Space to Reflect

All good teachers know the importance of reflecting upon their practice, yet perhaps don’t spend as much time considering how to approach being reflective. The space that the summer holiday affords – time away from the all-encompassing nature of school life – lends itself well to considering this and laying the foundations for developing our teaching practice come September.

Reflecting on our practice is essential if we wish to continually improve and develop our teaching abilities. More than that, though, it offers us a way to make sense of the complexities, uncertainties and challenges that we face when teaching. Some reflections can be quick; we can usually recognise when a task or resource hasn’t really worked and can often think of a step we could take that may remedy its limitations. However, other aspects of our teaching practice may require a deeper level of thought and will often benefit from a critical and creative approach to reflecting. Being reflective is about being self-aware, often developed through reflections which shed light on our personal attributes. It is about small improvements, but can also embody transformative change. It requires the asking of awkward questions, the giving and taking of challenging advice. It is about recognising that we will never be the ‘perfect’ teacher, but must surely strive to be the very best we can be.

There are many ways to develop as a reflective practitioner:

  • Write a ‘teacher diary’. This doesn’t have to be every day, but it is a good habit to get into. Nor does it have to be long; in fact, it is best if short and focused. Perhaps consider one success and one thing that could have been improved (and also how you would improve it) each day.
  • Observe others. Observe other teachers and reflect on how their approach to teaching compares to yours. Have a focus for your observation, but be open-minded too. What great practice did you see that you could try yourself? Don’t assume that what works for someone else will also suit your unique style to teaching, but do be brave and try something if it has inspired you.
  • Be observed. Invite other teachers into your classroom. Have an open-door policy which encourages visits. Always ask for feedback and consider how you will act upon this.
  • Consider using IRIS, which is great for self-reflections (although sharing your lessons with others can also be very powerful) and can often make you aware of aspects of your teaching that you hadn’t previously considered (where do you stand? Who do you speak to (or ignore)? How do you come across to students? How is the pace? What do you do subconsciously?).
  • Ask your students. Give out exit slips at the end of key lessons, perhaps where you have tried something out or had a new focus. Ask for feedback at the end of a module. Keep your questions concise and to the point, without room for ambiguity. Consider using SurveyMonkey; the anonymity it offers can facilitate more honest responses. Consider asking your students to write a postcard to next year’s class (e.g. ask your Year 10s to write a postcard to next year’s Year 10 class) with their reflections on what they have enjoyed, what they struggled with and what advice they would give. Use this to inform your own practice.
  • Take part in a 360 Review. This type of honest feedback from a range of colleagues is both disarming and eye-opening. Ensure the person interviewing understands how to get the most out of the process. Have a professional dialogue with your chosen interviewer about the feedback. Use this feedback and your reflections to create targets.

Once you have received feedback on your teaching and reflected upon it, you will find you have areas you want to focus and work on. Discuss these with other teachers, your line manager or on twitter. Engage in professional dialogues about your practice. Find articles or books to read. Ask for help from those around you. Be prepared to try a number of new approaches or strategies in relation to your reflections; they won’t all be effective, of course. Most importantly, ensure that you are not just reflecting, but then acting upon your reflections to improve your practice.

As another year draws to a close and we have a chance to take stock, I think to a quote from John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” I hope you have a restful and reflective summer.

Ben Wright

Teachers make the worst students: how can we become better at using the research?

On Thursday, we attended the local TeachMeet where we heard some excellent presentations from teachers across local schools. For those that missed it, here is a summary of our presentation on how we can you move ourselves, our departments or and our schools towards a culture of evidence based practice.

Our journey into evidence based practice started when we read this from Ben Goldacre:

“there is a huge prize to be claimed by teachers…. by collecting better evidence about what works best, and establishing a culture where this evidence is used as a matter of routine, we can improve outcomes for children”     Ben Goldacre (2013)

As members of a profession that requires you to have a degree and postgraduate training, it seemed odd that compared to similar professions (for example: medical, nursing and social work), we tend to stop engaging with evidence and research after the training years. When discussing this with colleagues, we found that busy teachers don’t have the time to go hunting for the “good stuff” even though most showed an interest in finding out what the current thinking is.

How do we get evidence into schools and make it easier for our busy teachers?

  • CPD Library – Ask your school to invest in a selection of current literature (books on teaching, magazine subscriptions). The best thing about this idea is that it moves us away from INSET based CPD (where we have 5 or so days of training a year that we never think about again) and embeds use of research into everyday practice.
  • Social Media – Ideas have never been able to spread more quickly but there is an overwhelming amount of material out there. Look for posts with links to literature (peer reviewed or referenced) and look critically at anything that seems to lack any real evidence. Perhaps ask a member of SLT to be responsible for sending round a “blog of the week” or similar to facilitate staff access.
  • Masters Programs – Nothing better gets you reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of evidence than a degree specifically designed to do just that. A Masters can force you to reflect on your practice from an outside, meta-perspective grounded in pedagogy. Some schools offer financial support or some time off for reading (you don’t know if you don’t ask!).
  • Journal Clubs – Something I am incredibly proud to say that we set up in our school. One journal is selected (by us) per half term, and staff members gather to critically discuss it and its application in our context. After a half term of implementing ideas based on our discussions, we get together and reflect on how it all went. A really good way to build a space for those professional pedagogical conversations and to develop critical reflectivity.
  • TeachMeets – Of course, we were talking at a TeachMeet so couldn’t go without mentioning them. Teachers meeting from different departments and different schools sharing teaching ideas that they have researched and implemented. Our top tip here would be to take away a one or two ideas rather than trying to trial everything that you heard otherwise it can get a bit unmanageable.

And then what?

After all of that effort the next steps are really important. We devised the diagram below to highlight the importance of actually trying things out an “having a go” at adapting your practice based on your findings from the literature.

iagram

Most times, things won’t be refined on the first attempt. Reflect upon the reasons for this (which may require going back to the research) and try again, refining your strategy. Once you have – well done but the work isn’t quite done yet. This is the time to where you can show your colleagues, department and school leadership and encourage them to trial the idea too!

So what are you waiting for? 

Martha, Emily and Ben

 

References

  • Boyne, M. and Beadle, H. (2017).  Journal Club: A mechanism for bringing EB practice into school. Teacher Education Advancement Network (TEAN) Journal. 9(2), pp. 14-23.
  • Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Goldacre.B. (2013) Building Evidence into Education. Department for Education
  • Manchikanti, L. (2008) Evidence-Based Medicine, Systematic Reviews, and Guidelines in Interventional Pain Management, Part 1: Introduction and General Considerations. ­Pain Physician 11:161-186
  • Profetto-McGrath. J. (2004). Critical Thinking and Evidence-Based Practice. Journal of Professional Nursing. 10.1016
  • Youngblut. J. M., and Brooten. D. (2001) Evidence-Based Nursing Practice: Why is it Important? AACN Clinical Issues. 12(4):468-76

Twitter can be a dangerous world. Be careful out there…

I think that Twitter is brilliant. I mean, it’s not perfect, but for teachers it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities to share creative, practical ideas, to discuss pedagogy in critical dialogue, to encourage reflection of our own practice and that of others, and to develop networks of like-minded professionals who have the improvement of teaching practice – and therefore student outcomes – at the core of all that they do.

However, Martha and I were at the Teacher Researcher Conference at the University of Sussex on Saturday and, amongst presentations of fascinating research and much lively discussion, one comment caught our attention: many teachers are now formulating their teaching approaches from Twitter and blogs, and this is dangerous due to the unaccountability of what they are reading. This got me thinking about the direction that the delivery of pedagogy is taking and of the hazards, but also clear benefits, of the rise of Twitter and the teaching blogosphere.

I agree that there are some risks to the fact that any teacher, regardless of experience or ability, can proffer advice – often seemingly definitive – to the teaching world at large. Our blog, amongst many of others, does it with regularity (although I hope we show enough humility so as not to appear dogmatic or definitive). As a History teacher, I am acutely aware of the inherent dangers of sources with unreliable provenance and the teaching community at large must show the same discretion. Blogs are, by their very nature, personal opinions which may, or may not, be accurate or rooted in evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many great teaching strategies and ideas haven’t yet been subjected to objective research methods and analysis. Indeed, many simple classroom ideas don’t warrant such detailed research and even the most thoroughly evidenced approaches are subject to scrutiny and conflicting views. Furthermore, I’m sure we have all tried using critically accepted approaches to teaching and found that for our teaching style or with specific classes that they don’t work. However, it is hard to separate the good advice from the bad, especially when there is such an overwhelming range of often conflicting opinions being put forward. So what can we, as individuals and a community, do about this?

I’m afraid I don’t have a clear answer, but allow me to share some tentative thoughts. Evidence-based practice is undeniably important – indeed it is the bedrock of our personal approach to teaching – and it would be remiss of any teacher to not consider whether their teaching strategies reflect what has been evidenced to make the most impact. Yet this doesn’t really help us in the world of Twitter, where so many new, creative or challenging ideas are put forward which haven’t yet been subjected to the rigours of research. I don’t think we should avoid reading or trusting personal opinions, or only follow advice that is rooted in research, but that we must be critical of all that we read, whilst also having an open mind. I am aware that this sounds like an oxymoron and perhaps to an extent it is, but it is what we must do to both teach in the ‘best’ possible way, whilst also continuing to learn and develop our practice. We must consider whether we believe the advice we are reading to be accurate, if it matches our own thoughts and experiences, whilst also be willing to have our views challenged. We must consider typicality and whether the idea put forward has been backed up by other sources or goes against the grain, whilst not dismissing alternative views out of hand. We should consider if the advice is evidenced or not. It doesn’t have to be, but we then need to be aware that as an opinion it has its own attached weaknesses, whilst also not in any way necessarily being wrong because of this.

As I said earlier, I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps the frequency and sheer amount of blogs being posted is so overwhelmingly large that there is no panacea. There is, however, one thing that we can all do: be reflective of our own teaching practice. Whilst being willing to listen to and try out a range of strategies and ideas, you must also consider what is working in your classroom and for your students. This is something in your control, negating the provenance of the pedagogical input you receive. If you try something out and, upon reflection, you feel it has improved the progress your students are making, then keep doing it (and keep reflecting upon it). Likewise, if upon reflection the impact has been small or even negative, then don’t feel you have to keep following this approach. Or perhaps consider adapting or tweaking it. Or try it with another class. Classrooms are so diverse, that what works for you may not for someone else, and vice versa. This is what makes teaching such a stimulating and challenging profession to be in. The key is to keep reflecting upon what is or isn’t working for you. This, I believe, is what may make it possible to approach the range of ideas and strategies out there with a degree of confidence.

The world of Twitter is a dangerous one, but approaching its offerings with a degree of care and a reflective mindset should help to keep you safe.

Ben Wright