The Importance of Reflection
Have you ever sat in your classroom after a long day of teaching, thinking about the lessons you taught that day?
You may have asked yourself why the math lesson went so well or why the social studies lesson seemed to confuse the students so much.
We’ve all been there! As teachers, we spend many hours planning and executing lessons, but when some lessons that we thought were going to go well do not, we may wonder, “What happened and why?”
Those are good questions and an important step in our development as educators. Asking ourselves questions helps us to reflect upon what we did and why we made the choices we did.
Reflection is deliberate and structured thinking about choices. It is an integral step to improving our practice. Through reflection, we as educators can look clearly at our successes and struggles and consider options for change.
In PIP, we teach our participants how to use reflection to take charge of their pedagogy.
We introduce them to specific types of questioning and open-ended statements that push thinking to a much higher level.
It takes hard mental work. Learning to think this way does not happen overnight, but it is well worth the effort. In fact, Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching includes reflecting on teaching practice as an essential aspect of quality teaching.
We reflect upon the information or data we collect about what is happening in the classroom.
So let’s go back to you sitting in your classroom staring at that lesson plan into which you put so much effort, the one that just didn’t work out.
How can you reflect on what happened? You can start by asking yourself some basic reflective questions. Or, you might want to share your thinking by having a deeper reflective conversation with a trusted colleague.
As intervenors, we have reflective conversations with teachers to help them discover their own thinking process. This helps them figure out why things happened as they did.
Such a conversation might start this way:
I put a lot of effort into planning this lesson and it just didn’t work. The students were confused, and many told me they didn’t understand.
Now that your colleague knows your concerns, he or she can use clarifying questions to help you self-reflect, such as:
How did you expect the lesson plan to support your teaching?
I thought that I knew what I was going to teach, since I planned it.
So you planned out what you were going to do. Did that help when you delivered the lesson?
It did as I began, but then as I kept teaching I felt like I was lost.
At exactly what point did that happen?
Well, it was when I was doing the think aloud. I knew where I was going to stop and think, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to say.
Oh, so it seems you noted in your lesson plan where you were going to stop and think aloud....
But I didn’t write what I was going to say, and that is when I got lost. I thought I had planned the lesson so well, but now I see if I’m going to be clear so that the students understand the mini-lesson, I need to write what I will say, not only when I’m going to say it.
This is typical of what happens when you have a reflective conversation: The answers become clear.
It doesn’t take much questioning; it just takes the opportunity to think about what happened in a nonjudgmental, supportive manner.
The conversations are organic and flow naturally from each response. All that is necessary is to listen carefully to what is said or not said.
As intervenors, we have had a lot of experience doing this, but you and your colleagues can do it just as well with practice. Once you have had the opportunity to try reflective conversations, you will want to have them more often as a way to deepen your understanding of your teaching practice.
Reflective conversations like the one you just read don’t have to be about only lesson planning.
Maybe you have noticed that your students are antsy sitting on the rug during your mini-lessons. This is another situation that lends itself to a reflective conversation in which you and your colleague could discuss what changes you might make so that students will be more engaged during future lessons.
Another important part of reflecting is being able to explain your thinking. Just answering the questions by saying, “I did this” is not enough. True reflection comes when teachers think about and explain what they were thinking and why. For example, here is another possible conversation between a teacher and a trusted colleague:
I noticed that the students were very inattentive while I delivered the lesson.
How did you know that? What did you hear and see?
I saw them losing focus and some of them began talking.
At what point during the lesson did you notice this?
When I was modeling what the students had to do for the independent work.
What had you done before that?
I had already reviewed the previous lesson; then we had a conversation about something from that lesson. After that, I read from a book and then I got to my think aloud….Wow! I hadn’t realized I had done all of that before the modeling. The students must have been sitting on the rug for a long time. I hadn’t realized.
So you are saying the students were antsy because they were on the rug for a long time.
Yes, I need to pay attention to how long my lessons are running and change what I am doing if they begin to get too long.
Through this conversation, the teacher was able to see for herself the reason her students were antsy. As a result, she now knows what she will do to change this.
Looking at student work gives us another wonderful opportunity to deepen our thinking about our practice. We can learn a great deal by looking at the work our students produce. Here, too, a reflective conversation with a colleague can be an eye-opener. A conversation might go like this:
From examining the student work, did most of the class learn what you intended?
Yes, most did.
Did you meet your instructional goals?
These types of questions help clarify what happened; however, we shouldn’t stop there. We can reflect more deeply to bring our understanding further such as with this question:
Did you notice any patterns from the students who did not seem to get it?
Yes, the students who got it did very well; but those who did not left so much blank.
So you are saying that the students who didn’t get it were really confused.
When having a reflective conversation, it can be very helpful when the listener paraphrases what was said. It helps clarify the idea; plus, hearing your own words helps substantiate what was said:
Yes, that’s it. They just didn’t do what I expected.
Why do you think that might have happened?
Well, I noticed that the kids who didn’t get it were mostly the ELLs. Maybe they were confused by the academic language. Maybe next time I will work with these students in a small group to support them and provide them with extra help with the vocabulary.
During the intervention process, our goal is to help participants realize for themselves what changes need to be made.
We do this by helping them take questioning to a much higher level, called metacognition or meta-cognitive thinking. The formal definition of meta-cognitive thinking is “having an awareness and self-regulation of one’s own thinking processes.”
This is the inner voice that helps a master teacher monitor decisions, choices and the impact of her actions. It is the process of saying, “OK, I’ve thought about how to plan this lesson, how to execute it and even had a reflective conversation about it with my colleague. Now, what can I do to ensure its success?”
At this level, one is thinking about one’s own thinking by asking oneself, “Did I consider everything I needed to? Were my ideas about the lesson the thoughts I needed to have?”
For a master teacher, metacognition comes both before and after the lesson.
This level of thinking requires time to develop, but with repeated use, the awareness gained through this type of reflective practice leads to increased confidence in pedagogical decision-making.
As intervenors, we help teachers reach this level of thinking by structuring opportunities for our participants to reflect on their practice based on the data collected. The first step is to focus on one small element at a time. It is impossible to think about what you did if the concept is too large.
For example, a teacher wants to meet to discuss student engagement. She wants to make sure her students are involved in their own learning, that they are excited about the material. Our conversation might proceed like this:
What exactly are your concerns?
Well, I noticed that some of my students don’t seem interested in the present unit.
Looking at the data will help this teacher be more specific, thereby leading her to make her own discoveries and then to use metacognition to change what is happening.
How do you know that they are not interested?
I can see.
Can I suggest that we collect some information from the students? We might give them a survey and see exactly how they feel.
Later, after a survey, the conversation might continue:
Looking at the results of the survey, what do you notice?
Well, actually, most of the students seem to like the unit, but a few don’t like that it requires working in groups.
What do you think about that?
When I planned the unit, I thought that they would like working together, but now I see some students don’t.
So what you are saying is that some of your students aren’t engaged because they don’t want to work in a group.
Yes, exactly. Then maybe it would be all right for those students to work alone. I can tweak the assignment to help them become more engaged.
Do you think that would work?
Yes, I think so. In fact it will be interesting to get a different perspective on the work from the students who are working alone. I’m excited about seeing what they do.
This is an example of a teacher becoming metacognitive. By thinking about her own thinking, she realized what options she had and how she could turn things around to achieve her goal. It takes practice, but using metacognition can help you become a great teacher.
Reflection, or the deliberate and structured thinking about the choices and decisions we make as educators, is an integral step in improving our practice. The change or move to best practices comes from the ability to reflect and then use this new understanding to do things differently than in the past.