Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 13: The Reflective Practitioner

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The experience in reflective teaching is that you must plunge into the doing, and try to educate yourself before you know what it is you’re trying to learn.
--Donald Schön (1987)[1]

Donald Schön, a philosopher and educational researcher, makes an important observation: learning about teaching often means making choices and taking actions without knowing in advance quite what the consequences will be. The problem, as we have pointed out more than once, is that classroom events are often ambiguous and ambivalent, in that they usually serve more than one purpose. A teacher compliments a student’s contribution to a discussion: at that moment she may be motivating the student, but also focusing classmates’ thinking on key ideas. Her comment functions simultaneously as behavioral reinforcement, information, and expression of caring. At that moment complimenting the student may be exactly the right thing to do. Or not: perhaps the praise causes the teacher to neglect the contributions of others, or focuses attention on factors that students cannot control, like their ability instead of their effort. In teaching, it seems, everything cuts more than one way, signifies more than one thing. The complications can make it difficult to prepare for teaching in advance, though they also make teaching itself interesting and challenging.

The complications also mean that teachers need to learn from their own teaching by reflecting (or thinking about the significance of) their experiences. In the classrooms, students are not the only people who need to learn. So do teachers, though what teachers need to learn is less about curriculum and more about students’ behavior and motivation, about how to assess their learning well, and about how to shape the class into a mutually supportive community.

Thinking about these matters helps to make a teacher a reflective practitioner (Schön, 1983)[2]—a professional who learns both from experience and about experience. Becoming thoughtful helps you in all the areas discussed in this text: it helps in understanding better how students’ learning occurs, what motivates students, how you might differentiate your instruction more fully, and how you can make assessments of learning more valid and fair.

Learning to reflect on practice is so important, in fact, that we have referred to and illustrated its value throughout this book. In addition we devote this entire chapter to how you, like other professional teachers, can develop habits of reflective practice in yourself. In most of this chapter we describe what reflective practice feels like as an experience, and offer examples of places, people, and activities that can support your own reflection on practice. We finish by discussing how teachers can also learn simply by observing and reflecting on their own teaching systematically, and by sharing the results with other teachers and professionals. We call this activity teacher research or action research. As you will see, reflective practice not only contributes to teachers’ ability to make wise decisions, but also allows them to serve as effective, principled advocates on behalf of students.

Types of resources for professional development and learning[edit | edit source]

At some level reflection on practice is something you must do for yourself, since only you have had your particular teaching experiences, and only you can choose how to interpret and make use of them. But this rather individual activity also benefits from the stimulus and challenge offered by fellow professionals...(read more...)

Colleagues as a resource
Professional associations and professional development activities

Reading and Understanding Professional Articles[edit | edit source]

Although publications about educational issues and research can take many forms, they tend to serve three major purposes in some sort of combination. A publication could either...(read more...)

Three purposes of educational publications
Authors’ assumptions about readers

Examples of Professional Publications[edit | edit source]

As stated in the previous section, the authors of each of the following examples make particular assumptions about you, the reader. They expect you to have particular background knowledge, to have particular goals, and to do particular intellectual work in reading their material...(read more...)

Example #1: How do children acquire moral commitments?
Relevance: A truly universal framework?
The reader’s role: Interested observer of children
Example #2: Learning disability as a misleading label
Relevance: A critical framework
The reader’s role: Concerned advocate for social justice
Example #3: The impact of bilingualism on reading
Relevance: Framework, but also recommendations for practice
The reader’s role: Both teacher and researcher

Action Research: Hearing from teachers about improving practice[edit | edit source]

Each of the professional articles just described offers ideas and recommendations that can stimulate reflection about teaching and learning. But they all suffer from a particular limitation: Although they often relate to teachers and classrooms, teachers’ role in influencing in designing and interpreting a study is minimal. In the world of educational research, persons other than teachers—typically professors, educational administrators, or other professional researchers—tend to speak on behalf of teachers...(read more...)

The nature of action research
Action research in practice
Example #1: Focusing on motivating students
Example #2: Focusing on development
Example #3: Focusing on collaboration

The challenges of action research[edit | edit source]

Well and good, you may say. Action research offers teachers a way to hear each other, to learn from their own and other's experience. But there are also a few cautions to keep in mind, both ethical and practical. Look briefly at each of these areas...(read more...)

Ethical cautions about action research
Insuring privacy of students
Gaining informed consent
Insuring freedom to participate
Practical issues about action research

Benefiting from All Kinds of Research[edit | edit source]

Although many educators feel a degree of sympathy for the nature and purposes of action research, we contributors to this Wikibook are not trying to advocate for it at the expense of other forms of research, nor at the expense of simply reading and understanding professional publications in general. The challenge for you, as a classroom teacher, is to find the value in all forms of professional development, whether it be participation in a professional association, reading general articles about research, or engaging in your own action research.

To the extent that you draw on them all, your ways of learning about teaching will be enriched. You will acquire more ways to understand classroom life, while at the same time acquiring perspective on that life. You will learn ways to grasp the individuality of particular students, but also to see what they need in common. You will have more ways to interpret your own experiences as a professional teacher, but also be able to learn from the professional experience of others. Realizing these benefits fully is a challenge, because the very diversity of classrooms renders problems about teaching and learning complex and diverse as well. But you will also gain good, professional company in searching for better understanding of your work—company that includes both educational researchers, other professional teachers, and of course your students.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Schön, D. (1987, April). Educating the reflective practitioner. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, D.C.
  2. Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.