How to learn from your teaching mistakes

This method scaffolds reflection so that you can better learn from errors


When I was an undergraduate, I was amused by an anecdote about the legendary philosopher Karl Popper, who would set the tone for his first-year classes by walking in, slamming down his papers and barking just one word: “Observe.”

The class would then sit in awkward silence until one brave student offered “What?”

“Aaah,” Popper would say, “now that is the question. Observe what?”

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I have no idea whether or not this is just an academic shaggy dog story, but it’s certainly a good anecdote with which to begin an article about critical reflection.

Most teaching, medical and social work students cover a reflective-practice component on their first degrees, which is then revisited when they return for master's study. I have been teaching reflective practice at master's level for quite some time now, and have continually found the issue that most concerns students about reflective practice to be the same as Popper’s challenge: reflect on what?

Better reflection

Education, health and welfare work settings are arenas packed with behaviour. Consider the typical key stage 2, KS3 or KS4 classroom. Even if the children are sitting, working quietly, there may be one child who looks like s/he might be surreptitiously glancing at something under the desk; another one in the other corner who has seemed unfocused and upset about something since s/he came in; and the one you told to come and sit at the front who is still wriggling around on his chair.

There is so much going on…And then later, how do you focus your reflection?

Might you go round and round Kolb’s (1984) or Gibbs’ (1988) reflective-learning cycles and not emerge with any particularly cohesive thoughts?

Alternative options

This has been a common complaint to me from students over the years, so for my latest reflective-practice module I developed a new process, dialogic critical incident analysis (DCIA).

Critical incident analysis (CIA) is designed to support trainee teachers in reflection upon real, personally experienced events. It is unfortunately named, as it sounds as though the term should apply to an emergency situation, but in fact it describes relatively mundane events within the classroom that are "rendered critical through analysis" (Tripp, 1993, p25).

The classic CIA process involves the following steps:

  • The identification of an issue of interest within a teaching session, which may be positive, negative or neutral, mundane, dramatic, funny or sad. The key point is that the issue captures the attention of the teacher, to the extent that s/he continues to contemplate it after the session has ended.

  • A more formal, concentrated focus is then exerted upon the issue, considering how practice may be developed as a result of this reflection

  • Practice is subsequently developed, and the practitioner continues to reflect upon the result.

(Doherty and Jarvis, 2016, pp220-221)

Time and place

One of my favourite critical incidents from my own practice is an A-level session I planned long ago that attempted to make the psychobiology of stress more interesting by examining it through the fear experienced by a hunted stag, with pictorial resources of beautiful, majestic examples.

I realised quite quickly it wasn’t going very well, but only picked up on the reason when one of the class said "But it’s meat, Miss, isn’t it?"

Then I realised that perhaps I should have thought beyond my own situation as someone raised a mile south of Tower Bridge and currently living in Leeds, to the everyday experience of that group, located in rural North Yorkshire.

Unfortunately, it only occurred to me in the middle of that lesson that my students’ mental image of meat was rather different to my own, neatly wrapped in clingfilm.  

Tech solutions

Nowadays, we use a 21st century twist to put the D in DCIA. If a college or university uses Office 365, users have free enrolment to an academic social networking platform called Yammer. We create private forums within Yammer for each reflective-practice group, and over the course of one-half semester they post several critical incidents, along with their own immediate reflections on the situation.

Other students and tutors subsequently post reflective replies to these critical incidents and reflections.

This enhances the reflective process with dialogic interaction, in which professionals, students and tutors reflect together. We frequently find deep links between what appear on the surface to be very different critical incidents.


A typical example is busy, distracted practitioners fundamentally misunderstanding communications from both patients with dementia and from small children because there has been no follow-through from what is said to more fully grasp what is meant.  

Recent postings on our Yammer forum described an elderly man asking to "sit down" during a walk, when in fact he needed to access a toilet, and a child whose shoes were too small complaining of a "tummy ache" when walking.

At the conclusion of the module, students pick two of the critical incidents they have discussed with others on Yammer to draw upon for their module assignments.

Learning from mistakes

DCIA can therefore help students – and teachers in general – to get over the "observe what" hurdle and to move on to deepen their own reflective thoughts through shared reflection.

In doing so, they learn about the value of deep reflection on and in practice, and how to further enhance this through shared dialogue with colleagues.

And sometimes, a previously considered CI can even be revisited for further reflection as time goes by…

When a student came to thank me for the "stag lesson" about three months after delivery, I could hardly contain my surprise.

She grinned.

"Some of them didn’t like it, did they, Miss?" she said. "But I thought it was brilliant. I’ve just got onto a veterinary degree by doing a version of it for my presentation."

She then skipped out happily, leaving me to consider the old adage that you can never please all of the people all of the time – a salient reflection for today’s harried teachers?!

Dr Pam Jarvis is a reader in childhood, youth and education at Leeds Trinity University


  • Doherty, J and Jarvis, P (2016) "Continuing professional development", pp.215-242 in Jarvis, P et al, ed, The Complete Companion for Teaching and Leading Practice in the Early Years (Routledge)
  • Gibbs, G (1988) Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods (Further Education Unit, Oxford Polytechnic)
  • Kolb, D (1983) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Prentice-Hall)
  • Tripp, D (1993) Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing professional judgement (Routledge)

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