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Reflection, Teaching Practice and Learning from Experience

Teaching practice or placement is one of the hallmarks of initial teacher education. As with many professions, the novice teacher is expected to learn through experience in an authentic setting. Student teachers are often required to write reflections on they have learned in placement. Many struggle with the task – wondering what actually constitutes reflective writing and why there is so much emphasis on the process of reflection.

Many look to scholarship to provide answers and works by Dewey (1933, How We Think), Schön (1992, The Reflective Practitioner), Boud et al (1985, Reflection: Turning Experience Into Learning), Mezirow, (1990, Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood), Brookfield (2005, The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching) and Moon (1999, Reflection in Learning and Professional Development) are all good resources to improve ones understanding of reflection.

However, knowing the characteristics or constituents of reflective practice is not the same as engaging in reflective practice. Indeed, I have read many essays by students who describe the underpinning theory of reflection but fail to grasp the challenge of practicing reflection.

It is important to realise that the foundation of teaching placement is learning from experience. We are in danger of missing the point if we emphasise ‘reflection’ per se rather than learning. It is more useful to regard reflection as part of the learning process – often an essential part.

A good starting point is to consider a basic model of reflection as a ‘a situation with me in it‘. This simple conceptual device has a lot of complexity behind it. Normally, when you think about an experience – say a lesson you taught – your first inclination is to remember from your own perspective. You would perhaps think something like ‘that went well – I could see the attentive looks of my students as I was explaining’. Good for you! But that’s not thinking about the situation with you in it! That’s your recall of your perceptions of the situation.

A basic model of reflection

Notice the imaginative shift to look back on a situation and place yourself in the picture. W B Yeats’ poem Among School Children provides an example of this shift when he uses the line “the children’s eyes – in momentary wonder stare upon – A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

This sense of looking at yourself – often through other people’s eyes (as in Brookfield’s Lenses) – is characteristic of reflective thought. Notice how powerful the simple device can be. I can reflect on events, interactions and complex experiences. Even ‘big picture’ issues like global sustainability can be subjected to reflecting thinking “There I am in the world and what am I doing to sustain it?”.

Teachers and many other professions involving human interactions need to engage in reflective practice. No two teaching events are the same. Unlike for example, piloting an aeroplane there is no procedural manual or situational checklists one can draw upon. Teachers develop their skills and knowledge through the ‘engine of experience’.

Accomplished teachers are expert reflective practitioners. They have developed not just the instrumental skills of teaching, but the much deeper capacity to know what skills matter and when to use them.

Reflective writing and journaling are useful for developing reflective capacity. This is especially true for novice professionals.

Here are some guidelines to get you going.

Reflective writing is about:Reflective writing is not about:
A situation with me in itA situation from my perspective
Questioning my assumptions Defending my actions
Possibilities & alternativesTheory and practice
Demonstrating how I came to know Demonstrating what I know
Learning from experienceDescribing experience

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