I’ve had the good fortune to assist, in a legitimate peripheral participation kind of way, on a couple of teacher training programmes over the last few weeks. Reflection as a tool for critical thinking on practice, leading to a deepening of theoretical understanding, or at least to preparing the ground for theoretical exploration has been an important theme. So this seems like a good moment to think about my experience of reflection.
I am an occasional reflector and serial counsellee. Professionally I’ve found reflection useful in various roles: first as an advice worker, then as a teacher, lately as a someone who is obliged to write as part of a doctoral programme.
Generally I dip in and out of reflection. Usually an experience or thought causes me to feel particularly anxious, enthusiastic or curious and (but usually anxious) and I write to get the thing into perspective, see whether I can or should do something about it, what I can learn and what I can do. Invariably this leads to some reading and to writing and thinking that is incomplete but still serves its purpose. Reflection is my own, usually private, sometimes not read back even by me.
I have only ever been obliged to reflect while on teacher training programmes: a CertTESOL and a PGCE. Neither were really satisfying.
On the CertTESOL I wrote my entire journal on the night before submission, plundering a colleague’s journal for useful ideas and desperately trying to remember lessons from my plans. I got a better grade than my colleague did, which perhaps shows that even bodged fake reflection can do the job of meeting tutors’ expectations very effectively.
I entitled my PGCE journal “Don’t look back in anger”, which was in the charts at the time. I felt that we were being trained in portfolio assembly, not helped to become teachers who could inspire our students and do work we loved. I was summoned to explain myself to the course director.
Student reactions ranging from ambivalence to irritation and resentment are well documented by Valerie Hobbs in “Faking it or hating it: can reflective practice be forced?” (2007). Hobbs enrolled on a CertTESOL course, similar to the one I did, in order to undertake an ethnographic study of course participants’ attitudes to reflection. Students were obliged to reflect on every lesson and to follow particular prompts to guide this. The prompts suggested certain expectations, anticipated particular modes of thinking and teaching. These expectations may not have been explicit in tutors’ minds, they may not have been in tutors’ minds at all, but they were keenly felt by the students. A requirement to explain how activities were connected would mean that students post-facto would invent connections, areas of difficulty in early lessons would appear in later journal posts as freshly won competences. This grim revisionism is a particularly soul-destroying pursuit and a reversal of the point of reflection. When learning outcomes are sliced together with reflection, the result can be a performative blancmange. People will hate you for wasting their time by making them serve it to you.
I am happy to report that this is not the nature of reflection on the courses I am assisting with at the moment. A colleague who is undertaking teacher training elsewhere has found that blancmange remains a popular dish.