Do We Evaluate Reflective Practice? First Define It

By Kelly Morris Roberts, Ph.D.


Kelly Morris Roberts

Good teachers reflect on practice. Ask any teacher, school administrator or department head, and he or she will not only affirm that statement but also will confirm that teacher evaluation instruments these days are replete with references to teacher reflection. As a new superintendent, knowing the basics of teacher reflection is vital; the problem with knowing the basics, ironically, has been framing those basics and then recognizing how we can encourage reflection of the caliber to transform practice. Many in the field of teacher reflection have long mourned that “one of the most notable limitations of this emerging literature on reflective practice is its ahistorical nature ... The historical amnesia with regard to reflective practice has contributed greatly to the lack of clarity about the theoretical and political commitments underlying specific proposals of reform” (Zeichner, 1994, p. 14). In an effort to curve this historical amnesia-and to know what we mean by reflection deeply enough to lead in this area—perhaps we must do the simple task of defining its basic tenets cogently yet broadly enough for the challenges of twenty-first century teaching. With a historically-based definition in mind, superintendents are better equipped both to discuss these tenets concisely and clearly and then to set up the conditions for truly reflective practice. Put simply, in order for us to see growth in teacher reflection and self-assessment, we have first to define it well for ourselves and others; this article attempts to get us started.

Defining Reflection

A Voicing in an Attempt to Come to Know
What seems fundamental in the historical and philosophical underpinnings of reflection—roots that are traced back to progressive philosopher and educator John Dewey—is that reflection is if nothing else an attempt to come to know a situation better. As such, it produces internal authority. Reflection then becomes the foundation for the most critical factor in learning: a voicing in an attempt to come to know. By “voicing,” we mean essentially an articulation, whether in speech or in writing, of teachers’ ideas, experiences, or emotions on the topic or event under consideration. This voicing reminds us of Belenkey et al (1986), whose work in Women’s Ways of Knowing highlights a reclamation of authoritative voice—or constructed knowledge from internal sources rather than external. This voicing is a first step to coming to know in any realm, and teaching is no different.

In this voicing, effective reflection also rejects the certainty and pinning down of “truth” that an education ruled by reason has for so long tried to instill. Dewey (1933) defines the reflection he seeks as “1) a state of doubt, hesitation, perplexity, mental difficulty, in which thinking originates and 2) an act of searching, hunting, inquiring” (p. 12). Teachers must be “willing to endure the suspense and to undergo the trouble of searching” (p. 16) because such doubting involves vigorous expenditures of time and energy: “Doubt takes the form of dispute, controversy; different sides compete for a conclusion in their favor” (Dewey, 1910, p. 102). Recognizing the uncertainty and conflictual nature of the world, Dewey (1910) exhorts us to not only allow but also encourage teachers to take the space they need to hesitate, doubt, and grapple with the thoughts and emotions involved in their educational experiences—in short, to reflect.

A Re-visioning that Encourages Renewed Courses of Action
Incorporated in Dewey’s (1910) idea of hesitation is a quality of pausing and looking back. More than just a passive doubting or revisiting, this backward glance causes teachers to rethink what they have done before and shape it differently. According to Dewey (1910), teachers who reflect start with a problem, and the “demand for a solution is the steadying and guiding factor . . . The need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry taken” (p. 11). Regardless of the kind of inquiry, there is always a suspension in action while the teacher seeks new information: “To turn the thing over in the mind, to reflect, means to hunt for additional evidence, for new data, that will develop the suggestion, and will either, as we say, bear it out or else make obvious its absurdity and irrelevance” (Dewey, 1910, p. 13). While human nature would prefer a plausible solution that could put the matter to rest as easily as possible, Dewey’s insistence on suspension and deliberate hesitation demands more "because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance” (Hankes, 1996, p. 7). Reflective thought is necessary if for no other reason than “because it emancipates us from merely impulsive and merely routine activity . . . [and] enables us to direct our activities with foresight and to plan according to ends-in-view, or purposes of which we are aware . . . to act in deliberate and intentional fashion . . . to know what we are about when we act. It converts action that is merely appetitive, blind, and impulsive into intelligent action” (Dewey, 1910, p. 17). Such a capacity for intelligent action is acquired only through the cyclical, earnest process of action-revision-action.

A Connection through Community
Some in education view reflection as yet another activity that teachers perform in isolation. Those committed to the origins of reflection and to its transformative potential, however, see it differently: “since people cannot be islands unto themselves, any psychological reflection that does not lead us outward, into the world, and that does not help us connect ‘inner’ states with ‘outer’ realities, is at best partial, at worst narcissistic” (Beyer, 1991, p. 115). The explanation to others, then, even in a profession characterized by isolation is essential (see Grumet, 1988; Rogers and Babinski, 2002).
Any value gained in reflection seems to rely on the back-and-forth, dialogic nature of learning, the result of which is the establishment of community. In their work with new teacher groups, Rogers and Babinski (2002) establish just such communities that move teachers from isolation to conversation. Many others working in fields that involve reflection in educational practices also see the importance of collaboration and sharing reflection in a trusted community in order to produce a higher quality, more meaningful reflection that actually builds community or at least a contact zone for students and their teachers (Lyons, 1998; Potts et al, 2000; Tom, 1985; Valli, 1990; Wolfe et al, 1997; Yancey & Weiser, 1997; Zeichner & Wray, 2001).

Reflective communities practiced this way bolster not only support within the teaching profession but also knowledge construction about teaching. With the legitimacy of narrative inquiry into teaching practice has also come the legitimacy of teaching communities as sights for professional learning teams (see Danielewicz, 2001; Rogers & Babinski, 2002). Craig and Olson (2002) describe the resultant communities of teachers, communities informed by these theories, as “knowledge communities" where “educators narrate the rawness of their experiences, negotiate meaning, and authorize their own and others’ interpretations of situations. In knowledge communities, the scholarship of reflective teaching is nurtured” (p. 115). Reflection in these communities not only brings teachers out of isolation and into a community of trust and respect; it also serves to educate, creating at least in that circle the possibility for a school culture of reflection where teachers’ knowledge is “confirmed, modified, or stimulated to new levels of understanding by reflecting aloud in groups or with shared journals” (Valli, 1997, p. 86; see also Shulman, 1988).

Encouraging Reflection that Transforms: What can Superintendents Do?
The power of reflection to transform comes when all three dimensions of reflection—reflection as a voicing as a means of knowing, as a re-visioning, and as a connection—are present in reflective activities, attitudes, and dispositions. With such a frame for reflection in mind, we can both encourage and evaluate teachers in this concept with a better-informed, theory-based perspective that seeks to make tacit practices and principles explicit. As superintendents, there are at least three practical steps we can take to set up the conditions for the kind of reflection that incorporates these basic tenets and thus sets the stage for the teachers in our care to reflect more deeply, with more potential for transformation.

First, we can embrace the messiness created by true reflection. Just as Dewey pointed out a hundred years ago, reflection that sounds like a justification for a raise or kudos of some sort leaves little room for transformation. Reflection that acknowledges mistakes, miscommunication, disconnects, and even doubt and uncertainty can take teachers very far, very fast. Teachers need to see models of reflection that acknowledges all the messiness of teaching and the type of reflection in and on action that promotes change (see Schon, 1983; 1987). They need to have their administrators verbalize their support for self-assessment that shows process, progress, and risk-taking—“evidence of a struggle” as Roberta Camp (1992) once quipped. And they need to see administrators praising models that embrace the messiness of reflective activities that come with real transformation for teacher and for classrooms.

Second, we can give it time. Most pre-service teachers with whom I work embrace reflection in their methods and supervisory classes, and they do really deep reflection when given both time to do it as part of their class preparation AND the space to write about all the weaknesses and deep-seated doubts. In a study that followed these teachers through their first year of teaching, however, it became obvious to me that teachers did not take the time they needed to reflect, especially in writing. There are two practical ways we can open up the time and space these teachers need. First, we can educate them to findings that both my research and others confirm, findings that clearly show a gain in transformative behavior and attitudes with only five minutes of reflection each day. If teachers were told that even five minutes of written reflection each day was encouraged and even validated on professional evaluations, I believe many teachers would start the practice tomorrow and see small but significant gains within weeks. A second practical step would be to model the ease and effectiveness of reflection by starting faculty meetings, professional learning teams, or even all-district meetings with just five minutes of focused reflection on a common prompt. Just as we know modeling must be in place for students, so modeling reflective practice—and re-iterating the short, consistent bursts of it as the only requirement—is an effective way to encourage reflection after the school day.

Finally, we can give it value. Of course, talking about reflection and modeling it in our daily communication will go a long way toward making reflective practice part of your district’s culture. In a real sense, time spent in reflecting and building community through reflection does indeed give it value. Nevertheless, as a new superintendent you have an incredible opportunity to weave reflective practice into the culture and codes of your district by valuing written reflection as part of a teacher’s professional development. Of course, the simplest way to do that is to add reflective journals to the list of accepted professional development strategies that a teacher may use for a professional development plan. In addition, you can offer support for reflection by using staff development afternoons/workdays to hold workshops on reflective practice at all levels. Because many states evaluate reflective practice on their teacher appraisal instruments, it is essential that teachers be provided quality training in this area if it is indeed to be an expectation. Local universities may provide such training through teacher education programs, and administrators can sometimes hire those teacher educators as local consultants. A third practical way to communicate your value of reflection is to allow teachers to form professional learning teams—what Craig and Olson (2002) have called “knowledge communities”—to discuss their reflections and formulate solutions for change. Those teams will eventually be well-equipped to be the master teachers, mentors, and trainers you can enlist to spread the value of reflection to other parts of the school and district.

Teacher reflection: often referenced, more often evaluated, rarely understood. To combat this trend—and, more importantly, to tap into the transformation that the simple act of reflection can bring—superintendents have the power to communicate what effective reflection is, to keep it rooted in the tenets above so that teachers can draw on the evolution of a concept that has served education well for a hundred years, and to encourage the growth and transformation that is its most natural of by-products.


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