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Reflective Practice

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This article originally appeared in NAHT’s April Leadership Focus 

Authored by Andrew Hammond, Headteacher at Hall School Wimbledon and Lead Author of the NAHT Discovery Education Pathway programme.

Reflective practice – we hear this phrase often, but what does it actually mean? And just how do teachers find the time to reflect on the job they are doing, when they spend every waking hour doing the job?

Renowned educationalist, John Dewey, said ‘We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.’ Whilst he may have been referring to how pupils learn, this advice is equally applicable to the adult at the front. But just how and when can teachers find time to reflect on the experiences they have in the classroom? As school leaders, how can we make this happen in a sustained, impactful way?

In my experience, teachers are most energised, most motivated, when they know they are making a difference, turning the dial, having a positive impact on the children to whom they devote so many of their daylight (and twilight) hours. If they measure that impact by the attainment and progress scores of their charges, they may have to wait a long time to see it; and, even then, they may be waiting in vain – there are myriad factors that affect what a pupil shows he knows on exam day. Pinning our hopes – and our efficacy – on rising or falling performance data alone can be disheartening.

We all know there are countless other ways in which a teacher will have an impact on their pupils’ learning, behind those academic scores. As school leaders, our role is to articulate this impact – through our culture, underpinned by our values – and to build in time for our staff to reflect, learn and grow as practitioners. But as Einstein tells us, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted.’ Even if teachers had the time for reflection, just what are they reflecting upon, when so much of their impact is invisible to the naked eye and too slow to register on a lens designed to capture rapid and reportable attainment.

Or is it?

There are key observables out there, if we can find time to look for them. How a child learns is as important as what they learn. Independent, lifelong learning is about knowing what to do when you don’t know the answer; it is about developing the resilience and the robust optimism to keep going; and about silencing the cynic inside, so that intellectual curiosity can flourish unabated. These learning characteristics can be seen and heard in pupils’ behaviours and attitudes, and through the learning chatter that accompanies classroom activity. We are cultural architects of our classrooms, we set the climate and the weather; and we know when our pupils are engaged or disengaged. We don’t need to wait for the next round of test scores to know that. Just as we are transmitting micro-affirmations every day, we are receiving micro-reflections all the time, adapting and adjusting our teaching accordingly. What we need to do, perhaps, is find time to record and reflect on these little adjustments in a more deliberate way – building a professional learning journal as we go.

The empowered teacher recognises the levers they have at their disposal to advance learning performance in their classroom; this may be a repertoire of teaching strategies and skills; it may be positive behaviour management techniques; it may be having a very good grasp of their pupils’ wellbeing, their differing motivations or their health and self-worth. A teacher’s toolkit is extensive, equipped with a myriad tools but for any of these instruments to be truly effective, we need to consider the impact they are having on our learners – and that means looking out for the observable signs of progress, finding time to reflect, and then talking with other teachers.

Celebrated painter, Claude Monet, said, ‘It is on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way. So we must dig and delve unceasingly.’

So how do we dig and delve, whilst busily painting? When do we take a step back and admire what we have done? A pupil progress meeting perhaps? An appraisal review? These meetings involve plenty of digging, but they are infrequent and usually focused, myopically, on the attainment and progress scores of our neatly sorted and ranked pupils. It is like peering closely at an impressionist’s painting for delineated detail while missing the overall visual effects intended.

Proper reflection demands a wider view. Caught up in the daily ritual of planning, teaching, marking and then planning again (not to mention attending staff meetings, CPDs, parents evenings and school events), teachers may be forgiven for waiting until the holidays to gain some perspective. Recreation time brings reflection time. But how much better it would be if we could be reflective as we go, in motivational moments that give us a little energy boost. Again, perhaps this is where school leaders can help; if we champion the benefits of reflection across our schools – and build in time to facilitate it – then being reflective is more likely to become part of our daily practice.

The tools for self-reflection in teaching are out there, and the most effective ones do not come with copious instruction manuals or in lengthy courses delivered by experts telling us how to teach like they do. The best tools allow the teacher to record their own reflections as they do the job. In the case of the Pathway programme, from NAHT and Discovery Education, these self-reflections are prompted by a series of ‘Questions for Reflection’, encouraging each teacher to think carefully about their pedagogy and practice and allowing them space online to record their thoughts and keep coming back to them as they gain more experience. Pathway includes a fascinating course on wellbeing and critical reflection, delivered by Professor Tim O’Brien and Dr Dennis Guiney. In this course, the authors lead us through what critical reflection actually means, and how we can make space for it during our working week, allowing us to reflect on what we think, feel and do. The link between constant reflection and positive wellbeing is clear.

As school leaders, how frequently do we reflect? To ring-fence time in our diaries to reflect seems an indulgence! Perhaps such reflection happens naturally on the drive home, or whilst walking the dog. But strategic leadership requires proper reflection time and we cannot champion reflection in our schools if we do not practise it ourselves. When are your moments of serenity? Perhaps, like me, you don’t have any! As school leaders we drive our schools forwards, sometimes at a rapid pace, but we control the handbrake too, and it is worth applying it from time to time, to allow everyone to catch their breath and reflect on the road ahead, and the road travelled.

Is there time in your timetable to provide some reflection time for staff, perhaps in small groups? Could we set aside a staff meeting or CPD session once a month, when colleagues work in pairs to reflect on their practice, perhaps guided by a focus from us, on behaviour management, for example, or assessment for learning? The Pathway programme offers multiple courses on themes of this nature, with those little questions for reflection built in. Assigning a course to several colleagues would enable them to share their honest reflections in a focused and deliberate way.

In summary, or should I say on reflection, for reflective practice to take off in my current school, I am going to begin with a focus on three Ts: tools, time and plenty of talk!

Created in partnership with NAHT, Pathway offers a fresh new approach to CPD supporting the continuous professional empowerment of teachers and leaders.