective teacher of ELs as a result.
So, what about you? When was the last time you took a deep dive reflection to examine your teaching practice? Do you regularly critically reflect with a more knowledgeable other with the goal of moving forward? Or, do you find yourself staying safely on the surface?
If you find yourself on the surface, I encourage you to find a place and time to dive deep this week. Use the infographic below as guide and reminder.
Your students will thank you!
Download the PDF version. You might even want to share it with your peers or teaching partners!
Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin Books.
Illeris, K. (2007). How we learn: Learning and non-learning in school and beyond. Routledge.