How to develop more reflective practitioners in your school

man-in-front-of-sunsetAndy-Williams-newAndy Williams, SSAT Senior Education Lead, Teaching and Learning, spells out the rationale, some successful processes and how they are applied…

Put ‘reflective practice’ into a search engine and what do you get?

“Reflective practice is a way of studying your own experiences to improve the way you work. It… is a great way to increase confidence and become a more proactive and qualified professional.” This is from Brightside, a charity advising on career pathways for health professionals, but of course it is just as relevant to education professionals.

SSAT’s core beliefs on teaching and learning show synergies:

  • Teaching and learning are complex.
  • Teachers are highly skilled professionals and learners.
  • All teachers and students have the talent and potential to grow.
  • Great teachers know, care and have time for their learners.
  • Learners should be on a journey towards co-constructing their own learning.
  • All learning should be an active process with challenge.

Just like the young people in their care, teachers are learners too, seeking the ‘best’ teaching strategy, the ‘most effective’ lesson plan or learning activity.

All teachers are reflective, but it is easy to be too hard on ourselves. As Dylan Wiliam puts it, “our daily lived experience as a teacher is failure.” Dylan talks about how every teacher fails on a daily basis, that while in any profession the individual needs challenge, we have that in abundance in teaching. Teaching is hard. But Dylan also goes on to say, “and that is what makes it the best job in the world.” Watch Dylan’s introduction to teacher reflective practice here.

Of course, some practitioners are more adept at reflection than others. They derive more from each experience that aids their own professional development, be that through the sheer frequency of reflections or the use of a structure to help focus this reflection.

It is these structures I would like to briefly dwell on. Consider Professor Graham Gibbs’ cycle of reflection (Learning by Doing, 1988). This has six stages:

  1. description
  2. feelings
  3. evaluation
  4. analysis
  5. conclusion
  6. action plan.

Gibbs’ model was developed from an earlier theoretical model: David Kolb’s 4 stage experiential learning cycle (1984).

Whereas Kolb’s model is sometimes referred to as an experiential learning model, ie learning through experience, Gibbs’ model is more iterative, or learning through repetition; which potentially gives us a better fit for the classroom.

The key factors in any structure or framework for reflective practice, however, are that it:

  • makes us ask questions of ourselves
  • challenges our assumptions
  • enables us to explore new ideas and approaches to teaching and learning
  • links evidence-based practice to theory and research
  • allows us to develop professionally.

This forms the basis of the SSAT Lead Practitioner accreditation framework:

Ten criteria arranged in three categories outline the characteristics of a lead practitioner (LP): a practitioner who not only has a positive impact on the progress made by learners, but also influences the practice of colleagues, in their own school and/or beyond.

Within each of the criteria, aspiring LPs are encouraged to consider key questions:

Why do you do what you do?
What do you do to drive progress?
How do you achieve the results you do?
Impact: what is it and how do you know?

Answering these questions, along with the evidence supporting these answers, enables aspiring LPs to create their portfolio for accreditation, thereby validating their action research in school. Each of the criteria provides the questions to ask of ourselves, challenge our assumptions, enable us to explore new ideas, etc, as shown in Gibbs’ model.

One of the fundamental issues at play here is that teachers want to improve their practice, and schools want to create a culture of continuous improvement for all. This is one where we don’t restrict support, discussion, exploration and validation to those on the brink of capability: we open up support for reflective practice to all practitioners.

As Sir Ken Robinson puts it in his TED talk, if we want the best education and great learning we need great teachers. Robinson also talks about the role of a teacher being to facilitate learning – it is that simple. We are not teaching unless learning is happening. Despite the complexity of teaching itself, perhaps the reflection on what we do and its effectiveness can be simplified.

Consider Rolfe’s reflective model which asks just three questions: what?, so what? and now what?


  • is the problem, barrier, issue?
  • was my role in the situation?
  • was I trying to achieve?
  • actions did I take?
  • was the response of others?
  • were the consequences for the learner? For myself? For others?
  • feelings did it evoke in the leaner? Myself? Others?
  • was good/bad about the strategy/technique/lesson?

So what?

  • does this tell me or teach me about me? My learners? Others?
  • does this tell me or teach me about the teaching model I’m using?
  • was going through my mind as I acted?
  • did I base my actions on?
  • other knowledge can I bring to the situation?
  • could/should I have done to make it better?
  • is my new understanding of the situation/issue/problem?
  • are the broader issues arising from the situation/issue/problem?

Now what?

  • do I need to do in order to make things better?
  • do I need to do to improve my teaching? To resolve the situation/issue/problem?
  • are the broader issues that need to be considered if this action is to be successful?
  • might be the consequences of this action?

Of course, one of the biggest issues with reflective practice is that as teaching is complex, so the understanding of reflective practice is diverse. It is probably fair to assume that there is very rarely just one approach that works consistently, with every class, on any given day.

So perhaps it is useful to consider in practical terms how we can engender this culture of reflective practice in our schools.

Feedback from schools that I work with often refers to the difference it makes to bring all staff together with a common goal – to discuss, review and unpack teaching and learning. The more we can make these opportunities happen in schools the better, although that is not easy to squeeze into an already burgeoning timetable.

Over the years we have seen an upsurge in fairly informal gatherings such as Teachmeets and Pedagoo events, where practitioners get together to reflect on their practice. While some of these events are held in schools, many schools still adhere to the traditional CPD session consisting of a presentation by an ‘expert’ who imparts knowledge to the assembled audience.

However the knowledge is communicated, it will not improve the daily lived experience where it matters – with the learners – unless the practitioner changes their classroom practice.

Programmes such as the SSAT Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme (TEEP) advocate a variety of activities that enable reflective practice, including:

  • structured conversation (TEEP PEEP)
  • speed dating
  • teaching and learning market place
  • the final word protocol
  • the fishbowl discussion.

Each activity has a protocol for delivery, opportunities to ask questions and the facility to share, unpick and challenge what works in the classroom.

For example, a TEEP PEEP is a structured conversation that is delivered as such:

Form a pair and decide who will be A and who will be B. Take some time (perhaps five minutes) to consider an area of practice that you will share with your partner. Ensure you have enough materials to help you explain both what you did and the result of this with the learner.

Step 1 (5 minutes) A
A presents their area of practice while B listens. B offers no comments at this point. The agenda belongs to A.

Step 2 (2 minutes) B
B asks A questions that clarify and/or probe to enrich the explanation; A responds.

Steps 3 & 4 (5 minutes)
Repeat steps 1 & 2 with B presenting their area of practice and A asking the questions.

Step 5 (5 minutes)

Open conversation between A & B.

The simplicity of the procedure is one of its strengths. Not only does this elicit a comprehensive discussion about teaching and learning, it also is a very efficient use of time.

Facilitators may wish to provide question stems to aid the dialogue, in which case you may wish to refer to Rolfe’s model of reflective practice outlined earlier.

There are clearly many ways to develop a culture of reflective practice in schools. My experience has been that programmes such as TEEP and LP leave a legacy of reflective culture in every school that has used them.

We are inclined to think of reflection as something quiet and personal. My argument here is that reflection is action-oriented, social and political. Its ‘product’ is praxis (informed, committed action), the most eloquent and socially significant form of human action.

Stephen Kemmis, “Action Research and the Politics of Reflection” in David Boud, Rosemary Keogh and David Walker, eds., Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning (New York: Kogan Page Ltd., 1985) pp139, 141

Find out more about the Lead Pracititioner Accreditation.

Find out more about TEEP.

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