How to hone your skills as a reflective practitioner

Reflective practice is a key part of the Teachers’ Standards, but what exactly does it mean and how can you perfect the technique? 

Reflective practice is one of those teacher-type phrases that can be overused so much that it is in danger of rendering itself meaningless. “Of course I reflect on my practice!” I thought to myself when I was training. “What sort of teacher doesn’t?”

While this is true if you take the literal meaning of the phrase – to reflect on what you’ve done – this isn’t what reflective practice actually means, and the process is too important for teachers, at any stage of their career, to ignore.

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What is reflective practice in teaching? 

Reflective practice is the active consideration and appraisal of the lesson (or series of lessons), and the process of drawing some conclusions about what happened and then acting upon them.

This doesn’t necessarily mean writing down a self-evaluation after each lesson, but it does mean taking the time to think over what you taught, and then following it up by adjusting the lesson resources or informing your planning for the next lesson.

Important reflective practice theorists 

Reflective practice is built on the work of Dewey, Schön, Kolb, and then Boud.  

Dewey’s ideas regard reflection as an active process, and that consideration should be “active, persistent and careful” (Dewey 1933). 

Schön separated the reflection that occurs after the lesson has taken place, and reflection you do while you’re teaching. Schön proposed that the more reflection you do after the lesson, the easier it will be to reflect during the lesson. 

Kolb looked at the idea of a cycle of reflection, where there is experience, reflection, conclusion, experimenting, and then back to experience. 

Boud considered the impact emotions have upon our ability to reflect, and that the strong emotions felt during the event must be taken into consideration when weighing up our reflections.

The University of Southampton provides a neat summary of each of these reflective practice theorists. 

A key part of the Teachers’ Standards   

Reflective practice is part of the Department for Education’s Teachers’ Standards. As part of the section titled, “Plan and teach well-structured lessons”, teachers are required to “reflect systematically on the effectiveness of lessons and approaches to teaching”. 

Many ITT providers will use a lesson-planning sheet with a “reflection” box at the bottom. However, this doesn’t mean you should limit it to a perfunctory tick-box activity, nor does it mean you should leave active reflection behind once you’re in your NQT year.

Four ways to be a better reflective practitioner

1. Time it right 

You need to hit the reflection sweet spot in order to do it effectively. Immediately after the lesson, you may be clouded by the initial rush of elation that it has finished or deflation that it didn’t go exactly to plan. 

However, you cannot let too much time pass, as this will allow momentum to slow. If this happens, your inclination to actively complete the changes you want to make reduces.

2. But what did they learn? 

Rebecca Foster, head of English at St Edmund’s Girls’ School in Salisbury, advises teachers not to make it all about the performance but instead about what learning has taken place. Just because an activity has occupied a class, it doesn’t mean that it has effectively taught them anything. 

“Really consider the value of activities delivered and how they will help students progress in the long term,” she advises. “Look beyond how quiet they were and look at whether what they did actually result in them learning.”

3. Be brutally honest with yourself 

Sometimes we can make excuses for how we behaved, and justify our decisions in the moment, but this reflective stage should strip that away. Instead of thinking about how you can explain away why you made a poor decision, think about how you could stop it happening in the future.

Patrick Hallahan, PE teacher and mentor at St Martin’s School in Essex, advises his trainees to be brutal with themselves.

“I always tell my trainees that the reflection is just for them,” says Hallahan, “so they should never worry about what another teacher would think of what they’ve written. The only thing that matters is that you try and learn from it.”

4. But not too brutal 

We can be our own worst critics sometimes, dwelling on the one negative thing that happened, and ignoring the dozens of positives. 

English teacher and mentor at Shenfield school in Essex, Aqsa Malik warns that although it can be hard to see past the things that went wrong, if you don’t spend time reflecting on how things went well, then you won’t be able to improve. 

“Self-criticism can veer into self-sabotage if you’re not careful. The process should be a help and not a hindrance.” she advises.