Why reflection is much more than smoke and mirrors

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
Boost your practice by building contemplation into your day

Last year, a friend who lectures at a large college told me that he was frightened. He had a big group of learners whose behaviour was becoming increasingly volatile and there were no support staff in his sessions. We’ve all had dodgy groups and navigating a route through the chaos is just another teaching challenge. But this was different. These young people were angry, threatening and stationed in a construction workshop, surrounded by tools and machines that could result in serious injury or death if used irresponsibly.

My friend didn’t have any luck when he repeatedly brought the situation up with his managers, and he didn’t want to go to his union. Having been in a dangerous situation myself years ago, which I handled naively, my advice was simple: document everything. Email managers with every issue and copy in other members of staff who teach the group. Back up any face-to-face discussion of your concerns with an email using the words “following our conversation”, and reflect back what was said. I felt strongly that if the worst did happen – if a student was hurt or my friend was assaulted – evidence of the numerous times he had asked for help was necessary.

He began to write extensive records after every session, noting the issues and how he had handled them. Although it was the worst year of his FE career, this routine of documentation – initially just a safety precaution – enabled him to identify coping methods and make the situation bearable.

Looking back, had I suggested he begin a reflective journal, I’m sure he would have told me where to shove it. Such things can sometimes be seen as a pedagogue’s whimsy, especially if you’re in the midst of a crisis. However, a reflective journal is exactly what he created. It’s important to occasionally shift your perspective, in order to take a critical stance and challenge assumptions about what constitutes good practice.

One of the changes my friend made was to introduce an occasional element of “busy work” to alleviate tension. For some students who were struggling with behaviour, 10 minutes away from curriculum work – tidying a cupboard or doing photocopying – made a difference. This strategy challenged my friend’s own status and the assumption that the students would behave appropriately simply because he demanded that they do so. It also overturned the traditional idea that students need to engage with the curriculum throughout the entire lesson.

Inspiration strikes

Although reflection doesn’t necessarily need to be external, it is important to do it with purpose – thoughts surrounding our practice must be intentional and focused rather than allowed to drift haphazardly. That said, inspiration can strike when you least expect it. And that’s the time to make a note in case the answer flees just as suddenly.

My own reflection often takes the form of multicoloured diagrams or scribbled sticky notes arranged in formation. Putting pen to paper helps me to analyse a problem, search for an answer and improve my self-awareness. More formal writing or blogging suits some people better, while spoken words chime with others. This could take the form of a quick daily review over a cup of tea with a colleague in the staffroom. Or it could be recording your thoughts on to your phone before heading home at the end of the day.

What is important is creating a routine. We set up learning routines for our students because we know that the predictability offers them greater security. However, we don’t often apply the same rule to ourselves.

In my friend’s case, I wonder how much of the value of his accidental journal came from establishing a routine that allowed him to focus and gain some control over a situation in which he occasionally felt powerless. Did the knowledge that he would be documenting his day allow him to become more skilled at reflection in action, altering his own teaching choices in order to create a better narrative?

Regardless of the mechanism by which his year of commitment to reflection worked, there is no question that it did indeed deliver results. This is, perhaps, a lesson for us all.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands

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