What isn’t reflective practice? What is reflective practice?

Recently, reflective practice has come up in a number of conversations within the teaching communities I am involved in. The way it has been talked about has left me with the feeling that a lot of people don’t really understand what reflective practice involves. A number of examples of what people claim to have been reflective practice include:• Finishing a lesson and just knowing that the lesson went well…• Post lesson, filling in a form identifying what you thought went well, what you thought went badly and what you will do differently next time…

• Sharing an activity with a colleague because your students really enjoyed it…

• Thinking about how you give instructions and concluding they were ‘successful’ because all the students were looking, some of them nodded their heads and even answered your CCQ’s correctly…

• Knowing that the students feel like your class is beneficial and understand it because they do all the activities, often laugh and smile and even tell you how much they love you…

Why are these not forms of reflective practice? Well, to borrow from Farrell (2013), they simply “consist of fleeting thoughts that are based on hunches, intuition, or even some actions that happened in the class.” For me, and Farrell (2013) it seems, this is simply not enough. In some ways, claims such as those above which, in my opinion, are becoming increasingly synonymous with reflective practice, neatly exhibit the ‘buzz word’ status that reflective practice is starting to gather. In doing so, they are somewhat simplifying the complexity and commitment required to truly engage in reflective practice.If we are going to explore what reflective practice really is then it seems right to go back to its roots. According to Dewey (1933:17), reflective practice is an opportunity to “convert action that is merely repetitive, blind, and impulsive into intelligent action” (1933:17). It is a process by which teachers can consider, evaluate, problem solve and potentially alter their teaching behaviours by looking back upon events in light of research and knowledge. This is commonly referred to as ‘reflection-on-action’. By participating in reflection-on-action we can, hopefully, improve our ability for reflection-in-action, that is, according to Schön (1983,1987), thinking consciously about and adapting to an event as it is taking place. We know how to adapt to these events through experimentation in our own teaching.To try and apply this to modern day teaching, to engage in reflective practice I believe we must we must be actively doing one of two things; a systematic gathering of evidence, or, a critical thought process that allows us to question, seek, and form alternatives. It is through the collection of evidence or critically thought out alternatives that we can begin to form testable conclusions, and it is from these testable conclusions that we can systematically question our assumptions and beliefs, allowing us to change and improve as teachers. I’m now going to briefly review how we might go about doing this.

Critical Thought ProcessI’m going to start with the critical thought process. For me, the easiest way to start reflecting down this root is through the experiential learning cycle (ELC). To try and offer a very brief summary of how to use the ELC in teaching, you can begin by asking yourself three questions:

Image from the fantastic http://www.tokenteach.wordpress.com by Josette le Blanc
Pick an event from class, now ask:1) What? This stage should be used as a time for a description of what happened. There should be no emotions and no presumptions.Example: I introduced the activity to my students. To do this I first gave the instructions to my students. I saw them all nodding their heads. I did an example with my co-teacher. I then asked 3 CCQs, the students got them all correct. When I went round to monitor the students there were around 10 students who had not shared their answers with their partners. I felt really frustrated.

2) So What? Now, it is time to develop various possibilities for the event occurring. This stage is imperative, yet those not engaged in critical reflection will often simply skip it. The problem with that is that we are then forming conclusions based on our immediate interpretation (example 1 below). It is at this stage you may want to consider educational theory, research, methodologies and past learning experiences. By critically considering alternatives, we can begin to formulate further explanations we would have missed otherwise.

Example 1 (knee jerk reaction to event): the students who didn’t do the activity properly must have been day dreaming, so I should ask them to stay behind after class and give them minus points for not concentrating.

Example 2: The task may have been too difficult for the students, according to research there should only be 8 words in a text that students don’t know, were there more than that?

Example 3: Were my CCQs confusing? My CELTA taught me that they should only be one or two word answers.

Example 4: What class did my students have before this one? Did they have a test? Did they have gym class?

Example 5: Did I give them too many steps at once? This study suggests activities should be broken down into a maximum of one or two steps at a time.

3) Now What? From these alternatives you can now form a testable action plan grounded in critical thought.

Example: Next time I give instructions, I will give an example with a student and break the activity down into smaller components so that they are easier for the students to digest.

Evidence Collection

According to Farrell (2013), to begin engaging in evidence based reflective practice we can ask ourselves five questions:

1) What do I do?

2) How do I do it?

3) Why do I do it?

4) What is the result?

5) Will I change anything based on the answers to the above questions?

Example: Using a tape recorder, record yourself giving instructions for one period. Count the number of filler words you use, transcribe the sentences, decide if they could be more concise. At the end of the lesson, ask students to fill in a feedback card with some simple questions:

Did you understand how to do the activities?

Do you find examples easy to follow?

Do I use words you don’t understand?

There are a huge number of ways to collect evidence that can all revolve around these five questions. I’ve included a document I made for a workshop I was conducting on professional development with some other options that you may want to consider.

Later in the week I hope to put together a blog post on how you might want to go about starting a reflective practice group in your local community. But, in the meantime, I hope I have dispelled a couple of emerging myths regarding reflective practice and offered a starting point from which people can consider getting more involved with actual reflective practice.


Dewey, J (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: NY: Basic Books.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Towards a new design for teaching and learning in the profession. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Farrell, T (2013). Reflective Teaching. TESOL International Association: Virginia


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