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What is reflective practice?

Written by: Gemma Jackson
7 min read

It could be argued that all educators engage in some form of reflective practice when thinking about planning and assessment. What is not clear is whether teachers are finding time to reflect deeply – to think deliberately and purposefully about the learning they facilitate. With time a precious commodity, and new technology an ever-increasingly available tool, teachers are potentially seconds away from a wealth of intelligence that stretches far beyond the walls of the classroom. By highlighting the limitations of traditional theories around reflective practice, it is possible to consider the benefits offered by new technologies. Social media can give educators access to perhaps the widest and most responsive support network that teaching has seen to date.

Reflection with an audience

Dewey (Dewey , 1933) highlighted perplexity and doubt as ‘certain sub-processes’ that are key to reflective practice. However, a common criticism of existing models of reflective practice is that they suffer from introspection and undervalue the experiences of others. Incorporating reflection into teacher training can be challenging, as a learner could present as ‘not conducive to the questioning of experience’ (Boud and Walker , 1998). Expressing vulnerability, through exploring weakness, is difficult when being assessed. This contradicts Schon’s (Schon , 1987) ideas about reflection with a more experienced ‘coach’. Galea (Galea , 2012) highlights the establishment of ideal teacher competences as a restricting factor, warning that ‘reflective practice has become engulfed in systems of performativity’ (p. 248).

Collaborative reflection

The opportunity for collaborative reflection amongst educational professionals can be facilitated by social media streams such as Twitter. Burhan-Horasanli and Ortactepe (Burhan-Horasanli and Ortactepe , 2015) note that technology is becoming more prevalent in its use for teacher reflection, and Conole et al. (Conole et al., 2011) comment on the shift from static, knowledge-led internet spaces, to interactive, user-generated content that enables ‘peer critiquing, sharing, personalisation and adaptation’. Considering White’s (White , 2013) claim that teachers are as ‘isolated as in Dewey’s day’, it is evident that social media could tackle this detachedness by uniting teachers with other professionals.

Reflecting collaboratively is not a new concept (Schon , 1983). However, ‘others’ are usually work colleagues, and belonging to the same institution could be argued as a limitation here. Valli’s (Valli , 1992) model of reflection suggests that practitioners collect and consider a range of viewpoints in order to ensure that their reflections are not ‘inward looking’. However, the likelihood is that these viewpoints, unless provided by professional conferences or school partnerships, are gathered from within the practitioner’s own environment. Given that teachers are often influenced by the institution within which they practise, reflections can become biased. Social media channels, providing opportunities to make connections with educational experts from diverse backgrounds, could help to balance factors influencing personal reflections.

Unfortunately, exposure to a varied collection of opinion is not as simple as ‘following’ educators on Twitter or Facebook. Aronson and Dron (Aronson and Dron , 2014) acknowledge that, like any form of social circle, a person may choose the individuals they ‘follow’, and these self-constructed digital networks could restrict diversity.

Diverse collaborative reflection

Collaborative reflection less influenced by personal values is possible by engaging with the hashtag function when using Twitter. By interacting with Twitter chats, it is possible to ‘focus solely on interests’ (Aronson and Dron, 2014, p. 00), meaning that participants connect in an ‘affinity space’ (Gee , 2005): a space where a wide range of individuals consider a common interest, with differing standpoints. Weekly chats, hosted by educators, see teachers from around the world come together to discuss pertinent topics. It is for this reason that Twitter might be likened to professional conferences. These chats are organised through the use of an agreed hashtag, such as #edchat, #edtech or #primaryrocks, meaning that users can search and filter content easily, even after the ‘live’ chat has ended. There can only be value in encountering multiple perspectives when the resulting dissonance serves to deepen reflection. Mezirow (Mezirow , 1998) agrees, noting that the ‘more interpretations of a belief available’, the more likely a dependable solution will be reached.

Reflection ‘in the midst of it’

Collaboration using social media could be supportive both in furthering reflections or in preparing for future action. However, Schon (1983) also writes of reflection during action. ‘Reflection-in-action’ (Schon , 1992) involves assessing events as they occur and acting immediately. Of course, when ‘in the midst of it’ (Schon, 1983, p. 68), valuable reflection opportunities may be limited, and using social media during teaching would be problematic. However, other forms of technology can help by recording the snapshots of learning, or the misconceptions, that might otherwise be missed. For example, Classflow and Seesaw, amongst other tools, facilitate easier and more frequent communication between teacher and learner.

University-based vs. practice-based training

Practice-based training is becoming a popular option for trainee teachers. Schon (1992, p. 125) believed that developing the skill of reflection-in-action is a crucial component of ‘the artistry of competent practitioners’, so this method of training perhaps best prepares students, giving them additional practical experiences to draw on for reflection. However, the Carter Review (Carter , 2015) acknowledges the importance of supporting teaching as an evidence-based profession, which arguably relies on academic study time. While it has been suggested that social media is not conducive to academic study (Mahrt et al., 2014), others argue that it has the ability to empower individuals through its offering of collective intelligence (Gee , 2004). Mahrt et al. (2014) discuss the tendencies for academics to share open-access research and resources through Twitter, and note the speed with which new papers are circulated.

Although trainees may gain extensive practical knowledge (Schon, 1983) through work-based training, they may lack the opportunities afforded to university-based students to collaborate with peers and professionals. Social media can connect users to a diverse network of professionals; from teachers, headteachers and senior lecturers, to Ofsted inspectors and educational politicians. It may be beneficial for practice-based students to engage with online blogs and communities such as ‘EduTwitter’ to collaborate. Social media is able to provide trainees with access to professional networks, as well as the pedagogical content knowledge needed to support reflection-in-action opportunities.

Teachers as learners

Reflection is important in enabling teachers to critically question their assumptions and deepen their awareness. By being proactive in seeking opportunities to develop, a teacher will remain open to the idea that all teaching is an opportunity to learn. Technology can help here, providing a tool to expand networks and broaden exposure to research developments, placing teachers in the best position to reflect regularly and deeply on their practice.


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      Author(s): Bill Lucas