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Reflective Practice in Action: A Reflective Book Review

December 20th, 2008

I stopped at a Half-Priced Books store in Monroeville this past October and found myself burrowing around in their really great section in the back of the store, for “Teaching.” In it, I picked up some really great titles cheap, including a book I want to call attention to in this review, called Reflective Practice in Action: 80 Reflection Breaks for Busy Teachers by Thomas S.C. Farrell. But before I get to it, I wanted to first say that spontaneously browsing around in the “Teaching” or “Education” section of a bookstore is a really good idea once in awhile — especially if you’re not a pedagogy specialist or teacher trainer by profession — and I encourage you to take a moment to do this if you’re shopping in a bookstore for the holidays. You might be surprised by what gifts you might find for yourself.
It’s also the case that those bookstore sections for Teaching and Education are rarely well-organized and become a catch-all for any title that smacks of school. Thus, you often find exercises for kindergarteners and home-schooler workbooks placed side by side with philosophical books and guitar instructional manuals. It’s a mess. That’s both good and bad (and perhaps says something about the coherency of our industry): you’ll have to dig to find what you need, but you might find a hidden treasure.
Of course, that’s true of all bookstore shelves to some degree. And the ENTIRE bookstore is really about learning, is it not?
In any case, one of those hidden treasures I recently found was Reflective Practice in Action by Thomas S.C. Farrell (Corwin Press, 2004). It seems like just the sort of book any teacher who blogs or keeps a journal would find of interest, because it is filled with questions, worksheets and discussions intended to prompt thinking and writing about one’s mission and career as an instructor. Through reflective teaching, Farrell claims, “teachers can begin to locate themselves within their profession and start to take more responsibility for shaping their practice” (6).
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I know a lot of teachers who struggle over writing their annual self-reports, development plans, and teaching portfolios. Sometimes this struggle is located in one’s relationship to writing itself. At other times, these documents that we have to write in the name of development sometimes are seen as empty exercises in paper shuffling, bureaucratical nonsense, and just one more thing to do on top of a million others. One sometimes wonders what the point of it all is, when only one person or committee often reads it closely before it’s filed away in some infinitely-receding drawer of bureaucratic paperwork, never to be seen again.
But I have always refused to see any project that involves writing as a waste of time. It makes me a better writer and often my writing leads me to new ways of seeing a topic, inspiring me to change my relationship to it. So rather than treating those “official” forms of reflection as dehumanizing forms of busy work, I have tried to use those documents as moments to write reflectively about my career (sometimes to the consternation of those who have to read them, because I write a lot). This book reminds me that reflection — taking stock about where one has gone and where one is going — is entirely the point of those documents to begin with.
Moreover, this slim, 100 page book makes reflecting on one’s work easier, more pleasurable and, ultimately, more significant. Grounded in the principles of reflective practice, it aims at helping teachers see their work in a less technical and more organic fashion. While not every “guided reflection break” offered in the book is equally of value, the book does an excellent job identifying the diverse areas where one might direct their attention in thinking reflectively, and it utilizes research in a refreshingly clear and practical manner, by emphasizing activity and application of the principles it outlines in a systematic (but not overly formal) way.
The book opens by exploring the theories behind “reflective practice” by immediately engaging the reader in thinking that reexamines one’s assumptions about teaching and how they have played out in our practical work. It is a transformative process founded on heightened self-awareness. “…Reflective practice is a systematic and structured process in which we look at concrete aspects of teaching and learning with the overall goal of personal change and more effective practice…we change as a result of the awareness brought about by engaging in reflection.” (27).
Farrell seems to draw the bulk of his research from the work of Kenneth Zeichner and Daniel Liston, authors of Reflective Teaching: An Introduction, which delves into the pedagogical theory behind reflective practice in depth. The book brings more critics into the picture — like Daniel Schon and Max Van Manen — and the bibliography covers all the primary sources in this field of pedagogy. I think Farrell’s book can be seen as a sort of practical workbook to go along with Zeichner and Liston’s title, so the two could work hand in hand if assigned in a teacher development course. Some of Farrell’s “prompts” would occur naturally to a reader of Reflective Teaching: An Introduction, but what makes Farrell’s book useful is the systematic and proactive way in which he guides the application of its concepts.
The first four chapters of the book provide an array of models for reflective practice and explore methods for any teacher or group to put theory into action. It’s a great concise overview, while being inspirational (covering the first 24 prompts of the 80 in the book). In the book’s fifth chapter, the author outlines the “Farrell Model of Reflective Practice,” which identifies a wide range of different ways in which the prompts in the book can be utilized, whether in isolation or in groups, while covering the principle modalities of reflection (37). This section opens up the numerous arenas in which reflection can occur — from journals to teacher development workshops — and readers might be surprised by the number of reflective practices happening all around us on campus all the time, and the myriad ways one can approach reflective thinking.
The latter chapters of Farrell’s book are focused on specific means toward enhancing one’s reflective practice. These processes are: group discussions, classroom observations, journal writing, and the teaching portfolio. The book ends by encouraging one to be a “reflective practitioner” and is the most involved and personal chapter for helping teachers come up with their own prompts for reflection. Here he draws upon and expands Zeichner and Liston’s five principle elements of the reflective practitioner in a way worthy of citing fully:

A reflective teacher:

  • Examines, frames, and attempts to solve dilemmas in classroom practice.
  • Is aware of and questions the assumptions and values he or she brings to teaching
  • Is attentive to the institutional and cultural contexts in which he or she teaches
  • Takes part in curriculum development and is involved in school change efforts
  • Takes responsibility for his or her own professional development

Farrell’s book is a great assistant in making one a more reflective teacher, in general. But there are other things he brings to the table that got my interest. For example, he talks about using a method called the SCORE (Seating Chart Observation Record) to analyze how teachers interact with groups that seems very useful for, say, analyzing a videotape of one’s class or observing a colleague’s class. This would involve drawing a seating chart,and drawing lines between teacher and students when questions are asked or addressed, which I imagine could be revelatory of unconscious habits like favoring one side of the room or calling on the same set of students over and over again.
Overall, I’m glad I stumbled upon this book and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for something to prompt their writing about teaching (like bloggers) or help in writing their own self-assessments. I think administrators and faculty development coordinators who are looking for practical ways to help faculty energize their growth in an autonomous-yet-connected fashion would benefit greatly from this title.
See ItsLife’s coverage of more issues in reflective practice.

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  1. December 20th, 2008 at 16:54 | #1

    Thanks for the pointer to this book, which I hadn’t come across; I’ll follow it up with interest.
    You raise some interesting points for me.
    The first concerns the kind of “directed reflection” the book seems to be promoting. I’m fairly convinced that such directed reflection is self-limiting (the autonomous reflective practitioner has to decide for herself what she needs to reflect on–a “meta-reflective” process, if you like, like Argyris’ “double-loop” learning). But colleagues on our teacher-education programme argue this is too difficult for beginning teachers; they need a scaffolded structure. They may be right. Unfortunately in the compliance culture which besets UK colleges at the moment, that tends to be hijacked by management to produce yet more quality assurance check-lists,
    The second is more general, however. A few weeks ago a friend and former colleague who has been teaching consultation skills to medical doctors in Asia and Africa for the past few years, bemoaned her “students’” inability to reflect meaningfully. Was reflection “culturally embedded” (not her term, but from a colleague I later consulted with a similar range of cross-cultural experience)? Is it a feature of western individualism, perhaps? If so, what is the counterpart for non-western colleagues seeking similar engine of professional self-improvement?
    And thanks for referring to my page on reflective practice!
    James

  2. December 20th, 2008 at 19:46 | #2

    James Atherton writes: “Was reflection “culturally embedded”? Is it a feature of western individualism, perhaps?”
    It may well be that the forms of reflection are culturally embedded.
    I teach in Japan, not known as a bastion of individualism, and I find it difficult to get students to grasp what I want when I say “reflection”. First, I have not been able to find a good translation for the meaning of “reflection” that does not involve light and mirrors. Secondly, there IS a word – hansei 反省 – which means self-criticism (and brings to mind those awful sessions in Mao’s Communist China). Not what I want, either.
    I have had some success with the following wording: “What did you learn in today’s class?” Brilliantly original, I know (my students are undergraduate freshmen). I found a Japanese colleague who regularly asks (in Japanese) his students to write (in Japanese) a few lines in answer to that question in the last few moments of his classes.
    So I doubt the concept of “self-reflection” is not universal. However, its forms may well be culturally defined. This would explain the fact that I get something much closer to what I want by changing the wording of my request (i.e. being more explicit, a vital necessity when communicating between cultures, especially in such a high-context culture as Japan’s).
    I also like Ed Nuhfer’s
    (Nutshell Notes Vol. 1 Number 6, October 1992)):
    1) What do you view as the most important thing that you learned in today’s class?
    2) What is the foremost question or concern in your mind about today’s material?
    (Ed Nuhfer’s excellent collection of 1-page tips for university lecturers can be downloaded from Denver University website as a pdf file here: http://thunder1.cudenver.edu/CFD/publications/nutshell_notes.pdf )

  3. December 21st, 2008 at 10:42 | #3

    Thanks for these wonderful responses, James & Marc. The point that relection means different things in different cultures is brilliant, and your examples really got me thinking…and reflecting on my own cultural situatedness! Bravo.
    Since this is connected to this particular book review, I should point out that Farrell has taught extensively overseas and has also published on some of these subjects, as noted on his home page.
    Thank you for sharing Nuhfer’s collection of teaching tips, too. I hope anyone reading this doesn’t overlook it — it’s jammed PACKED with great advice! Perhaps I can do more to spotlight this on Pedablogue soon. — Mike Arnzen

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