Reflective practice – teachers and students think about their performance and consider ways to improve for the future.
Reflective practice (often simply referred to as reflection) is the conscious and active process of thinking about an experience in order to be better prepared for similar events in the future. It is a professional development tool that accelerates the process of continual improvement.i In a nutshell, reflective practice is asking ‘what happened?’, ‘how could I have done that better?’ and ‘what will I do next time?’. Reflective practice is more than just ‘learning from your mistakes’ – it’s about perfecting your performance and maximising your effectiveness in the shortest period of time possible. Teachers can no longer afford to wait 20 or 30 years to acquire the experience and skills necessary to be highly effective – they need to be highly effective now. Reflective practice means no longer waiting 20 years – specific techniques, skills and situations can be mastered more quickly with strategic, systematic and active reflective practice.
Reflective practice is more than just ‘learning from your mistakes’ – it’s about perfecting your performance and maximising your effectiveness in the shortest period of time possible.
There are several distinct types of reflective practice.ii One common example is teachers looking back over their lessons each day and thinking about what they could have done better. This reflection can happen on the drive home, while walking the dog or even in the shower – and it only needs to take a couple of minutes. This simple and easy type of reflective practice involves 2 steps: firstly, identifying exactly what happened and what were the root causes and secondly, asking yourself ‘if I could do it all over again, what would I change?’ Reflection of this nature soon becomes habit.
Another type of reflective practice that is used in initial teacher education is reflection journals. Each day, student-teachers reflect on their experiences by analysing the events of the day and writing about potential ways to improve their responses to these events. However, while keeping a journal is an effective reflective practice method, it is time consuming and difficult to maintain long term.
Teachers should take a multi-pronged approach to reflective practice. Firstly, they should consider their overall performance for any given day including planning, activities, lessons, interactions, minor behavioural issues, strategies, questioning and feedback techniques, resources and their effectiveness in terms of achieving their goals and so forth. Teachers can think about what they did well, what they did poorly and where they need to improve. A straightforward way to approach this is to identify what was the most stressful, dreaded or tiring part of the day – usually these areas are those that need the most improvement. Ongoing incremental improvements can lead to dramatic improvements in performance very quickly. Key techniques should be the initial focus: questioning skills, feedback skills, scaffolding, chunking, modelling, shared and guided learning, language learning (phonics etc.), worked examples, behaviour management, instructions and facilitation skills for cooperative learning activities.
A straightforward way to approach this is to identify what was the most stressful, dreaded or tiring part of the day – usually these areas are those that need the most improvement.
Secondly, when serious, dangerous, highly stressful one-off events occur, reflecting on what happened is valuable for many reasons. Consciously analysing the event can help you to put it into perspective – maybe it was not as serious as you first thought or maybe you were not to blame. In addition, reflection is a type of personal debrief that helps to reduce your stress and anxiety. Most importantly however, reflecting on a serious incident allows you to develop a better understanding of what happened, the root causes, the triggers, what options you had available, what you could have done better and what you will do next time. It means having a standard response for any repeats – a systematic and methodical plan. Having a plan or a system of some kind means you are more likely to react in the most effective way should it happen again. In fact, you may even find yourself secretly hoping for a repeat so you can test your solution. In a challenging work environment, robust systems and processes reduce stress – decisions no longer need to be made when ‘under the pump’ as the decision about what to do in a given situation was carefully thought-through when you were stress-free.
Thirdly, teachers can reflect on their overall performance as well as their abilities, skills, weaknesses and strengths. This can be done at the end of the school year or at the beginning of a new year. This type of self-reflection is important because it allows the teacher to plan for improvement in a broad sense. It is important to identify specific strengths and weaknesses and to plan to address those areas – no one is perfect and there is always room for improvement in some way. Capitalising on your strengths is also an effective strategy as it can give your practice an added edge. For example, experienced teachers may need to improve their IT skills or learn more about strategies and approaches that appeal to them. New or middle career teachers may excel in one area such as teaching reading and writing but feel that they need to upskill in terms of their maths abilities. Other teachers might be exceptionally talented at behaviour management but lack knowledge of a wide variety of teaching strategies, or vice versa.
It is important to identify specific strengths and weaknesses and to plan to address those areas – no one is perfect and there is always room for improvement in some way.
In addition, reflection can identify more general improvements. For example, a teacher might ask questions such as ‘what learning strategies worked last year?’ and ‘what is my biggest weakness as a teacher?’
Reflective practice is a valuable life-long skill that should be taught to students as well. High-performing teachers incorporate reflective practice into most lessons as a form of metacognition, even if only for a brief period at the end. Teachers can encourage students to consider how they performed, what they did well and how they can improve next time. Then in the following lesson, students can be asked to recall how they planned to improve for the current lesson. Reflection is also used to emphasise metacognitive skills such as process learning, planning an approach to learning and structuring information.
Hint: it is not possible to practise and improve on everything at the same time. Identify 2 or 3 specific areas to improve and work on those to begin with. Once those skills are integrated into your teaching practice, add in another 2 or 3 techniques.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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