In today’s post, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Erik Blair considers reflective practice in Higher Education.

The trouble with doing stuff is twofold. First of all, whatever stuff you plan to do is much more achievable if you feel that there is going to be a positive outcome. Secondly, it is much more likely that you will be successful if you choose to do easy stuff.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t attempt to do difficult and/or pointless stuff, it’s just that doing hard stuff can be a real effort and sometimes we might want some easy wins. Here, I’d like to talk about a straightforward way of enhancing teaching practice – ‘everyday reflective practice’ (don’t bother Googling the term, you are hearing it here first).

The concept of reflective practice has been around for a long time and finds its roots in the work of Donald Schön. For Schön, reflection is an explicit and conscious analysis of practice in an attempt to understand what is currently happening and how it can be improved. Schön’s (1987) work is the cornerstone of reflective practice but it isn’t necessarily an easy read and he doesn’t really offer much guidance about how we might actually go about being reflective practitioners. For a more accessible introduction I would recommend Jennifer Moon’s ‘Reflection in learning and professional development’ (2013).

Since the introduction of the concept, there have been many proposals about how reflective practice can be enacted in Higher Education so as to enhance teaching practice: Boud (2001) suggests using journal writing; Williams and Jacobs (2004) suggest reflection through blogs, and Ryan (2010) recommends adopting systematic reflective writing practices. The trouble with these various approaches is that they involve doing stuff that is not central to everyday teaching practice. A model of everyday reflective practice is more likely to be successful if it has a close and clear connection with what happens in the classroom and seems to be do-able within the confines of the teaching/learning environment.

In teaching and in research I tend to ask two questions: “What?” and “So what?” The first of these seeks to discover what is happening, while the second looks for possible impact. I have found the beauty of these questions is their simplicity and portability. After a heated meeting I can walk away asking myself, “What happened there?” and “What am I going to do about it?” After reading a journal article I can think to myself, “What are the key messages?” and “How do these translate to my world?” And, after a successful class, I can reflect on what made it successful and how I can maximise this in future. (Likewise I can reflect upon a class that was not so successful). So, for me, the start of everyday reflective practice involves asking myself these two questions.

From this simple beginning I then reflect on four specific areas drawn from the work of Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues: the cognitive domain; the psychomotor domain; the affective domain, and the conative domain (see Blair, 2011; Blair and Deacon, 2015). In other words, I reflect on the content of the session and how well it was taught and learnt; I reflect upon my movement through the teaching environment and the body language of my students; I reflect on the relationships I have with my students and their interaction in the classroom, and lastly, I reflect upon the effort that I put in to my teaching and the effort that I feel they put into their learning. Figure 1 shows some simple “What?” and “So what?” questions that can be asked in relation to these four domains.

educational domains diagram
Figure 1: Reflecting against four educational domains

Everyday reflective practice is a tool for identifying areas of achievable change. The next step would be to enact this change. If we keep our targets focussed and limited to the next teaching session (as opposed to grand targets that seek to make fundamental long-term changes) then we are more likely to implement them. Instead of seeing the development of teaching as a revolution, everyday reflective practice see it as evolution with small, implementable steps. In becoming an everyday reflective practitioner, you needn’t start with reflection against the four domains outlined above, you could start with my two key questions: “What?” and “So what?” Ask these questions after every session and make small changes in response to them. Then, as your practice develops, you could start adding to the process by reflecting on one or two domains. Over time you can draw in the other domains until you find yourself automatically reflecting and refining your teaching practice from a number of perspectives. In education, as in life, there is a lot of stuff that needs to be done and some of that stuff is tricky to do. Everyday reflective practice hopes to be straightforward and unencumbered – freeing up time for other, more onerous, tasks, while slowly and purposefully enhancing the quality of our teaching.

 

References

Blair, E. (2011) Balanced reflection as a means of practitioner development in the post‐compulsory education and training sector. Research in Post‐Compulsory Education, 16(2), pp.249-261.

Blair, E. & Deacon, A. (2015) A holistic approach to fieldwork through balanced reflective practice. Reflective Practice, 16(3), pp.418-434.

Boud, D. (2001) Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New directions for adult and continuing education, 90, pp.9-18.

Moon, J.A. (2013) Reflection in learning and professional development: Theory and practice. Routledge.

Ryan, M. (2011) Improving reflective writing in higher education: A social semiotic perspective. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(1), pp.99-111.

Schön, D.A. (1987) Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. Jossey-Bass.

Williams, J.B. & Jacobs, J.S. (2004) Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian journal of educational technology, 20(2), pp.232-247.

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