Month: May 2015

Mirror, mirror… why bother with self-reflection?


I sat across the table from a young student while perusing his semester reflection.  “I don’t understand why we have to do this,” he said, “it’s just a waste of time, when I could be using the same time to write lesson plans or study for my classes.”  Why bother, indeed, I thought.  What was the point of the whole exercise?

Of course, I knew what the point of the exercise was, but how to get it across to my student, so he might learn to value the experience as much as he valued studying for his upcoming exams.  I started by asking questions.  What, in his experience, stuck out as a real success?  What made that particular experience so successful?  What did he do to create that experience?  Were there other factors contributing to that experience?  We continued to explore these and more questions in a short discussion.  He came out of this armed with resolutions and plans, without even realizing that we had just completed an entire cycle of reflection.  When I pointed this out to him, he began to understand that reflection is a tool, a means of improving his style teaching so that he can knowingly re-create successful experiences and be less dependent on coincidence.

There are many models one can use for self-reflection.  At the university I teach at, the model our second-year students use is called Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection.  Korthagen is a Dutch educational specialist who developed different models for reflection.  Using the Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection, students systematically explore their actions in a given situation.  This tool allows students to inform themselves about their own practice and make decisions about their future dealings.

korthagens-spiralKorthagen’s Circle of Reflection has five steps, as illustrated here.  Each step has specific questions that should be answered as part of the reflection exercise.

1.  Action:  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

2.  Looking back:  What actually happened (from the teacher’s perspective and from the perspective of the pupils)?  What did we want?  What did we do?  What did we think?  What did we feel?

3.  Awareness:  How are the answers (from the previous step) interconnected?  How does the context (school) influence the whole?  What does this mean for me?  What is now the actual problem?

4.  Alternatives: What alternatives do I see?  What pros and cons are there to each one?  What will I take with me for the next time?

5.  Trial (step 1, but as a step into a new cycle):  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

When coaching my students, I tell them to choose one specific incident that occurred during the lesson or in the course of the day, and to focus on that.  It can be something that went well, or something they want to improve, but it has to be one specific incident.  I look at their reflection and check that each step has been taken.  Sometimes, students skip a step or two, or stop when they are only halfway through.  In order to achieve improvement in their teaching, however, I insist they complete the entire cycle of reflection.  They groan, but they also grow, and they see that, too.

As a lecturer, I try to set an example for my students.  I hadn’t thought a lot about how to set an example in the area of self-reflection, however, until I received a box of notebooks from my own dad, who had worked in the field of education for decades before changing careers.  There were journals for each of the various positions he had held: as a teacher, a principal, a superintendent and later as a doctorate student.  His journals are a collection of practical items (what needs to happen this week), reflections on incidents, personal goals and business strategies, among other things.  Upon seeing his collection of journals, I decided that the best way to be a role model would be to start my own reflection journal.

When talking with my students, I teach self-reflection as a skill for life-long development.  Sometimes, I show them my own journal, (briefly!) to depict self-reflection as a healthy habit.  It’s not just something one does to appease the teachers that be, but it is also as a tool for steering their own growth.  This revelation often comes as a surprise to them, and helps them understand how important it is to not just think about their teaching, but also to record it in some fashion, so they can refer back to it at a later time.  They begin to view self-reflection as a valuable use of their time, and I, in turn, see their teaching improve as they move into greater awareness of their dealings.

Note:  Factual information for this blog entry was retrieved from:


Practice makes perfect!

Working as a new college lecturer this past school year, I was grateful to the woman who had held the position before me, as she had carefully prepared nearly everything I would need to do in the course of the year.  Course outlines, test matrices, and student teaching assignments were all ready-made.  Finding myself jumping into in the deep end was made a lot easier due to her thorough preparation.  I later found out that in college, contrary to the grade schools I’d worked at previously, any changes in planning must go through a number of committees whose primary task is to ensure continuity and quality of the overall program of study.  Any changes I wished to put into action, therefore, would have to be carefully planned and documented months in advance.

As I began teaching, I started seeing things in a different light.  How would I like to change this lesson, or that test?  How could I adapt the program to create more space for the skills I wished the students to develop?  I talked about this with my supervisor, and she encouraged me to look at different ways of teaching and testing, so that the program could be optimized.  As a former developer of early ESL programs in The Netherlands, I was finally, truly, in my element.  It was time to roll up my sleeves and develop a program that would take students past the books and truly equip them to teach early ESL in their own schools.

The first question I thought about was, what do future ESL teachers need to be able to do?  I brainstormed, making a list of skills they would need: long-term planning, lesson planning, assessment skills, classroom management (in English), the ability to select appropriate material for their class… at the end of the day, the list was quite long. After that, I pared the list down to a few basic items, resulting in a basic kit of skills that would enable any teacher to teach ESL at beginner level.  Then I focused my attention on the perfect student teaching assignment.

I thought back to my own experience as a starting ESL teacher.  Where did I grow the most?  When did I develop the best?  I realized that I learned the most from my experience when I started teaching parallel groups.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the growth resulted from my teaching the exact same lesson three or four times in a row.  The first time, I was trying out new games, new stories, and new songs.  Each reaction from the children was new, and I had to keep up with them, instead of being able to anticipate what they might not understand and what they might find difficult or – on the other side of that coin – too easy.  By the time I did the lesson the third (or even fourth!) time, I was able to anticipate the children’s needs and reactions, making the lessons go much smoother.  No longer having to focus on the material, I was able to make better contact with the children, resulting in more effective learning.

By practicing the same lesson a few times, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle.

By practicing the same lesson a few times in a row and reflecting on their experiences, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle to their teaching practice.

How could I pass on this experience to my own students?  The answer came equally quickly:  instead of teaching one lesson to the entire class, I decided to require them to teach the same (short) lesson multiple times to smaller groups.  Between each round, the student will have to answer certain questions regarding the level of input, the children’s output, and the match between the two.  The student will also have to reflect briefly on the amount of interaction during the lesson and experiment to increase that interaction.  By giving the same lesson three times in a row, the learning experience will then be deeper and more effective.  The lessons pulled out of that mini-experience will be things that can be applied to the larger group, in a broader context.  Not only that, but the mini-experience will form the basis for the rest of their learning during the course.

With this plan in mind, I can honestly say that I am greatly looking forward to my student teachers’ experiences next year and hearing about what they learned.  Here’s to next year!