Reflective practice, or learning from experience, is of value and importance to all educators, from the neophyte teacher to experienced school leaders. Its purpose is to reconstruct the individual’s beliefs and knowledge about their work, “the end result of [which] is cognitive change” (Yost, et al., 2000, p. 41). This in turn can enhance growth as an individual and serve to meet one’s “ethical responsibility” (Cambron- McCabe, 2000, p. 283) as an educator to improve social justice and equity in our schools. Such reflection takes practice and can be an uncomfortable process, but it can lead to challenges to the status quo and bring about informed change to the system, from the insider’s perspective, for the benefit of diverse learners such as those in New Zealand classrooms.
Reflective practice comes from continually learning from experience, building educators’ capacity to explore and critique their own approaches and develop alternative strategies for response to practical dilemmas. It links rather than separates theory and practice (Cambron-McCabe, et al., 2000), for the purpose of improving their teaching and their students’ experiences. This capacity to reflect creates a dissonance that “engages the reflective thinker to become an active inquirer” (Larrivee, 2008, p. 87), therefore “perpetually growing and expanding, opening up to a greater range of possible choices and responses” (p.87). In the best evidence synthesis of educational leadership carried out by New Zealand academics in 2009, Robinson, et al., concluded that “inquiry needs to become a common pedagogical practice” (p. 166), given New Zealand classrooms’ diversity.
Such diversity requires educators to have the means to construct knowledge about differences among their learners that may not be available in standardised assessments, so it is imperative that the educator can reflect on their own classroom or school-wide context, and then act on that reflective thinking by implementing appropriate solutions (Hatton, et al., 1995). Reflective practice can move the educator from routine and technical responses to the status quo, to autonomy and decision making, “opening up a range of possible choices and responses” (Larrivee, 2008, p. 88), and so addressing the diverse needs of the class or school-wide context.
To implement such a move towards alternative responses, the educator must first test for the assumptions and biases that they currently hold and question these in terms of their own actions and the wider purpose of schooling (Larrivee, 2008; Grogan & Cleaver Simmons, 2012; Cambron-McCabe, 2000; Bullough, et al., 2016; Yost, et al., 2000). In Senge’s Schools That Learn (2000), Cambron-McCabe points out that educators can feel powerless in the face of their assumptions and beliefs about education and their particular organisation, where highly bureaucratic schooling systems can weaken participant voice. She believes it is the “critical moral purpose” (p. 283) of the educator to critique the systems within their organisation by asking, “who benefits in this structure, who is harmed, what values does it affirm?” (p. 283), and then to act on their “ethical responsibility” (p. 283) to do what is best for every child, even if this challenges the current policy or system. In a context where the pressure of league tables and test scores can lead to educators prioritising “efficiency and expediency at the expense of ongoing reflection” (Larrivee, 2008, p. 88), reflective practice is about taking control and being empowered as professionals.
As the educator becomes more experienced in reflection they may move through certain levels of reflective response as appropriate in certain situations (Yost, et al., 2000; Hatton & Smith, 1995, Larrivee, 2008). According to Larrivee (2008), for example, reflection might be at a surface level, focusing on the actions or skills required to deal with a specific teaching incident; or it might move to reflection on the rationale for a pedagogical approach to a current topic. Critical reflection, however, moves the educator towards considering the ethical consequences of their actions, where the individual is able to critically examine their personal and professional beliefs and therefore focus both inwardly on their own practice and outwardly on the social context of their work. Ultimately, levels of reflection build to critically examining one’s own viewpoint within the wider context of schooling, whereby “the end result of critical reflection is cognitive change” (Yost, et al., 2000, p. 41).
Educators can be resistant to reflection, given that they are often time poor and may not have the resources for effective reflective practice, tending instead to focus on the immediate problem that they must solve (Hatton & Smith, 1995), where reflection might be considered a “diversion from the real work” (p. 37). For the neophyte teacher the default approach can be to revert to “traditional notions about schools based on their own experiences” (Yost, et al., 2000, p. 42) leading to resistance to reflection on their prior experiences. The priority is often learning “teacher survival skills” (Hatton & Smith, 1995, p. 37) rather than giving any time to learning how to be reflective. Reflecting critically can be an uncomfortable process, leading to self-blame and vulnerability as a professional (Hatton & Smith, 1995), and a sense of discomfort and emotional response (Larrivee, 2008).
However, with the adoption of effective tools for reflection such as journals, dialogue and action research (Yost, et al., 2000; Grogan & Cleaver Simmons, 2012; Larrivee, 2008), educators can learn to explore their practice from a critical stance, and grow from this. Dialogue, for example, can transform thinking through externalising one’s reflections, if the dialogue is challenging and not just “nice” (Yost, et al., 2000, p. 43). Collaborating in dialogue with peers who are prepared to be critical friends can help the educator to test their bias, explore multiple view-points, develop a clear point of view on the purpose of their practice, and “make meaningful change in schools” (p. 47). Such tools can deepen and support reflective practice, helping the educator to face professional challenges and move toward critical reflection and change.
Reflective practice has value and is important to education. There is value in teaching critical reflection to trainee teachers and expecting its practice among experienced teachers and leaders, in order to challenge educators’ own thinking about their work. In a particularly diverse setting such as New Zealand’s classrooms, the ability for educators to think beyond routine responses to creative problem solving is a necessity. Educators can use critical reflection to test the assumptions they have established through their own education, and to critique the status quo in their classroom, school or system so they can bring about change for their learners and best serve their ethical responsibility of ensuring social justice and equity in their practice in New Zealand schools.
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Cambron-McCabe, N. (2000). Schooling as an ethical endeavour. In P. Senge (Ed.) Schools that learn. (p. 318) London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
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