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Reflection is an integral part of making improvement at anything. In order to become better at anything, we need to be able to learn from both our successes and our failures. A reflective journal is a useful tool to focus our attention on evaluating the successes and shortcomings of our lessons in order to move forward positively.
I am confident that all teachers reflect to some extent on the lessons they teach. This might be on the metro heading home, during a 20 minute break between classes, or at a quiet moment on the weekend. While this reflection is not entirely unhelpful, it is less likely to lead to the informed decisions that will transform our teaching. However, what can lead to this transformation are ways of systematically reflecting on our own performance, such as keeping a reflective journal.
Why Reflect Systematically?
There are many benefits to taking a more systematic attitude towards reflection.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of this process is that teachers develop awareness through reflection. As Thornbury (1991) observed of CELTA trainees who completed reflective journals, teachers tended to pass through four stages of awareness (their self, the subject matter, lesson tasks, the learners and learning). Greater awareness in the classroom can only lead to better decision-making, which is fundamentally what teaching is.
Individualised Professional Development
In addition to greater awareness, reflective journalling can provide an individualised approach to improving as a teacher. I’ve heard many experienced teachers complain that the training workshops at their school do not offer anything new to them, having seen many of the ideas repeated on CELTA and Delta. However, keeping a reflective journal allows a teacher to focus on the issues that are of interest to them. In this sense, it is a very personalised form of professional development. Further, while some training sessions may focus on theory, reflection should lead to ideas that can be instantly implemented into your lessons.
Furthermore, keeping a reflective journal is not limited in any way. You can do this at a time and location to suit making it entirely individualised for you.
Finally, teachers who do reflect in a systematic way are likely to be more employable. This is because they are better able to articulate the lessons they have learnt as a teacher. Being able to tell an interviewer that you recognised an area of teaching to improve, collected your own reflections and then identified and implemented a course of action to redress the issue will serve you very well in teaching interviews.
How to Start a Reflective Journal
In designing our reflective journals, we will use the experiential learning cycle proposed by Kolb (1984):
While you could begin a reflective journal and see what issues arise, if you have any teaching experience (including on a CELTA), you likely have some idea of aspects of your teaching that you would like to improve. Before beginning a reflective journal however, it is worth setting out the parameters of your reflective journal.
Writing detailed reflections on every lesson, from now until forever is unrealistic. Instead I recommend phrasing your parameters within a SMART goal. SMART goals are:
A suitable smart goal therefore is:
To spend twenty minutes reflecting on giving instructions in my adult elementary class for the next six weeks.
The above goal is achievable and realistic because it is specific (instructions, elementary class) and timebound (20 minutes a time, for six weeks).
In this stage, the teacher researches ideas to resolve the problems or issues that they are experiencing in their lessons.
There are a number of ways that you can do this research (it doesn’t have to be reading academic journals – though it could be!):
- talking to more experienced teachers/academic managers;
- reading methodology books;
- attending webinars, seminars, conferences, etc;
- observing another teacher;
- receiving observation feedback.
At this stage you should have several ideas that you can implement.
As with the previous stage, you should be realistic about implementing changes. Trying six new things at once is likely to result in six things not working. For each new idea or technique, try to have at least one lesson with this as the only new idea.
Armed with your new ideas, this stage is about implementing these into the lesson. In other words, this is where you teach and try out your ideas.
Having experimented with your ideas, you can now write up your reflections of your lessons. You should try to do this as soon as possible after the lesson so that your memory is as fresh as possible. It is very helpful if you still have your lesson plan or running order to refer to.
Of course, there are many ways you can structure this, such as answering a set of questions about each lesson. However, I’d recommend setting a time limit (e.g. 20 minutes) and free writing about the lesson. This way your most important thoughts are recorded.
The goal of this activity is not just to be critical of the negative aspects of your lesson, but also to highlight the things that went well. Therefore, don’t forget to write the things that went well, even if the whole lesson seemed to fail.
There is no particular format that you have to follow for this. However, you may like to look at how other people have done this. I would simply advise taking a clean note book or copy book and using a clean page for each lesson.
Repeating the Cycle
Having reflected on a number of lessons, you now return to the stage of abstract conceptualisation. This is the opportunity to review the data you have collected and evaluate the success of the ideas that you tried out.
As a result of this evaluation, you can decide which ideas to keep, which problems or issues have been sufficiently addressed, and what you would like to work on next. If you had ideas that didn’t work, it is also worth questioning why they didn’t work.
Hopefully, the key points you take away from this post are:
– Reflecting on your lessons helps you build greater awareness, allows you to take control of your professional development and helps you to articulate what you know about teaching.
– Reflective journals can start from a SMART goal.
– Researching the issue you want to look at allows you to find new ideas to implement and test.
– Reflecting after certain lessons for a limited time is more reasonable than attempting to reflect on every moment of every class.