Becoming a reflective practitioner

There are particular behaviours and a mindset that accompanies effective reflective practice. Understanding and applying these allows us to become reflective practitioners. The process for most people will begin with a recognition that reflective practice has value and a part to play in our professional learning. It is also true that it can be easier to act our way into a new mindset than it might be to change our beliefs. To that end, by adopting the behaviours of reflective practice, we may find ourselves valuing the change, and that might result in a new mindset. 

Reflective practice takes time and making time for deliberate reflection is an excellent place to start. Setting aside time for thoughtful reflection may not be easy and requires a degree of planning for most people. Some are fortunate or are perhaps forced to spend time alone with their thoughts. Maybe this results from a long commute or time spent waiting for children to finish sports training or the like. For those who do not have time for reflection built into their day by default it is worth scheduling time for it in the same way that you might schedule a meeting; set up a recurring event with yourself as the sole attendee. 

Now that you have time for your reflective practice consider the environment in which this will occur. If you are hoping to turn your mind inwards, it is essential to be in a place that is free of distractions. A quiet mountain top might be the gold standard but is perhaps not accessible on a daily basis. What works for the individual will vary, but you should avoid places or proximity to devices which will draw your attention away from your reflective mind. Research shows that a phone, even when set to silent, is likely to be a distraction as you wonder if a notification has arrived. 

To be effective, our reflective practice should be grounded in our close noticing of the events of the day. This requires us to be attentive in the moment. If we are not looking closely at the impact we are having, at the reactions our actions cause, at the ripples which are formed by our presence or the results of our effort, we are likely to fall into ponderous navel-gazing. Our reflection on our practice as a teacher begins by making space in our teaching to step back and observe our learners. Our goal should be to notice them in the act of learning. We can do this through our strategic use of routines which allow us to become an observer of their learning. 

Now is also the ideal time to consider how we may document or capture our students thinking. One of the strengths of employing a selection of Visible Thinking Routines is that they include opportunities to capture the thinking which our teaching is facilitating. By deploying strategies which make our students’ thinking visible, we gain access to insights which can inform how we subsequently guide or nudge our students in the desired direction. When we include this documentation as evidence within our reflective practice, we enhance the impact that both the capturing of the thinking and the reflection upon our teaching can have. 

This leads us to the question of what we might consider to be evidence of learning. The evidence gathered from our considered use of thinking routines, student responses to rich tasks and our observations of students engaged in the act of learning provides us with invaluable information. Tasks which offer us numerical data alone provide a different perspective. When we look at a data set, it should lead us towards questions and wonderings. If a data set makes us wonder why a student achieved a particular result and what this might reveal about their learning, then it has a valuable role to play. If shifting the data becomes more important than the learners, which it purports to measure, we may have forgotten our purpose. 

Having observed our learners practising their craft, we can begin to consider what other information we might include in our reflections. What questions will we ask that might reveal the thinking that our learners are engaging with? Carefully designed questions, framed through language that encourages our students to describe where they are with their thinking, and where they are going are most effective. Questions which test knowledge or lead the learner to believe their task is to guess what the teacher is thinking, should be avoided. A question which uncovers the thought processes of our students is one where the answer is only revealed by the student’s response. If the answer to the question can be found in a text or online, then it is not probing our student’s thinking. 

Our observations and our questioning reveal a picture of learning in our classroom. We should be able to discern what our students are understanding from our instruction and also what is causing confusion. We will also create the conditions necessary for us to notice and name what we value from and for our students. An honest observation of our practice in the classroom should reveal who does most of the talking, which students are engaged and which could have spent the lesson elsewhere. There will be learner behaviours which are puzzling ad these can be the most interesting fodder for our reflections. The student who seems to struggle to verbalise a particular letter sound might lead us to a deeper understanding of the decoding skills being deployed. A group of learners with a shared misconception of a mathematical concept may reveal an opportunity for us to represent the idea in a new way. It is only through the close-noticing of what is occurring and the practice of reflection that we are likely to capitalise on these moments.

Finally, reflective practice is made more effective when it is shared. By sharing our reflections with others, we engage in a mix of practices which support a deeper understanding. As discussed previously, explaining our thinking to others allows us to better understand our own thinking. Engaging in co-construction of reflections opens our mind to fresh perspectives as our collaborators notice things we may not or offer a perspective which challenges our stance. And, the process of engaging with others as a participant in their reflective practice allows us to achieve new insights into our thinking. Further, we may wish to open our reflections to ongoing scrutiny by ourselves and possibly others by capturing it in some way. By recording our reflections, we build an archive which we can review and which can itself prompt further reflection when we take the time to look back. 

By Nigel Coutts