How do you become a better teacher? Being a better teacher has as much to do with learning new ideas as it does with being aware of what is working well in your classroom, and things that you need to improve on. In other words, teachers need to be aware of and employ reflective teaching practices.
So, what exactly is reflective teaching? Scott Thornbury (An A-Z of ELT, 2006) summarizes it as “when you reflect on teaching, you think back on it, in order to understand it better and to take steps to improve it. It means being able to think critically about the experience, to identify problems, and to ‘re-frame’ these problems… in order to identify possible solutions and to formulate these as a plan of action.” Therefore, it is more focused than just going into the staffroom and announcing that you just had a really great lesson and discussing it with your colleagues.
If that’s what reflective teaching is, how exactly does it work? To help with this we should turn to David Kolb’s 1984 Experiential Learning Cycle, which is as applicable to teachers as much as anyone else working in a professional environment.
The cycle is divided into four separate stages, the first of which is the concrete experience, in our case the lesson. The second stage is the reflective observation, whereby we review and reflect on the experience in an objective, yet balanced way. That is followed by the idea of abstract conceptualization in which reflection gives rise to a new idea or concept the teacher has learned from the experience. The fourth and final stage is that of active experimentation at which point the teacher plans and applies what they’ve learned from the experience.
Without time spent reflecting on your teaching the danger is, as Scrivener (2011) rightly points out, that “twenty years of teaching experience can become no more than two years’ experience repeated ten times over.” And so, there is a real need to find time for reflective teaching practices. To quote Scrivener again, “We can teach and teach. Or we can teach and learn.”
So what exactly can we do to be a reflective teacher? What kind of things can we be doing at the reflective stage of the cycle? Here are eight ideas that you can use.
Observations play a really important part in reflective teaching, but there are different types which can play an effective role in the process. In my school, we used to do developmental observations whereby the observed teacher would choose two or three areas they’d like to be observed on (chosen as areas for improvement). They complete a pre-observation lesson plan, and post-lesson they would complete a reflection form, with specific reference to those points. All the forms involved encourage and directly prompt reflection. These are then discussed with the observer, be it a peer or a manager. The advantage of this is that in the first instance the teacher has had to reflect and think about past experiences and identify areas to improve on, and then within the class, they are working on these areas, before reflecting again and getting specific and objective feedback on those areas. While there is dialogue, the focus and reflection come primarily from the observed teacher, making it a very effective, reflective teaching technique.
2. Peer observations
Peer observations are also a great way to reflect and improve. In my school, we would ask teachers to identify areas that they wanted to improve on and then pair them with a teacher who was particularly strong in that area so that they could watch and learn. At the same time the observed teacher would ask the peer to focus on areas that they had identified as ones to work on, thus making it very much a two-way process, with both observed and observing teacher benefitting from the process.
I would also encourage my teachers to do ghost observations, that is an observation without anyone actually observing. The process is essentially the same as the one described above, only the observer doesn’t actually come into the classroom, meaning the teacher feels less pressure and the lesson is more authentic.
3. Teaching Diary
This really is as simple as it sounds and has the benefit of being entirely self-directed and personal. After each lesson write down what you did and how the class went – for example: what went well/badly, did the students achieve the goals, were there any issues, what could I do better next time? Importantly, there is a need to ask why these things happen and once you identify that you can begin to think about what you can do differently and identify how to improve. As well as providing a written record it gives teachers the opportunity to express their self-development in a personal fashion. To paraphrase Jeremy Harmer (2015), the main thing is keeping a record of the past together with thoughts on how to do it better next time.
4. Recorded Lessons
While not something that will appeal to all teachers, this can be a very effective way to analyze your performance (and that of your students) in class, and with modern technology, it’s relatively easy to implement. Apart from acting as a great record of your teaching, you will undoubtedly notice things about yourself that you’re probably not even aware of, which is, of course, a good thing. If you don’t like the idea of video recording yourself, you can also just make audio recordings of your lessons. These can be particularly useful, not only for reflecting on pace and clarity of instructions and presentations but also as a measure of teacher talk time as opposed to student talk time.
5. Board Photos
Our students do it all the time to save them time and having to make their own notes, but how often do you take a photo of your own board work? Given that students are ‘taking’ notes in this way, it puts even more pressure on the teacher to make sure their board work is up to scratch. Therefore, it can be a good idea to take photos of your board work throughout a lesson for later analysis, especially if it’s an area you want to improve on.
6. Student Feedback
Involve your students – their feedback and observations are as valid as your own. Reflecting with students and getting their feedback ensures that it will be more student-focused. This can be done through a questionnaire, using post-it notes, five-minute papers or asking the students to keep their own learning diary, reflecting on how they felt in the lesson. You can give them open-ended prompts along the lines of (1)What is the one thing you are likely to remember from today’s class? (2) What was the most confusing concept we covered? (3) Is there anything you think I should be doing differently? (4) Is there anything you would like to know more about?
It’s important to note that these should be done anonymously where possible. Student focus groups are another way you can collate their feedback, though it’s a good idea to ask a colleague to conduct these for you so the students don’t feel pressured.
7. Hot Notes
While the above reflective teaching practices focus more on delayed reflection (i.e. post-lesson), it can be a good idea to also make on-the-spot or ‘hot’ reflection notes during the lesson. Keeping a notebook or post-it notes with you in class allows you to make observations in the midst of the lesson on anything that strikes you as being particularly good or bad. Using post-it notes can also be useful to stick in your coursebook to remind you of what you did with certain activities, how well they worked and why.
8. Shared Planning
Planning lessons with colleagues is a great and simple way to improve your teaching as it allows you to combine your strengths for best practice to create better lessons. As well as planning lessons together, shared planning also means adapting colleagues’ lessons or getting a colleague to check your lesson plan, much like you would for a ghost observation.
In conclusion, we can say that reflective teaching practices are a vital part of our professional development. If we can implement them effectively and promote them to the teachers in our schools, not only will they become better teachers, but they will also become more innovative and confident teachers. And that can only be a good thing for everyone involved.
What reflective teaching practices will you try out?
References and Further Reading
D. Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, 1984
R. Gower, Teaching Practice, 1995
J. Harmer, The Practice of English Language Teaching 5thedition, 2015
Mann & Walsh, Reflective Practice in English Language Teaching, 2017
J. Richards, Practice Teaching: A Reflective Approach, 2011
J. Richards, Towards Reflective Teaching
J. Scrivener, Learning Teaching 3rd edition, 2011
S. Thornberry, An A-Z of ELT, 2006
Getting Started with Reflective Practices, www.cambridge-community.org.uk/professional-development/gswrp/index.html
Reflective Teaching, www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/reflective-teaching-exploring-our-own-classroom-practice
I like the idea “hot notes” best of all. I have tablet with me during the day and this is one more way to use it more effective.
Thanks, Alex for the great ideas for teaching. I share your point of view on involving your students’ feedback. And for a better understanding, you can even use Gibbs’ reflective cycle (https://productive.fish/blog/gibbs-reflective-cycle/), as using this technique will help educators to see the whole picture from a student’s perspective.