by Eleanor Papazoglou
A Tenuous Assumption
After many years as a teaching lecturer in the College of Graduate Studies at Plymouth State University, I believe there is a tenuous assumption that graduate students and teacher educators have a common understanding of what it means to be reflective. Reflection is a built-in component in the resources we use, the tasks we assign, and the discussions we have. These are some of the terms I’ve come across: “habits of reflective practice,” “developing a capacity for professional reflection,” “pause and ponder,” “reflection journals,” and “thoughtful professional reflection.” I believe it is time teacher educators examine why we ask our students to reflect and what we value in this process.
As I read written reflections from practicing teachers and graduate students, their presentations offer evidence that they interpret reflective writing as a way to summarize someone else’s ideas rather than a way to live and learn in their own experiences. In a simple analysis of the language in student reflections, action plans, research, and inquiries, all things seem equally important and equally unimportant. They know what ought to be done or what someone has determined should be done. They know what resources to use to find out how, yet they don’t know what they believe or what principles guide why they do what they do. They use phrases like “keys to good teaching,” “do a better job at—,” “gave me lots of ideas,” and “constantly looking for more efficient, accurate, and informative ways.” Or statements like “I am pleased to realize how our current reading program…meets the current trends,” “Why would I think of disagreeing with or challenging a ‘research-based’ program?” “Chapter 30 provided many practical ways to—,” “I guess the answer lies in—.”
These reflections are about what happened, not why; what practice is, not what it is for; finding an answer, rather than looking for possibilities. When teachers look outside themselves for answers to the realities of teaching, it raises a concern about the way “reflection” is used in our teacher preparation programs and our graduate studies. I simply believe, as experienced educator and renowned author Debbie Miller (2008) states, “Teachers are looking outside themselves for answers, when most of them are already inside them” (p. 52).
I believe looking at ideas for one’s own benefit inspires learners to search for the ideas worth fighting for. I believe intentional examination provides an opportunity for learners to extract values that confirm instincts about why their ideas are worthy and matter. I believe this way of thinking is a metacognitive dimension of reflection, where the primary source for creating one’s guiding tenets resides in the wisdom of practice.
I believe reflective practices, left unguided, merely become thoughtful actions, slogans, or simple clichés of how teaching ought to happen. My concern as a facilitator in the development of leadership capacity and educational change is finding ways to guide graduate students through a thinking process where they figure out why an idea matters, why it has value for them, and why they trust it. Carefully reading written reflections from graduate students challenged my “stock of old opinions” about reflection. Through their voices I saw the ambiguities in the concept of reflective practice. I realized generic approaches to reflective practice simply allow students to amass a repertoire of skills to apply in a relatively unvaried manner. The elusive truths underlying reflection created a cognitive dissonance calling for me to reconstruct learning environments for teachers—environments that invite them to share lived experiences from the classroom and that offer support for teaching them how to be reflective; learning environments to teach them what reflection looks like, sounds like, and feels like; learning environments where they understand reflection is neither constant nor certain. The intent of this message is to challenge teacher educators to move beyond the seemingly simplistic phrases “reflective teacher” and “reflective practices” in order to explore ways to teach a learner to ask why a situation “talks to you.”
Teacher Educator Insights
Over the course of this journey, I modified my graduate courses to explore a more metacognitive dimension of reflection. I examined ways to guide learners through a process of thinking how to reframe, re-create, reimagine, and reconsider what they already know about learning and teaching. What became apparent was a notion that explicit instruction in reflective practice is far more productive than merely advocating reflective practice. What became clearer was the art of principled practice lives in the wisdom of experience, alive in the decision-making, knowledge creation, values, and practicalities in the untold stories teachers hold.
My attempts to teach students to reflect resulted in experimenting with many protocols based on scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi’s (Ray, 2008) original concept of tacit knowledge: we know more than we tell, and what we know and tell is fundamental to making our experiences meaningful. The conceptual frameworks for these protocols originated in an enduring belief in the power of “unarticulated knowledge.” This belief set the groundwork to unlock the knowledge teachers hold about education. I believe there is an “interestingness” inside these stories that exposes a wealth of untapped knowledge—a kind of metacognitive thinking embodied in a feeling teachers have about the decisions they make. I believe these stories tell us how teachers live as learners. I believe these stories expose teachers as knowledge creators. And I believe by sharing, rereading, listening to, and examining the principles embedded in these stories, teachers learn how to trust what they know about teaching, learning, and themselves. So I asked teachers to share stories of cognitive dissonance and to exam these stories with colleagues for evidence that modifies an outlook or attitude or for evidence they see a familiar idea from a more enlightening perspective. I asked teachers to consider this quote in Newkirk’s (2015) essay “On the Virtue of Thinking Small: Reclaiming Teacher Research” in relation to the experiential knowledge that informs their teaching.
The evidence that counts for me is immediate: my sense of how things are working in my own classroom.…what haunts me when things are not working, what I celebrate when things are. This is the evidence that matters most. (p. 213)
For the purpose of teaching reflective practice, I asked students to consider these questions: What worked well? What problems did you encounter? How did you solve them? How will this help you with your next lesson? What are you learning that is guiding the decisions you make and the paths you choose in your journey to find better practices? Discussions and written responses focused on lessons learned and principles worth holding on to.
In addition, two other perspectives influenced the path to creating learning environments for teachers that invite them to write candidly about life in the classroom. Both have a common thread. One is Michel de Montaigne’s “circular mode of thought,” examined by Halpin (2015) in essaying and reflective practice in education. It begins with an exploration of a perplexity, continues with an evaluation of one’s own responses to the situation, and, finally, returns to the starting point where a familiar concept is rearranged, reframed, or discarded. The second perspective explores the question, “Can reflective practice be taught?” (Russell, 2005). In an attempt to understand the issue of reflective practice more completely, Russell organizes his argument around three elements: a puzzling event that stimulates reframing a professional situation, experimenting with a new course of action, and deciding why or why not the new course of action is worth holding on to. These two perspectives are the theoretical underpinnings behind the template for reflecting to reframe a literacy dilemma (below). The template asks students to select a literacy topic that is currently creating disequilibrium in their instructional practices. Guided by Newkirk’s quote in Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones (2009), “Teaching, as I see it, is an ongoing series of microexperiments that extend and modify the repertoire of teachers. When we stop experimenting, we stop living as teachers” (p. 31), students research current issues and trends about their topic and create a plan to experiment with changes to current classroom practices. They conclude this research paper with a reflection and analysis on how their thinking about this topic has changed as a result of this inquiry. Finally, they consider what principles are new, which are worth fighting for, and what needs to be reframed or discarded.
Template for Reflecting to Reframe a Literacy Dilemma
Define and Describe a Dilemma
A NARRATIVE IS THE STRUCTURE FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
Consider the following:
- What is not working well in your classroom; where is your “edginess”?
- What are your perceptions of the need for change or adjustments?
- What is working well and what isn’t going so well at this point in time? Alternate between cognitive dissonance and consonance.
Setting the Purpose for the Research
THE REFRAMING LENS – incoherence is troublesome
Consider the following:
- What aspect of this literacy topic do you want to explore at this time?
- What questions will guide your exploration?
- What about this topic do you need to clarify?
Research through a Metacognitive Stance
BUILDING A RESOLUTION THROUGH THE RESEARCH
Consider the following:
- Open yourself to differences; what is different about what you currently think?
- What is valued?
- What are the underlying principles and historical perspectives?
- In what ways have new perspectives challenged previously held beliefs?
The Evolution of Deeper Understandings
THE WHAT IFS …
Consider the following possibilities:
- What if I apply these principles?
- What if I change or modify ?
- What makes these possibilities a better approach to literacy instruction than what I previously thought?
Reflection and Analysis
THE JOURNEY FROM TENSION TO RESOLUTION
“Our best chance to grow, perhaps our only chance, is to travel” (Newkirk, 2014, p. 15).
You didn’t “travel” through the research and delve into this topic to gather bits of information; there is a story connected to the resolutions to your dilemma. Take the reader through the points of clarity. When did you see better and think better about what you are doing?
Consider the following:
- In what ways did you transform your dilemma into a constructive challenge?
- What did you learn from this journey that you could apply to your next learning encounter?
- Why do you believe you can make this happen and that these new perspectives are the better paths to more effective literacy instruction?
Fundamental to the practice of teaching reflection is modeling ways in which actions reveal new ways of seeing life in the classroom, modeling ways to articulate beliefs, and modeling ways to find the enduring understandings embedded in the wisdom of experience. To do this we relied on mentor text to help us understand how authors present
Fundamental to the practice of teaching reflection is modeling ways in which actions reveal new ways of seeing life in the classroom, modeling ways to articulate beliefs, and modeling ways to find the enduring understandings embedded in the wisdom of experience.
their values and beliefs. We analyzed articles, scenarios, and texts in which authors wrote about holding on to good ideas, guiding principles, tenets, and credos. We slowed down our reading to notice how a writer writes about finding ideas that matter, and we highlighted the language of noticing and naming ideas that matter most, e.g.,
- This I believe
- I have begun to understand
- I teach with new insights
- My foundational belief that is essential in reframing my current thinking.
- There is great value in opening your mind to the ideas and thinking of others.
I believe some of the richest experiences in professional growth rise up from a sense of disequilibrium. I believe telling stories of how things are working in the classroom—the challenges and the celebrations—bring a teacher’s attention to ways of thinking about who they are, who they are teaching, and what they believe matters most. I see cognitive dissonance as the path to the development of the teacher as a metacognitive agent. I believe embedded in these stories is research that makes a teacher a knowledge creator rather than a consumer of someone else’s ideas.
By working together to unpack the layers of reflective thinking, we dedicated discussions to acts of reflection where analyzing dilemmas gave the practicalities of the classroom new meaning, where solving problems was seen as an opportunity for growth, and where seeing oneself as a success implied more than learning the “right way” to teach. The art of thinking shifted from talking about or writing about doing things well or describing best practices to “reflecting on what’s inside you,” as one student commented. Following are some examples from student reflections:
- As with any profound change, shifting teacher language begins with small changes; however, teachers may also undergo a more fundamental transformation of the “heart and mind.”
- The coaching time reminded me of how much I truly value intentional collaboration with my colleagues. There’s always a new perspective or lens offered, and by simply talking through a process of implementation, I always find myself thinking of new ways to approach a task or new ideas to reinvigorate an old practice.
- I appreciated how this experience afforded me the opportunity to hold a mirror to my own practices and beliefs while challenging me to find new ways to explain my beliefs and practices and adjust those to work for a different teaching style and different age group.
- In thinking about how I have changed and how my thinking has changed, I took time to reflect on my own teaching style…I first asked myself the question, What kind of teacher do I see myself as?
In these examples, the skepticism of outside sources is replaced by a confidence in giving voice to the wisdom of experience. There is a trust in whom they believe they are and what they value. The language in their reflections captures what they know and believe. Personal and professional experiences provide a more realistic picture of the knowledge they hold, including new ways of seeing familiar ideas. The language of reflection captures a mindset of growth and continuity—a mindset that keeps a teacher learning and growing, and a learner teaching.
The elusive truths underlying reflection as an intentional search for what matters most bring many insights to the forefront of teacher education—new dimensions in the reflective process, modification of course requirements, new perspectives on teachers as knowledge creators, and a reconceptualization of academic research and teacher research. This is an intentional examination of the wisdom imbedded in the language of teachers sharing how they think and learn over a course of study. And yet, the development of reflective practice does not happen in one course, nor will it necessarily be sustained after one course. The journey of this investigation began with observations of graduate students and traversed a landscape of learning experiences where every act of reflection presented unique situations for the learner.
This journey is neither comprehensive nor conclusive, but it does provide insights beyond what has already been interpreted. It is a contribution to a more defined and cultivated notion of reflection and expands the parameters around reflective practice and its potential function in developing more thoughtful teachers and leaders. The field of contemporary education needs the voice of the teacher not as a technician, but as a thoughtful learner who recognizes that each encounter with learning generates meaning for successive encounters. The experiences teachers bring to their graduate studies represent many ways of knowing. Learners who engage in reflective moments about their belief systems are at their best. They come into their unique way of knowing through a variety of transacted learning experiences and they begin to develop a capacity to make the necessary transformations required for living a life of learning.
Eleanor Papazoglou is a Teaching Lecturer in the Educational Leadership, Learning and Curriculum Department at Plymouth State University, a literacy consultant at various schools throughout New Hampshire, and a literacy consultant for the Learning Through Teaching Program in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire.
Halpin, D. (2015). Essaying and reflective practice in education: The legacy of Michel de Montaigne. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(1), 129–141.
Miller, D. (2008). Teaching with intention: Defining beliefs, aligning practice, taking action, K–5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Newkirk, T. (2009). Holding on to good ideas in a time of bad ones: Six literacy principles worth fighting for. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Newkirk, T. (2014). Minds made for stories: How we really read and write informational and persuasive texts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Newkirk, T. (2015). On the virtue of thinking small: Reclaiming teacher research. In M. Glover & E. O. Keene (Eds.), The teacher you want to be: Essays about children, learning, and teaching (pp. 210–223). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Ray, T. (2008). Rethinking Michael Polanyi’s realism: From personal knowledge to intersubjectively viable communication. Prometheus, 26(3), 241–257. doi:10.1080/08109020802270208.
Russell, T. (2005). Can reflective practice be taught? Reflective Practice, 6(2), 199-204.