Reflective Practice

The view from over your own shoulder

Evaluating your teaching. This was the CPD session I ran today for university teachers at all levels. Technicians who ensure that researchers learn to work complex (and expensive) equipment, tutors, graduate teaching assistants, and lecturers. One of the things that strikes me most when teaching sessions on evaluating teaching and scholarship of learning and teaching, is the perception of what data is. Or what should be explored. Most commonly people have a clear idea they should probably asked their students, send some questionnaires, or run some focus groups. So I asked. Why do we not start with our selves?

Genuine freedom, in short, is intellectual; it rests in the trained power of thought, in ability to “turn things over,” to look at matters deliberately, to judge whether the amount and kind of evidence requisite for decision is at hand, and if not, to tell where and how to seek such evidence.

John Dewey, How we think, p.67

During my undergraduate degree one of my part-time jobs was to teach English in kindergarten. In this role I developed an early language curriculum and all the material from scratch, because in the early 2000s there wasn’t anything around for early language learners: This is the backdrop for my most influential development experience as an educator. And the time where my reflection-on-action became reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983).

For more background story read here:

My granddad became a teacher in an agricultural boarding college, after having recovered from severe injury sustained during a harvest, breaking his back and spending 1,5 years in rehab. At that time he was a retired teacher veteran of 30 years (I still have his Pestalozzi Medal he got at the 25 years mark). He had specialised in teaching young offenders who were sent to his school for ‘re-socialisation’ after being in a youth correction facility*. He was an experienced pedagogue who always brought reflections on human nature and psychology to our conversations.

He told me, he used to have introduction interviews with the young adults. And he said some of the files he had on them were large. But his approach was, to say: ‘I have your file here. I did not open it. I won’t open it. I want you to show me who you are not a piece of paper.’ And he told me he truly never opened the files. I remember as a child occasionally bumping into some of his former apprentices and how happy they always were to see him.

So twice a week, when I was on my way back from teaching in kindergarten, he would wait with his coffee and cake by the phone for my call** to have a reflective practice session after my teaching—although we did not use these terms then. These conversations influenced and shaped much of what I do now as a lecturer in academic development (Hochschuldidaktik). He created an environment of trust and no judgement, I could speak openly about frustrations, embarrassments, joys. If things didn’t go so well, he would use Socratic Inquiry technique to guide me through the process, making suggestions when I became stuck.

And over the relatively short period of time we engaged in this reflection-on-action, I became aware that I moved the reflection into the classroom. That I had learned to look over my own shoulder and analyse and adapt more easily.

So one of my goals is to create a process of co-creating meaning, of learning from one another, when mentoring and coaching. We are, after all, teaching peers. I try to offer the same safe space, to be that outside voice, that enabled me to look over my own shoulder. So evaluate my pedagogies from the point of the learners, and not from the point of my emotional reactions to a situation. Teaching like learning–and teaching as learning–is identity negotiation. It can be scary, challenging, surprising, rewarding, so we constantly have to adapt and change and question. Employ reflective practice.

This is my philosophy. How to go about it, is what I usually integrate in teaching about evaluating teaching, but that’s for another post.


*We are talking East Germany I would assume much of this was probably political rather than criminal, but we never spoke about this.

** This was our special time, he was already rather ill at that point, and his energy levels from the cancer treatment sometimes quite low. My gran said: ‘You should see him. He perks up just waiting for your call and then afterwards is much more energised and happy.’

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