So what makes a teacher reflective?

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Glib catch phrases can mask a lack of understanding of the processes involved, says Joan Mowat

The concept of the reflective practitioner has become so ubiquitous that it trips off the tongue without engaging with the brain. Yet, at a time when Scottish education has reached such an important point with the publication of A Curriculum for Excellence and the exciting possibilities it opens up, there is no better time to ask the question: "Where do I stand?"

Two basic premises underlie the argument that follows. The first is that, at the heart of teaching, lies not only the knowledge, understanding and skills which one brings to the task of imparting subject knowledge but, more important, the sets of values and beliefs that underlie our practice and that may be overt (open to our consciousness) or covert (perhaps not articulated but which drive our actions).

The second is that it is this set of knowledge, understanding, skills, beliefs and values that will determine the quality of what we can offer to our students. How many of us have experienced at first hand the teacher who motivated us but also the teacher with no empathy for children?

Where do I stand? First, do I believe that all children have the capacity to be "successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors"? There cannot be many teachers who have not become familiar with Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences (andor theories of learning styles), but have we really stopped to think of what the implications are of these theories within the classroom? Is it helpful to know that Jason is a kinaesthetic learner and that Stacey has musical intelligence?

In my opinion, the real messages to emerge are that children are individuals and need to be seen as such and that, contrary to the views I held as a beginner teacher, intelligence is not a fixed commodity innate from birth but one that manifests itself in a variety of ways. Most important, it is a capacity that can grow, nurtured by careful and loving teaching.

Vygotsky has taught us that it is not what the child can do today that matters but what the child can do in the future, supported by the teacher "scaffolding" the learning process. This means that the expectations we hold of our pupils are crucial, as is the process we adopt to support learners.

Second, do I see teaching as a process of delivery - "filling the empty vessels" (whether or not they want to be filled) - or do I see teaching as a process of bringing together my subject and pedagogical knowledge, together with insights gained from professional development and reflection in an imaginative and creative way to meet the needs of my pupils?

The many and varied pressures under which teachers work have created a culture of compliance, exemplified in expressions such as "reinventing the wheel" and in an attitude of "tell me what to do and I'll get on with it".

While concerns about wasted effort and teachers working in isolation from each other are very real, too often it is the pressures of the system that prevent us from engaging with one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching - the delivery of something we have shaped and modelled to the needs of our own pupils.

Do we follow Donald Schon's reflective cycle of reflection in action (thinking on our feet on the job), reflecting on action (how did that go; could it have been better?) and reflecting about action (what am I going to do differently the next time?). Or have we settled into a comfortable routine of pulling the materials off the shelf?

At an even more fundamental level, the notion of "filling empty vessels" is flawed because it fails to take account of how children learn. At heart, children have to make their own meaning arising from connecting the new knowledge to what they already know understandcan do, and internalising the new knowledge through a process of putting it into action. The role of the teacher in helping children to "make the connections" is vital, relating the new informationskill to what the children have already learnt, to applications in other subject disciplines and to their daily lives.

Likewise, the creation of learning opportunities which promote deeper learning, such as what might be called Socratic questioning (is that the case; what does that mean; what other possibilities are there?), is very important. So, too, is engagement in activities that lend themselves to meaningful exploration rather than "follow the recipe" lessons.

Helping children to understand the processes of learning - how to analyse, evaluate, synthesise, use techniques such as concept mapping - and to self-regulate their own learning (how am I doing here; do I have enough evidence?) are also important if we wish to produce the lifelong learners of the future.

Joan Mowat is a lecturer at Strathclyde University and former depute head at Vale of Leven Academy.

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