The Reflective Practice of Teaching
As a teacher, I cannot imagine not reflecting as a regular part of my teaching practice.
Part of this is because, as a shy person who was also an extravert, I had to think about how to interact with other people. I would even as a child take time to step back and reflect—What had I done and why? Had it achieved what I wanted? Why or why not? Was what I wanted an appropriate goal?
From this I began to learn that reflecting after the fact was insufficient: I needed to think about the "why" before I did an action, and to some degree I needed to be able to be metacognitive, that is, to be able to observe and reflect even as I was acting and speaking, to take in and process visual and auditory cues, such as tone of voice and body language.
I was fortunate that, when relatively late in life I decided to become a school teacher, I wound up in a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program at Johns Hopkins University, which required that we reflect constantly, in all of our courses. Recently I had occasion to clean out some of the accumulated boxes and folders of papers of a lifetime (I am now 67 and we were literally running out of space in our basement). Forty-year-old financial records are no longer necessary, nor are teaching materials more than 10 years old. In the process, I reencountered many papers I had written in the MAT program, as well as all of the notebooks I have kept since I was 15. In a few cases, I was able to match up notebooks written at the same time as papers and reflections for my MAT. It was interesting to see how each fueled the other.
Certainly when we plan, we who teach are thinking about what we hope to achieve. But we need to go beyond that. We need to think about why we teach. As I learned in my teacher training, "because it is in the curriculum" is an insufficient answer, and as a teacher of social studies, this reasoning will not enable me to connect the material with students in a class merely because it is a requirement for graduation.
Why is it important? Why should it matter to the students? I remember experiencing this when my mentor at Hopkins observed my student teaching as I introduced a unit on Vietnam to 10th graders. I had not thought about that question and also was not paying close enough attention to realize that one of my students had said quietly that her grandfather had served there. I had barely considered that some students would have parents or aunts and uncles who might have been there at that time. I had not considered the previous generation, and what that fact could mean in helping students in their early teens to connect with one of the most disruptive, and thus transformational, periods of American history.
My mentor and I spoke after that lesson. I grasped the importance and was at least partially able to recover by changing my plans for a subsequent lesson and instead used music of the period to help the students connect with it.
Reflection as Practice
I am a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) in social studies. One essential part of the NBCT process is reflection. There are Five Core Propositions to the National Board Certification process, of which the fourth is "teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience." The third bullet point under this proposition says of NBCTs that "[t]hey critically examine their practice on a regular basis to deepen knowledge, expand their repertoire of skills, and incorporate new findings into their practice." Part of the first of those bullet points says "they read, they question, they create, and they are willing to try new things."
But consider also the texts of two other of the Core Propositions:
Proposition 2: Teachers Know the Subjects They Teach and How to Teach Those Subjects to Students.
Proposition 3: Teachers are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning.
Combining all of these together, along with a knowledge of the students one teaches and a commitment to their learning, one quality expected of an NBCT is reflection—evaluating what has worked and what has not, using the information from formal and informal assessment. That is why NBCTs question, why they try new things. "They critically examine their practice," hopefully even as they are performing it. This is a necessary reflective practice of a teacher who is serving the needs of the students. As "members of learning communities" (Proposition 5) teachers are themselves learners, undergoing professional development and participation in professional organizations.
In addressing this proposition, it is insufficient merely to list professional achievements without in some way demonstrating how they help the students to learn. As a result, before embarking on a particular professional development experience, or attending a specific course or conference, I ask myself what I hope to gain from this (beyond the requirements of continuing education for maintaining certification). Even once I decide to participate, it shapes how I participate—is it furthering my original intent in embarking on this particular path? If not, is it possible that I have discovered something I might not have considered that is still of value, which justifies my changing how I approach that course or conference?
This actually relates to teaching and metacognition. I was lucky early in my teaching career to have something unusual happen. I had asked a question and the answer given by the student was so far from anything I might have expected it almost forced me stop and ask why she had given that answer. From that I realized the importance of letting the student explain answers, right or wrong, especially wrong (something not encouraged by our heavy reliance upon multiple-choice questions as a primary means of assessment). A "wrong" answer could happen because the student is merely guessing. It could be she misunderstood the question, so that by restating the question she has an opportunity to demonstrate correct understanding. It also could be that the question is misleading, which also requires a restatement of the question. If the student still does not get it, then it is time to see if another student can correctly answer, being sure to return to the student who got it wrong to see if she can now get it correct.
But what happened on this occasion was something very different. The reasoning the young lady gave for what I first evaluated as an incorrect answer demonstrated a way of thinking, of looking at the problem, that I had never considered. That became the most important learning moment of that class.
By reflecting upon that experience, I have learned to allow for such possibilities, to try to balance the need to move on for the benefit of those students who are grasping the material to providing the opportunity for explanation and self-correction.
Reflection During Practice
It is often hard with all the other responsibilities teachers have to reflect upon how a lesson or exercise or test went compared to what one expected, but it is critical. If something has not gone as expected, I want to ponder why, so that I do not make the same mistake again. Sometimes I cannot wait until the end of the school day—if there is a problem, something misleading or counterproductive, do not I owe it to the students yet to be in my room for that prep to address it before they come in? This is why I find no matter how involved I may be in a lesson, I have to keep a part of myself outside, observing, reflecting even as I go.
Or to put it another way, one of the greatest pieces of teaching advice I have ever encountered was from an assistant superintendent explaining why we always needed to have at least the outline of a plan B for every lesson: "If the horse you are riding has died, beating it will not make it go any faster." If a lesson is not working, trying to force one's way through is a waste of time. I at least need to make adjustments on the spot. I may even with my high school students solicit their input. Sometimes it is something entirely outside the classroom or the school that is interfering with how they respond to the material or to me. Sometimes I may not realize how what I am saying or doing is counterproductive. Since I do not view my teaching as peeling back their scalps and pouring in information (what Freire rightly derides as the "banking model of education"), they are equally participants with me in their learning and we may need to reflect together on why some things work and others don't.
One possible outcome of a reflection is the recognition that I may have done harm. Or that I have allowed my own sense of injury to shut me off from recognizing what I need to do. Then I remember a line from the Sufi mystic Rumi: "The wound is the place where the Light enters you." Reflection helps me use my own weakness, and also enables me at times to see how to reach my students through their woundedness.
I am also reminded of the words from Henry Adams: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."
Certainly I would like to hope that my influence is positive, contributing to the learning and growth of that student. If I ponder those words from Adams, I realize that if I act or speak in an unreflective manner I may turn off students, or interfere with their ability or willingness to engage with a particular topic.
Much of our current national approach to education seeks to have us focus on certain goals without necessarily having the discussion of why those goals and not others. We are goal oriented as a society, and we want measurable results. I do not deny the value of being able to measure where it makes sense. I also recognize that merely because I can quantify one aspect of my teaching practice or of my students' learning does not necessarily make it of greater importance than those things not as easily quantifiable. There is great value in qualitative evaluation as well. Before embarking on any assessment, do we not have to ask what we are trying to determine by that assessment, and why? Is it in conformity with how we have instructed and supported our students?
To reflect for a moment on what I have just offered, does not that indicate to us that before we begin to instruct we consider how we propose to evaluate both our own instruction and our students' learning. Remember, being two separate things, they may require different evaluations.
Relationship of Reflection
For me, teaching has always been a matter of relationship. It is not only between my students and me, but my students with each other, and all of us with the material we study together. How we relate influences how they learn and how I instruct. I cannot make assumptions, because students are individuals, and the makeup of a class and the time of day it occurs also influences learning and teaching. If I do not pay attention to this, am I properly preparing for my responsibility to my students, my profession, myself?
Reflection involves questions. We cannot be afraid of the questions.
Reflection involves examining how we attempt to answer those questions.
Reflection requires honesty.
Reflection and honesty demand humility.
If we are honest in our reflection, we will recognize moments of success, but also moments lacking success.
As teachers, we should be encouraging our students to take ownership of their own learning. That will require them to reflect, to be honest in their self-examination. That does not mean we do not risk. It does mean we learn how to risk appropriately, and how to learn from our mistakes.
In the relationship of teaching as I understand it, I am a colearner with my students, and I must model for them what I want them to do. That includes the humility that comes from being reflective, from acknowledging that one does not have all the answers, which is why our learning is an ongoing process, even after we have taught for several decades.
I cannot imagine teaching without reflection. But then, at least for me, I cannot imagine living without reflection. What about you?
Kenneth Bernstein is nationally known for his writing about education, both online and in print, as @teacherken and under his own name. He was a 2009–2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher who decided to retire in June 2012 after 17 years of teaching Secondary social studies. He was asked to fill in at a high-needs middle school in Washington, D.C., which reignited his passion to make a difference in the lives of adolescents. In the fall, he will be teaching AP U.S. Government and Politics and several courses in the STEM program (policy, media, and research) at a high school in Anne Arundel County, Md., a position he hopes to do as long as he can be productive.