Sunday, April 6, 2008

Become a Reflective Practitioner in Three Steps

My last post was meant to encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching by writing. I'd like to come back to this subject.
Teachers often feel more threatened than encouraged, when they are asked to do what they expect students to do - to write. This tells us a lot about their schooling experience. If you are one of those teachers, or if you have never done the effort to reflect on your teaching by writing, this post is meant for you.
I suppose, that usually you choose from one of the following replies when asked to write down your thoughts or feelings: I am a poor writer. I have nothing really interesting to report. I don't know what to choose from all these events that occur every day im my classroom. When I read what others have written I feel incompetent. I don't know if it's fair to concentrate on one child when all of them deserve my attention. What's the use in writing on something that belongs to the past, even a recent past, when everyday new events occur that are equally important. I have so much preparation to do. How should I find the time to write? I don't like to leave written traces when I'm still searching for the right answer. Why should I spent the time on writing when I can tell it in our next meeting. etc.
(In case you have other excuses I am interested to know them;-)

How can we get past this obstacle? It's not easy, I know it by experience. Let's do it step by step.

First step:
What I say is not: Write down your reflections!
I say : Reflect by writing down your thoughts on your teaching!
What's the difference? Well, you don't need to know in detail what your writing will be about. Whatever comes to your mind is perfect to start from. You don't even need to start with a good question. Often the good questions emerge during writing or only at the end.
Your reflections will take shape during the writing process, trust me. There is no need for having thought out beforehand where to start or to end and what should happen in between. Don't think about details and depth. In short, don't reflect to much before you've started to write. Both are closely connected.
What happened today? Can you think of a specific situation, one child? Was there something you didn't feel comfortable with or something you would like to improve? Is a specific student's behaviour a mystery to you? Was their a conflict difficult to handle, maybe with parents or your principle? Have you been bored by a task, one that you repeat continuously because you think you have to, without being convinced that it's useful?
I am sure you can find something. Sit down at the computer or take a pen and give it a try. A few sentences or one hundred - it doesn't matter. What comes out comes out.

Second step:
What should you do with your writing? You should share it with somebody. Do it as soon as possible. Do it before you've thought it over and over and before you consider deleting the file. Who should you share it with? It can be another teacher or anybody else who could be interested; a parent, your students, your principal, your daughter or son, your grandma, ...
The easiest would be to share it with your students of course. But if you don't feel comfortable with that idea and if you can't think of anybody who maybe interested in your writing, post it here, or send me an email (fr, en, de, lu).
Whoever your conversational partner will be, you will probably get some reaction in return, maybe even a good question. Don't expect to much. It's not that important how much reaction you get. What counts is your effort to write and to share.

Third step:

After having shared your writing with somebody, go back to your text and develop one aspect of it. Or if another subjects turns up keep the first one, add the reactions you got as a comment and a short description of the sharing situation, and continue with the new subject.

Next steps:
Is there a fourth and a fifth step? Yes, of course but it depends on what you have written about and on the reactions you got, and on your reaction to the reactions you got. We'll think about that when you've done the first steps.

That's it for today. I wish you an inspiring quest.
May the courage and passion be with you!

This post has largely been inspired by recent meetings with teachers and the connections I made with some (re)readings like : On Listening to What Children Say, by Vivian Gussin Paley and A Teacher's Quest for a Child's Questions, by Kathe Jervis both published in Teachers, Teaching, & Teaching Education, Ed. M. Okazawa-Rey, J. Anderson, R. Traver.

To finish this post, here's a quote by V. G. Paley: "The act of teaching became a daily search for the child's point of view accompanied by the sometimes unwelcome disclosure of my hidden attitudes. The search was what mattered - only later did someone tell me it was research - and it provided an open-ended script from which to observe, interpret, and integrate the living drama of the classroom." in On Listening to What Children Say.


  1. Your first step reminds me the technique of freewriting and sounds interesting to me. The second step however seems to be more difficult to achieve, especially as the following steps only can take place if there is a feedback from another person. If this interest fades too soon, or even if there is no feedback at all, I think that writing down thoughts on teaching will not take you further in your reflection process than thinking without media does e.g. while you are walking through nature.

  2. What is the main difficulty with the second step? I think it's the courage that you have to bring up to share something personal or something that is not "perfect" or both. Especially for teachers this is not easy.
    I have have always experienced that students show respect and interest if you share your writing with them, because they feel respected in return.

    And as I wrote, somebody who reads my post and needs some help could sent his written reflections to me or anybody else he or she is willing to trust.

  3. A couple of days ago I received an e-mail from a fellow teacher who complained justifiably about a political issue regarding education in Luxembourg. Because I felt like entering a discussion about this as I shared his point of view I answered immediately writing down my thoughts spontaneously in an e-mail response. Guess what I received one or two days later? -"Wow, much text. I think I'll better answer orally..." was the first sentence of my friend's reply.

    I have to admit that in my answer it was me who had proposed to meet him in real life to discuss this topic in detail, but the result of it all was that steps three, four, etc. will only take place a couple of weeks later in a bar (I hope ;) ).

    OK, this seems not to be the kind of situation you suggest to start from as it is more on a meta-level and not directly related to things that happened that morning in our classroom, but still...

    The experience I'm facing all the time is that it seems to be more and more common to use web-(2.0)-technologies to communicate on a private level even with your colleagues, but when it comes to using these media on a professional level there seems to be a certain reluctance. Perhaps it is the fear that everything you produce online will be saved somewhere, perhaps it is the time you have to put in it, that keep teachers from using these tools, I don't know.

  4. I also firmly believe the second step to be essential for enhancing the precision of initial thoughts. It makes sure that you come closer to what you really like to put forward as your position on a subject which - at least in pedagogical discourse - all too often comes close to a moving target. The second step is also essential for establishing a common ground on a topic in an educational community, a point that is essential as you can notive in many moderated or unmmoderated discussion threads on the Net. Sharing professional concerns, beliefs, assumptions with his/her sudents might also provide a unique opportunity for testing their initial validity and I share with Pino the belief that this should be the first step every teacher should take, for how can he/she step out into the world if he/se is not able to manage a community life in the small community that has been entrusted to him.
    As for the oracy/literacy debate I believe that both dimensions of discourse must be accorded equal opportunities so that they can both permeate each other and enhance the power of each.


Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain