How Reflection Can Help Teachers Become More Effective

Designing an Effective Training Program November 14, 2016

Research indicates that critical reflection makes a significant impact on a teacher’s knowledge, skills, and effectiveness (Brookfield 2004; Cranton, 1996; Willis, 1999).  The skills of critical reflection now form the underpinnings of most teacher education programs internationally (Clarke & Otaky, 2006).  Cranton (1996) argued the process of critical reflection allows individuals to identify and locate the origins of assumptions that guide their actions, and consider alternative ways of acting. Critically reflective teachers are better able to question assumptions and develop new perspectives toward understanding culture and complex aspects of teaching. Teachers must also reflect emotionally and cognitively to develop and improve. This affective element demonstrates that reflection is a complex process that requires time to integrate successfully. On the teaching of young children, Anderson (2014) wrote:

… educators come to new understandings…. Using a critical lens, our existing values and beliefs, theories, and epistemologies… can be transformed… reflective practice provides a new opportunity to re-form our pedagogy and increase our professional capacity…. To transform early childhood education, we need to better recognize the possibilities in ourselves and begin to take action. (p. 81).

Brookfield (1988, 1995) identified four types of analysis in critical reflection. First, assumption analysis challenges a teacher’s beliefs, values, cultural practices, and social structures; it comprises three types: paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal assumptions.  Second, contextual awareness supports a teacher’s awareness that their assumptions are socially and personally constructed. Third, through imaginative speculation teachers develop alternative thinking to find better ways of doing things. Finally, reflective skepticism elicits questioning of assumptions taken-for-granted. This type of critical reflection is a foundation for transformative learning leading to new understandings and actions (Mezirow, 1990). 

Research recently conducted by myself and colleagues (in press) included interviews with 62 Qatari teachers intended to clarify their understandings of reflective practice both in knowledge and application. Focus group data revealed that the teachers primarily limited their reflection to a technical level. But conversations with teachers revealed that some moved toward critical reflection, engaging in assumption analysis. By acknowledging that culture and educational structure played a role in the ability to implement change, teachers were reflecting critically by identifying causal assumptions. When they described “what ought to be” happening in their classrooms, they were expressing prescriptive assumptions

There is not much (though some) evidence that teachers have developed a conscious awareness that their assumptions are socially and personally constructed (contextual awareness). By suggesting alternative thinking to find better ways of doing things, teachers could provide some evidence of imaginative speculation. But this was limited to their individual classrooms. They seldom considered or questioned social, cultural, and educational structures. While teachers could make assumptions about colleagues’ resistance to change, there was scant evidence that teachers challenged their own assumptions (reflective skepticism). Overall, the teachers did engage in reflection, and a few occasionally moved toward the more complex critical reflection Brookfield described. Such reflection, however, did not seem to come from conscious effort, but reflected a low level of self-awareness among teachers of their own critical reflection. 

If we want teachers to be critically reflective, they must be taught the concepts and skills, and to have meaningful opportunities to reflect. Most important, they must be empowered to extend their critical reflection into a process of actively exploring change in the classroom and in the education system.  The most productive critical reflection makes teachers’ personal assumptions explicit, and enables them to challenge those assumptions in the unique context in which they teach. To do this, one must gain awareness of the cognitive process of reflection and the affective influences on one’s thoughts and actions. 

Reflective teachers can discover many ways of developing less teacher-directed practices that encourage students themselves to both frame and to solve problems.  Here is an example. A mathematics education professor was disappointed by many textbook driven lessons she observed. The teachers said the need to meet prescribed lesson outcomes inhibited reflection. She collaborated with a teacher of five year-olds, and they decided the students themselves should direct the learning of the next topic, linear measurement.  The approach was to elicit questions from the children, and then have them find answers to their questions. 

On the classroom floor they outlined a shape (a few metres long); the teacher made no remark about it to the children.  At first sight, children talked about the shape, walked in, outside and around it, and on the third day, some sat inside it.  Some said it might be a canoe.  On the fourth day the teacher asked the students what they thought the shape might represent.  Most said it resembled a canoe.  The teacher asked if they had questions about it. The questions were varied, and many related to mathematics, such as how long and wide the canoe was. The students investigated these linear concepts. They both formally and informally estimated, measured, and used fractional numbers. 

Reflecting on the project, the teacher realized that the role of a teacher is to guide, encourage, occasionally redirect, and importantly, listen carefully as the children shared ideas.  Other teachers became interested and used the approach in other curricular areas, particularly science.  They reflected and shared ideas.  Did the students answer their own questions?  Did they have fun? Were the ‘intended’ mathematics concepts addressed?  Yes.  Did the mathematics learned come directly from a textbook?  No.  As the teacher noted, “Being a committed teacher means you are open to changing the way you teach, and to improve the way you teach takes a commitment to engage in reflective practice.”

Critical reflection helps teachers grasp the complexity of their actions and to improve future actions. The most effective teachers are those who reflect continuously to make meaning from any teaching situation.


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  • Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood, In J. Mezirow, J., and Associates (eds.). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood, (pp. 1-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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