The untaught art of looking at yourself

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Too few teachers are aware of what it takes to be a reflective professional, says Tom Greene

The current obsession, or so it seems, with the idea that all teachers should be self-evaluating professionals who can reflect critically on practice for the purposes of improvement is an interesting one. It presupposes, without scrutiny, that those involved understand what is meant by critical reflection and are aware of how this understanding might impact on their professional development needs. There is very little evidence around which supports the view that teachers, at whatever level of service, have the conceptual knowledge required.

In 2005, I completed a doctoral project entitled Critical Reflection and Self-evaluation: meanings and implications for students and new teachers.

Among other things, the research looked at the extent to which students and new teachers understood the twin concepts of critical reflection and self-evaluation and sought some indication of what their more experienced colleagues understood by these ideas.

The major findings were as follows:

* Respondents had a largely ill-defined and one-dimensional understanding of the meaning of critical reflection and self-evaluation; indeed, there were occasions when it was obvious that people thought they were the same thing. Of course, they are not. Reflection is an integral characteristic of self-evaluation, it is the process of inquiry and observation on which self-evaluation is based, but it is not the same thing as self-evaluation.

* Perceptions were that the school and the teacher education institution did little to support the student or new teacher to develop the skills of critical reflection and self-evaluation.

* Serious concerns were expressed about the ability of partnership arrangements between local authorities, teacher educators and schools to assist the student or new teacher to grow in appreciation of critical reflection and self-evaluation.

It is important, given the prominence afforded to the ideas, that teachers and others are aware of what it means to be a self-evaluating professional who can reflect critically for the purposes of professional development and hence improve the quality of learning and teaching. What tends to be the case, insofar as the results of my research are concerned, is that self-evaluation has become part of the language of education and teachers are inclined to accept it as a feature of their working lives without giving the matter too much thought.

As one respondent to my survey remarked: "I don't know if self-evaluation is going on because we never talk about it . . . but you've got to be taught how to reflect and evaluate and nobody's done that yet; nobody that I know of has picked up on that."

It is arguable that teachers accept self-evaluation, without any real enthusiasm, interest or understanding, as an imposition without considering or realising the potential benefits for both themselves and the children they work with. Moreover, it is at least debatable that, since the introduction of self-evaluation procedures in school development planning, the process has consisted of little more than a form-filling exercise with little substance to it.

This is an indictment of the present situation and surely raises the question of authenticity in respect of the entire process. There seems a kind of mythical quality to the notion of self-evaluation and, as a consequence, reflection. All teachers at all levels of experience are supposed to have acquired the skills and be able to use them to assist their development as professionals. Government agencies and other authorities expound their virtues but no one, apparently, is entirely clear what is meant by the terms, or how teachers are to be educated to become self-evaluating and reflective.

Those who were original thinkers in the field of self-evaluation envisaged a role for the process that would involve empowerment for teachers, would help them to understand the nature and needs of their profession and, as a consequence, assist them in their own development as professionals. There are those who would argue that self-evaluation, as it has unfolded over the past 20 years or so, has been more to do with surveillance than empowerment.

But perhaps we are beginning to see a change. One certainly hopes so, but it is difficult to see how this method of improvement can be usefully employed if colleagues have a limited or basic understanding of the meaning of the concept. A professional approach to self-evaluation, rather than mere acceptance or the ticking of boxes which relate to certain benchmark standards, demands that we must be more rigorous in our efforts to understand and apply the concept.

The Scottish Executive and the General Teaching Council for Scotland could expand on what they mean by self-evaluation and critical reflection.

Moreover, they should provide a list of criteria which students and new teachers must meet to be considered competent in their knowledge and use of these skills.

Those who advocate the use of self-evaluation at school level must be equipped with, and be able to demonstrate, adequate knowledge and understanding (in terms of reading) of the concept and the potential benefits expertise in this skill could have for the individual teacher.

Such knowledge must be more than simply at the level of familiarity with official documentation, which tends to reinforce the one-dimensional notion people have of self-evaluation.

There has to be a sustained rigour in the approach to teaching self-evaluation in the teacher education institutions, possibly with the introduction of discrete, well-planned courses. It seems to me that, if all the rhetoric which presently surrounds the issue of self-evaluation is to be considered in any way genuine, then we must have more than a limited or confused notion of what we understand by the concept.

We should also be more than aware of the potential self-evaluation has to assist in our own growth as autonomous professionals who can think as well as do. In other words, we need people who not only understand the craft of teaching but who can contribute to the development of education wherever that might lead.

Dr Tom Greene teaches at St Ambrose High in Coatbridge.

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