Self-reflection: the key to being a better teacher

Those training to become teachers can find reflective practice a painful and awkward prospect, yet it is an essential part of maintaining professional standards. Sarah Simons hears from one teacher educator who is seeking to instil a sense of self in her charges
17th January 2020, 12:04am
There's An 'i' In 'reflection'
Sarah Simons


Self-reflection: the key to being a better teacher

For even the most bullish, self-confident individuals, critical self-analysis can be a difficult process - picking, as it potentially does, at their deepest insecurities. So, for most teachers, who tend to be modest and humble beings, it can feel almost impossible.

However, self-reflection is a key part of training for the job and colleges need to find a way to get would-be teachers more comfortable - and expert - in the process. Annie Pendrey, a lecturer in teacher education at Halesowen College in the West Midlands, thinks she has done just that. By using a box.

Pendrey teaches students who aspire to work with children aged 0-8. Some of those students will go on to become practitioners in nursery and preschool settings (where children are aged 0-5), which is structured by the early years foundation stage curriculum framework. Others will work in schools - in Reception, Year 1, Year 2 - where the national curriculum frames the learning content. In either setting, early years professionals must be skilled observers and highly reflective in their practice.

"Reflective practice is asking students to constantly think about professional standards for them as early years practitioners, to ensure the holistic development of young children," says Pendrey.

Unfortunately, students on her Cache level 3 programme were struggling to engage with the reflective-practice unit. "You could see the pain on their faces," she recalls. "And I said to them, 'Why is this not working?'"

The responses were as follows:

  • "I find it difficult to write about me."
  • "I don't understand how reflecting and talking about myself will help me."
  • "I like the teacher to deliver a PowerPoint presentation."
  • "I am not good at using 'I'."
  • "I hate talking about myself."

Pendrey found the replies upsetting; she was concerned that students lacked confidence and pride in their achievements. It also caused her to worry about the effect on their studies and future prospects on the course.

She explains that early years practitioners have to reflect in, and on, action, adjusting their practice in response to whatever is happening in the moment to ensure that the child's development is uniquely supported. This is based on Schön's (1983) reflection-in-action model. So Pendrey got to work on a solution via a research project that aimed to seek out the best ways that students could be taught to be more reflective and comfortable in their reflection.

She wanted to include the students not just as participants, but also as collaborators in the formulation of the research project. However, the students initially lacked confidence about their ability to be researchers.

"I said to them, 'If you're not researchers, you're not practitioners. You're looking at your practice all the time.' I made it clear that researchers are reflectors," she states.

Once the students realised that they were being given a choice of how they would be taught, they were excited about taking ownership of their learning on the project.

The group formulated a plan to explore five methods that would support them to write reflectively, then Pendrey planned sessions using those approaches as a central theme.

The approaches were as follows:

  • PowerPoint presentations: Students were so familiar with being directly taught how to be reflective that it was thought a continuation of this would offer some stability.
  • Independent research: Students were dubious about being set autonomous learning tasks to research about reflective practice, but were open to having a go.
  • Poetry: Each line had to start with "I am" and link to the curriculum. In this format, students had to express why the personal qualities they described were of value in an early years capacity.
  • A reflective diary: For students who struggled to write in the first person, keeping a reflective diary would be a challenge, but a useful tool to measure ongoing progress.
  • Artefacts: Students were tasked with bringing in objects that represented them as individuals and they had to describe how those objects could be linked to their development as a practitioner.

The curriculum was deconstructed and activities that required reflective writing were divided between the five teaching methodologies, with each approach used over a three-week period. At the end of the project the students gave feedback, discussing which teaching methods constituted best practice for them and how that specific approach changed their own progression, specifically in terms of reflective writing.

What was the outcome? Though the teacher-led PowerPoint presentations worked well, they were a continuation of existing pedagogies and, as such, delivered solid but uninspiring results. Meanwhile, the learners' autonomous research on theories by Brookfield, Schön and Bolton produced extended pieces of writing, but the students were disengaged. And the poetry task resulted in interesting pieces of creative work that were shared within the group, but did not necessarily facilitate the longer-term success of reflective writing.

The reflective diaries, however, served as a starting point for learners to track their own progress and to create an ongoing commentary about how the other methods were working. And, in doing so, the skill of writing in the first person was greatly improved.

One unplanned skill learned during the reflective diary writing process was the instinctive embedding of Harvard referencing, without having explicitly been taught it: "They'd be chatting about what they were writing in their diaries and I kept asking 'Whose theory is that?' And they'd say 'Oh, it's Brookfield's 'lenses', shall I put that in?' I'd casually say 'Yeah, why don't you?' They were doing it as part of the process."

However, the stand-out successful method was "artefacts". Pendrey began by demonstrating how objects could act as a representation of self by emptying her handbag onto the desk. "I started with my lipstick. I can't teach without my lipstick," she explains. "It made me the early years teacher I am because my little ones used to say, 'Aah, pink, red, pretty'. They began to learn colours from whichever lipstick I was wearing."

The learners developed the artefacts approach, firstly by renaming it "me in the box". One learner added big, fluffy ears to show her listening skills, and learners decided between them to add pieces of string to represent themselves as being "tied together as part of a team". Such physical prompts led to discussions in the team around the child and the role of safeguarding, expanding the learning beyond the unit.

As "me in the box" continued, the students kept adding and adding to their individual boxes - a fitting metaphor to demonstrate their increasing confidence and developing sense of self. They asked to use the artefacts as a basis on which to produce posters on reflective practice, working with the independent research they had gathered on theorists.

The group finished the research project with a presentation attended by members of the college's leadership team, the students' placement officers and other practitioners.

"They went from not wanting to use the word 'I', not wanting to talk about themselves, to standing up and showing their work," says Pendrey.

As a finale, they had all learned the sign language for This is Me from The Greatest Showman and gave a group performance.

"I was in bits. I thought, 'You lot can go out and fly into early years. You are amazing.' And their grade profile went to As and A*s as well," she says.

After the project's success, Pendrey's ambition is to conduct similar action research with teacher-education students working at levels 4 and 5, most of whom are already teachers working in the sector.

"I'd love to get them thinking beyond the PowerPoint. To get them thinking about creativity," says Pendrey. "The arts open up so much more for learners."

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

This article originally appeared in the 17 January 2020 issue under the headline "Some of us need reminding there's an 'I' in 'reflection'"

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