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Reflective Practice

Updated: May 16, 2022

What is reflective practice?

The process of reflection is a cycle which needs to be repeated.

  • Teach

  • Self-assess the effect your teaching has had on learning

  • Consider new ways of teaching which can improve the quality of learning

  • Try these ideas in practice

  • Repeat the process

Reflective teaching is a process whereby teachers reflect on their teaching practices in order to examine the overall effectiveness of their instructive approaches. Improvement or change in teaching methods may be required, depending on the outcome of this analytical process, which is based on critical reflection.

Reflective practice is ‘learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and practice’ (Finlay, 2008).

Reflection is a systematic reviewing process for all teachers which allows you to make links from one experience to the next, making sure your students make maximum progress. Reflection is a basic part of teaching and learning. It aims to make you more aware of your own professional knowledge and action by ‘challenging assumptions of everyday practice and critically evaluating practitioners’ own responses to practice situations’ (Finlay, 2008).

The reflective process encourages you to work with others as you can share best practice and draw on others for support. Ultimately, reflection makes sure all students learn more effectively as learning can be tailored to them.

What is the research behind reflective practice?

Educational researchers have long promoted the importance of reflecting on practice to support student learning and staff development. There are many different models of reflective practice. However, they all share the same basic aim: to get the best results from the learning, for both the teacher and students. Each model of reflection aims to unpick learning to make links between the ‘doing’ and the ‘thinking’.

Kolb's learning cycle

David Kolb, educational researcher, developed a four-stage reflective model. Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984) highlights reflective practice as a tool to gain conclusions and ideas from an experience. The aim is to take the learning into new experiences, completing the cycle. Kolb's cycle follows four stages.

  1. First, practitioners have a concrete experience. This means experiencing something new for the first time in the classroom. The experience should be an active one, used to test out new ideas and teaching methods. This is followed by…

  2. Observation of the concrete experience, then reflecting on the experience. Here practitioners should consider the strengths of the experience and areas of development. Practitioners need to form an understanding of what helped students’ learning and what hindered it. This should lead to…

  3. The formation of abstract concepts. The practitioner needs to make sense of what has happened. They should do this through making links between what they have done, what they already know and what they need to learn. The practitioner should draw on ideas from research and textbooks to help support development and understanding. They could also draw on support from other colleagues and their previous knowledge. Practitioners should modify their ideas or devise new approaches, based on what they have learnt from their observations and wider research. The final stage of this cycle is when…

  4. The practitioner considers how they are going to put what they have learnt into practice. The practitioner’s abstract concepts are made concrete as they use these to test ideas in future situations, resulting in new experiences. The ideas from the observations and conceptualisations are made into active experimentation as they are implemented into future teaching. The cycle is then repeated on this new method.

Kolb’s model aims to draw on the importance of using both our own everyday experiences and educational research to help us improve. It is not simply enough for you to reflect. This reflection must drive a change which is rooted in educational research.

Gibbs' reflective cycle

The theoretical approach of reflection as a cyclical model was further developed by Gibbs (1998). This model is based on a six-stage approach, leading from a description of the experience through to conclusions and considerations for future events. While most of the core principles are similar to Kolb’s, Gibbs' model is broken down further to encourage the teacher to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings.

Gibbs' model is an effective tool to help you reflect after the experience, and is a useful model if you are new to reflection as it is broken down into clearly defined sections.

  1. Description In this section, the practitioner should clearly outline the experience. This needs to be a factual account of what happened in the classroom. It should not be analytical at this stage.

  2. Feelings This section encourages the practitioner to explore any thoughts or feelings they had at the time of the event. Here the practitioner should explain feelings and give examples which directly reference the teaching experience. It is important the practitioner is honest with how they feel, even if these feelings might be negative. Only once the feelings have been identified can the practitioner implement strategies to overcome these barriers.

  3. Evaluation The evaluation section gives the opportunity for the practitioner to discuss what went well and analyse practice. It is also important to consider areas needed for development and things that did not work out as initially planned. This evaluation should consider both the practitioner’s learning and the students’ learning.

  4. Analysis This section is where the practitioner makes sense of the experience. They consider what might have helped the learning or hindered it. It is in this stage that the practitioner refers to any relevant literature or research to help make sense of the experience. For example, if you felt the instructions you gave were not clear, you could consult educational research on how to communicate effectively.

  5. Conclusion At this stage, the practitioner draws all the ideas together. They should now understand what they need to improve on and have some ideas on how to do this based on their wider research.

  6. Action plan During this final stage, the practitioner sums up all previous elements of this cycle. They create a step-by-step plan for the new learning experience. The practitioner identifies what they will keep, what they will develop and what they will do differently. The action plan might also outline the next steps needed to overcome any barriers, for example enrolling on a course or observing another colleague.

In Gibbs' model the first three sections are concerned with what happened. The final three sections relate to making sense of the experience and how you, as the teacher, can improve on the situation.

How to reflect on teaching: getting started with reflective practice and tools to help

There are many reasons why a teacher may decide to begin a process of reflection. It could be in response to a particular problem they’re having in the classroom or simply as a way of finding out more about their teaching. Whatever the motivation, it’s important to know how teachers can get started with reflective practice.

The first and most important step of reflective practice is to gather information about what happens in the classroom, so it can be unpicked and analysed. Here are some different ways of doing this:

Teacher diary/journal

After each lesson teachers can write in a notebook about what happened, noting their own reactions and feelings as well as those of the students. However, because it relies on a teacher’s ability to recall things in as much detail as possible, not to mention a certain discipline in taking the time to do it on a regular basis, it’s not as thorough or reliable as other methods.

Peer observation

Teachers can invite colleague’s to come into their class to collect information about their lessons and offer feedback. This may be with a simple observation task or through note-taking and could relate back to the area the teacher has identified they want to reflect upon. The problem here is that the teacher and observer may not agree on what they saw or experienced, causing confusion and conflict.

Videoing practice

A video recording of teachers’ lessons is valuable because it provides an unaltered and unbiased vantage point for how effective their lesson was from both a teacher and student perspective. A video also acts as an additional set of eyes to catch disruptive behavior that they may not have spotted at the time.

Encouraging reflective discussions

If videoing or analysing their own practice feels like a big hurdle for your teachers, a great starting point can be to simply get them together in a small group (in-person or online) to watch a publicly available video of another teacher and then encourage discussions about the teaching and learning they’ve observed. Try IRIS Connect Film Club, a ready-made free CPD programme that provides you with great video examples of real teaching practice and encourages meaningful developmental conversations using a proven reflective model.

7 reflection activities for teachers:

  • The ratio of interaction - How much are children responding to the teacher, versus how much they are talking to them? Is there a dialogue of learning in their classroom or is the talking mainly one-sided?

  • Growth vs. fixed mindset - Carol Dweck writes in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success(2007) about how people with fixed mindsets believe that their qualities are unchangeable whereas people with growth mindsets feel they can improve their qualities through effort. The way a teacher responds to their students can inspire either a fixed or growth mindset. Praising students for being 'smart' or 'bright' encourages fixed mindsets whilst recognising when they have persistently worked hard promotes growth mindsets. Dweck found that people with growth mindsets are generally more successful in life: which are you encouraging students to have? Click here to read more about Dweck’s theory of the growth mindset.

  • Consistent corrections - Is the teacher correcting the students consistently? Teachers should avoid inconsistency; such as stopping a side conversation one day but ignoring it the next, as this will cause confusion with students and the feeling that the teacher is being unfair.

  • Opportunities to respond - Is the teacher giving the students enough opportunities to respond to what they are learning? Responses can include asking students to answer questions, promoting the use of resources such as whiteboards or asking students to discuss what they have learnt with their neighbour.

  • Type and level of questions - Do the questions the teacher is asking match the method of learning that they want to foster in their classroom? The type of questions they ask their students can include open or closed, their opinion on certain topics, or right or wrong. Is the level of questions they're asking appropriate for the students' level of learning? To find out more about open questions read our blog: can you make coaching more effective with open questions?

  • Instructional vs. non-instructional time - The more students are engaged in learning activities, the more they will learn. Teachers should should try to keep track of how much time they give to learning activities compared to how much is spent on other transitional things such as handing out resources or collecting work at the end of the lesson.

  • Teacher talk vs. student talk - Depending on the topic, teachers must decide how much students should be talking about what they're learning compared with how much they should be talking to them.

Cambridge Assessment International Education has a great article on Reflective Practice which includes an detailed set of notes on the benefits of reflective practice as well as some how-to guides and some useful videos. You can find it by clicking here