Podcast: A Reflection on Reflection (And What Stops It From Working)

Reflection in Teacher Development

There's a Zen saying about reflection, "We cannot see our reflection in running water. Only in still water can we see it." How many teachers have time to reflect on their teaching?

The Reflective Cycle

Plan-teach-reflect, plan-teach-reflect - the reflective cycle is drummed into new teachers, but what does reflection actually mean? We look at why reflection is important, the barriers that stop teachers from reflecting and how to overcome some of these.

Stages in Reflection

  1. Description
  2. Feelings
  3. Evaluation
  4. Analysis
  5. Conclusions
  6. Action Plan

For more great teaching tips by Penny Ur (as quoted on the podcast), check out 100 Great Teaching Tips (below) and for more ideas on professional development for language teachers check out Jack Richards' book, Professional Development for Language Teachers (as quoted by Ross on the podcast).

Our notes...

Our notes...

A Reflection on Reflection - Transcription

Tracy Yu: Hello, everyone. You're probably going to hear fireworks because we're recording this podcast around Chinese New Year.

Ross Thorburn:  [laughs] Yeah, don't think we're under attack in Baghdad or something.


Tracy:  Yeah. OK, so today in our podcast, we're going to talk about something really important, which is...

Ross:  I want to talk about reflection. The thing that got me interested and thinking about this was, on the diploma in TESOL, one of the activities is teachers have to keep a reflective journal. The idea of a reflective journal is you reflect on your teaching, you write, and through doing that, you become more aware of your own teaching practices and get better at your teaching.

At the end of the journal, there is a question that asks, "What on this course has helped you to develop?" No one ever mentions that the reflective journal, which is something that is meant to help you to develop in itself, has helped them develop. I thought it was fascinating that...

I don't know, I must have read at least 50 of these, and no one has ever mentioned that this thing, which is meant to help teachers develop, helps people develop.

Tracy:  Oh, interesting.

Ross:  Today, I want to talk a bit about why that happens and why reflection's important. What we can do about it?

Tracy:  OK, so we've got three questions. The first one? [laughs]

Ross:  Why is reflection important?

Tracy:  What are the problems and challenges when reflection doesn't work? The third one?

Ross:  What are some of the things that we can do to try to make it work?

Why is reflection important?

Ross:  Tracy, when I was a new teacher, I remember hearing a lot about reflection, and reflective practice, and the three big things that teachers do every day is plan, teach, reflect, plan, teach, reflect, but why is reflection important?

Tracy:  I'd like to use the quote from an American author, and also a leadership consultant, Margaret Wheatley. She said, "Without reflection, we go blindly our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful."

The meaning behind this quote is just we don't want to keep doing something that we are not sure if it's the right thing to do or not.

Ross:  I read something similar to that from Jack Richards, more in a teaching relating background. He was saying how as teachers, most of us get most of our teaching skills really, really early on, probably in the first six months or the first year of our careers. He says that reflection helps us to move beyond the level of automatic responses in classroom situations.

So much of what we do in the classroom is automatic or automated. We do it without even thinking about it. Unless we start to reflect on things, then we just become almost like robots in the classroom who are performing tasks, and doing things, and responding to students without thinking about why.

Tracy:  I think here for reflection, we really try to find other relationship between why we did it, and why we didn't because like you said, a lot of even experienced teachers, they keep doing the same thing for years. When they get on some courses, they find out, "Oh, actually that's the reason why I did it," but you think about the cheapest and the easiest way is doing self‑reflection.

Ross:  Did you not have a quote from Confucius about this?

Tracy:  Confucius says, "By three methods, we may learn wisdom. First, by reflection, which is noblest. Second, by imitation, which is easiest. Third, by experience, which is the bitterest."

Ross:  When you first showed me that, it got me thinking about how a lot of teacher training courses tend to focus on imitation. Like here is a skill, now do what I did with your students.

Tracy:  Yeah, it's just do a lot of demonstrations, and then teacher copy what the trainer did, right?

Ross:  Exactly. There is another saying about this. About how teachers would say, five years' experience fall into two categories. Teachers who have five years' experience and teachers who have one year's experience repeated five times.


Ross:  The difference between the two is that maybe one of them has reflected and kept getting better, and one of them just keeps blindly doing the same thing again, and again, and again. Practice doesn't make perfect, but practice plus reflection makes perfect.

Actually, there was recently a teacher on one of the CertTESOL courses in Shanghai, and he was talking to me at the end of the course about how reflection had helped him. Do you want to hear it?

Tracy:  Cool.

Yale:  I find it really helpful because when I was writing the TB journals, by writing them down, I feel like I was having a messy room. I'm having all these things scattered all around, but now I'm tidying it up.

I'm putting things in order, and then next time if I take another lesson, I want to do something, I know where to find them. It's like you have a tidy room, so you know where to find things.

Tracy:  I don't know you, Ross, but I felt like if I thought about some questions or reflect on my teaching or training, I think taking notes about the key points can help a lot. Maybe you keep doing it for a few times, and then you may have a look at the key points, "Oh, actually I do have two things in common each time."

To me, that's the prioritized areas that you would like to work on.

Ross:  Actually there is a cool Penny Ur quote that I'm now going to play you about this.

Penny Ur:  There is a very famous quote by EM Forster, "How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?" As far as I'm concerned, how do I know what I think until I see what I've written? Very often, the actual act of writing clarifies my own thinking. Any of you who've done some writing, I'm sure you've found something similar happening to you.

When does reflection not work?

Ross:  Let's move onto the next one. What do you think are some of the problems and challenges why teachers don't get to reflect?

Tracy:  I think the first one is just people [laughs] don't know how to. To be honest, even until this point, I think I've never had any training help me to learn how to do reflection.

Ross:  Yeah, I think you're right. It doesn't get stated explicitly about time, isn't it? We're told, "You need to reflect. You need to reflect. Plan, teach, reflect," but what does it actually mean to reflect? That process, at least in new teachers, isn't that clear.

One of the problems that we have on a lot of teacher training courses is that they contain a lot of activities that encourage reflective practice like on a CELTA or a CertTESOL.

You have to observe your peers, you have to write a journal about learning in a new language, you have to journal about your own teaching, you have to give feedback to your peers, you have to keep a journal after watching experienced teachers, all of these things that help you to reflect.

I don't think at any point, do we really make it explicitly clear what were the questions that you had to answer or had to consider to be able to effectively reflect on your teaching? I don't think we ever got teachers to reflect on the reflective process, and therefore I don't think teachers end up carrying that process on with them into their future teaching.

I've found for me that the time I was able to reflect the most, and the time I developed the most, was when I was a director of studies. I only taught maybe about five hours of classes every week.

Tracy:  That sounds easy.

Ross:  Yeah, it was great.


Ross:  I had other stuff to do, but admit for those five hours of classes, I could actually spend quite a lot of time planning and reflecting on them than I'd get to spend if I was teaching 25 classes a week.

Tracy:  That's true. I think a lot of time, we're just teaching. I can't say like a robot but the schedule is pretty tight, and then it's difficult to find a proper time to sit down and reflect.

Ross:  Also, we've seen in the last few years that with big language skills, especially here in China, that they're moving towards more of a model where teachers actually don't have to spend much time planning. All the materials and everything are pre‑made for you. All you have to do is go in and teach.

Tracy:  Yeah, a lot of organizations, they don't really value reflection. If the organization doesn't value it, that means that's something teachers don't value, because it won't affect their promotion, or their recognition in their organizations. It won't affect anything, so why would I spend more time doing that by myself, because it's invisible.

It's in my mind. Even if I keep journal, whatever, no one can see it. I'd rather spend more time to do demos and...

Ross:  Help organize parties...

Tracy:  Yeah, to somebody, which is more visible and it being more recognized.

Ross:  I guess one final thing is that it's difficult to reflect because it can be quite painful to go back and think about if you've had a bad class. I used to have a colleague whose father was a psychologist, I think, and he was telling me that the way that they used to treat post traumatic stress disorder is they'd get the person to talk about it and relive the experience.

He said, "Actually, it was really bad for them because you were just getting people to talk about something really terrible that happened to them, that brought all of these negative feelings back to the front of their mind." Now that's something that they don't really do in psychiatry.

Tracy:  Oh really?

Ross:  Apparently, they don't do that so much now. I wonder if it's the same thing with reflection. If you've had a really bad experience in class, it's much easier to go, "Oh God. I'm not going to think about that again," rather than to actually focus on, "Well, that was terrible, but why was it terrible? What did I do wrong? How could I make sure that that doesn't happen again?"

How can we make reflection work?

Tracy:  What are the ways to deal with the problems and challenges?

Ross:  I've got a quote here from my friend and ex‑colleague, Alan Nazari. This is him talking about how we basically reflect all the time, but often nothing comes of it.

Alan:  When you're in a state of reflecting over something, let's say you're driving in a car and you're thinking about what happened in the day, what's really important is that at some point, you verbalize this, you note this down, you put it in a drawer, and you record it somewhere.

Otherwise, it tends to just be a reflection that disappears and doesn't necessarily stay in the long‑term memory, because the way things stay in your long term memory is to see them in many different formats. The more you're exposed to that, the more neural pathways are connected in your brain, and then that turns into a long‑term memory.

Tracy:  What if people write down and then never look at it again?

Ross:  They say that the act of writing something down helps your memory.

Tracy:  For me, I've tried that before, and even when you're writing down, to be honest, it takes a bit longer time. If you think about it just a few seconds, you write it down, it probably take a few minutes.

Ross:  Also from CIPD, they've got a process that comes from Gibbs' reflection cycle. It's got six stages, and these are prompts on how to reflect. The first stage is descriptions, so it's, what happened?

Tracy:  OK. For example...?

Ross:  Say, I taught this class a few months ago where the students had to write their own recipes and then compare them to an authentic recipe, and then pick out words from this authentic recipe, and then try to rewrite the original recipe. A task‑based learning thing with some authentic materials.

My feelings, I was really excited about it, and then when I went in there, it was a huge disappointment because the students found it really, really difficult. Evaluation, what was good and bad about it? I think at the time, it seemed really, really difficult for the students. I don't think all the students were able to take part. It was very, very difficult to manage all these different students learning different things at different times.

That was what was bad about it. What was good about it was, for me personally, I tried something different. The students were challenged, which was a good thing, and at the end of the class, when it got to 60 minutes, the students said, "That's the class over already?" The students found that the 60 minutes went by really quickly.

The analysis, how do I make sense of it? I think the reason that the students found it really, really difficult was because students in that context are almost never exposed to authentic materials, and almost never exposed to task‑based learning cycle. That's how I made sense of why this plan I had didn't work very well.

My conclusions are that maybe it's OK to use authentic materials, and maybe it's OK to use tasks in class, but maybe including both in the same class with a group of students that aren't used to both is too much for them. My action plan next time is maybe to include authentic materials, but don't include them at the same time as a task‑based cycle.

Tracy:  I think the reflective circle you mentioned is so useful. Can we review the different stages?

Ross:  Sure. First one is description, what happened? Feelings, how you were feeling and what you were thinking at the time. Your evaluation about what was good and bad.

Your analysis, which is making sense of it. The conclusion, what else you could have done? Your action plan, which is what you do differently next time.

Reflecting on our Podcast

Tracy:  Ross, we've been making the podcast for a long time. What do you think we do to help us reflect on the podcast that we're making, and how can we make it better?

Ross:  Just as peer observation is a really good way of reflecting on your own teaching, seeing what other teachers do. The most simple thing that I do a lot is listen to other podcasts and compare what I hear in other podcasts to what we do, and think, "Ah, that's a different way of doing things. I wonder if that would work for us."

Tracy:  Bye, everyone. Bye‑bye.

[background music]

Tracy:  For more podcasts, videos, and blogs visit our website www.tefltraininginstitute.com.

Ross:  Www.tefltraininginstitute.com. If you've got a question or topic you'd like us to discuss, leave us a comment.

Tracy:  If you want to keep up to date with our latest content, add us on WeChat @tefltraininginstitute.

Ross:  If you enjoyed our podcast, please rate us on iTunes.


Transcription by CastingWords