Time to reflect?
Skills supporting reflection and self-evaluation are frequently promoted during initial teacher training, and some of these skills develop into career-long attributes in teachers. There is a difference between reflection and evaluation, although there will be some variance in the way this difference is interpreted. On a practical level, for example, it is logical that we can gain time at the lesson planning stage by making informed judgements about the effectiveness of previous teaching, and by knowing in detail the progress pupils are making. So, reflection and evaluation could be seen as a good investment of precious time. This is not about navel gazing, it’s about developing enhanced professional practice – asking the ‘what, how, why and if so, so what’ questions about teaching and learning.
Reflective practice has been explored by many theorists, notably Donald Schön who developed models of reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. The way that I find useful to frame this is as follows. In our real lives we see our reflections when we look in the mirror. Sometimes we hardly notice what we look like, sometimes we deliberately use the mirror as a tool to groom or add make-up. Sometimes we grimace and sometimes we sigh with relief. We track the passing of time through our growing hair, our deepening wrinkles and our changes in styling. We see good times and bad times represented in the dynamic emotions written across our face.
Reflection is a metacognitive process in which we review our actions and our decisions (either immediately or later), prompting ourselves to think through what happened and why. Reflection can be done individually or with others, it might have a written outcome, or simply lead to some deeper thinking or conversations about practice. Reflection takes us beyond the immediate and specific, for example prompting us to consider background factors or implications at a range of scales and time-frames. Reflection also gives us a chance to connect with our values and beliefs, the ‘why’ is not purely a procedural question, it is often an ethical one. This takes us to the level of critical reflection which as (Habermas, 1973) suggests involves us thinking more deeply about ethical and moral criteria and the wider historical or socio-political perspectives and contexts which frame our work as educators.
What appears important for teachers and leaders is the development of a reflective attitude, one which becomes the normal way in which we engage with our practice and the dilemmas that we face. If we have a reflective attitude we are less likely to take things at face value, are more likely to test out innovative practice, ask more significant questions, consider a range of outcomes, and we probably find themselves in more frequent conversations with colleagues and learners about the means, ends and significance of teaching and leading.
We sometimes group evaluation and reflection together but from my perspective I think we can distinguish them. Evaluation is different to reflection because it requires a judgement to be made. To evaluate is to consider the advantages and disadvantages and requires the analysis of evidence. Of course, this can be contentious ground, as it might lead us to privilege one type of evidence above another, or to judge the value of practice in relation to criteria which are not equally valued by all.
An example might help. Many teachers are currently developing online teaching and will be asking themselves about their students’ readiness and ability to engage in it. This is a critical question as it will help to make their planning more sophisticated and more attuned to the needs and capacity of their students. As teachers roll-out this online teaching they will then be starting to evaluate the degree to which it is running smoothly and as intended, the difficulties and opportunities that emerge and how these vary between their students.
This measured evaluation is essential, but teachers (and their students and indeed their parents) are probably now also reflecting on whether the content, structures and feedback loops being built into online learning are really the most important aspects of learning at this time of crisis. They will be wondering whether trying to create business as usual, through remote means, is what young people really need, both currently and for their future. They may be wondering about whether the curriculum that frames each school year is really equipping learners with knowledge and skills of most value rather than those which seem most easily assessed.
It is in cases like this that adopting a reflective attitude when undertaking evaluation is essential. Not only does the evidence collected support enhanced reflection, but the process of reflection can help us to be more critically aware of the value and limitations of the evidence we have. It is useful to remember that ‘We reflect on the process of learning, in order to learn or in order to generate more considerations upon which we will reflect more’ (Moon, 1999: p23).
To conclude, think again about that mirror. When you look in it you not only see you as you look, but you also have a chance to connect with who you are in the world. What does your time for reflection teach you about your unique identity and your capacity to shape your own future and that of others? Don’t just stare yourself out; look within and look beyond.
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.