'What is reflective practice, and can it help to enhance teacher professionalism?'

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Dennis Sale

By Dennis Sale

THOSE familiar with my work will know that my vision and mission is to enhance teacher expertise globally. The main reason is simple, better teachers result in better learning for students. It’s also more satisfying for teachers when students are both academically successful and meaningfully engaged in their lessons. The other reason is more complex and far reaching.

As teaching is a universal activity across all societies, albeit in different forms, environments, and curriculum focus, teachers can be major productive change agents for the betterment of humanity.

In this column, I explore (analyse and evaluate) the concept of Reflective Practice (RP), explain why its impact on teacher professionalism has generated mixed results, and offer an evidence-based framework that addresses limitations in many present approaches.

What is Reflective Practice (RP)?

The notion that teachers should carefully reflect on their practice (eg. how they design, conduct, and evaluate what they do in classrooms, on what basis, and the actual impact on student learning) makes perfect sense. After all, this is what we would expect all professionals to do in any field of practice.

In the literature, there are many definitions on what constitutes RP, for example: Schon (1983), a pioneer in the field, defined it as: “thoughtfully considering your own experiences in applying knowledge to practice.” Similarly, Clouder (2000) framed it as: “the critical analysis of everyday working practices to improve competence and promote professional development.”

Using RP follows the same learning heuristics underpinning the development of competence in all performance activities. For example, a person must acquire the necessary knowledge and skill bases (eg. what is reflective practice and how it works; a deep understanding and expertise in the subject field – in this case, teaching).

It furthers helps the learning process when people have good thinking skills, especially meta-cognition. Finally, a personality configuration that includes high openness and curiosity adds greatly to the overall competence structure.

However, in terms of the effectiveness of RP in teaching, Hattie (2009), based on much research data, made this significant summary: The current penchant for “reflective teaching” too often ignores that such reflection needs to be based on evidence and not post-hoc justification.

Hence, on the one hand, there is a clear theoretical basis and logic for RP to effectively impact teaching quality. On the other hand, the research does not reveal a consistently high impact on heightened professional development. There seem to be limitations in actual practices and outcomes.

From my experience, a significant part of the explanation is inherent in Hattie’s summary, “reflections need to be based on evidence…not post-hoc justification.”

There is little value in asking teachers to do PR without a sound pedagogic framework (eg. a validated model of human learning and how this applies to the practices of teaching). Reflection on practice without a clear evidence-based framework will only likely result in partial and limited improvement at best.

What is Evidence-Based Reflective Practice (EBRP)?

EBRP employs the systematic and critical application of cognitive scientific principles/core principles of learning (eg. Willingham, 2009; Sale 2020).

For example, Willingham described such principles of learning, and illustrates their implications for practice, through an analogy with engineering:

Principles of physics do not prescribe for a civil engineer exactly how to build a bridge, but they do let him predict how it is likely to perform if he builds it. Similarly, cognitive scientific principles do not prescribe how to teach, but they can help you predict how much your students are likely to learn. If you follow these principles, you maximise the chances that your students will flourish.

Similarly, I derived nine core principles of learning that constitute validated empirical generalisations relating to effective learning. To illustrate context, learning is enhanced when:

  • Learning goals, objectives, and proficiency expectations are visible to learners.

  • Students’ prior knowledge is activated and connected to new learning.

  • Subject content is organised around key concepts and principles that are fundamental to understanding the structure of a subject.

  • Good thinking is infused in instruction to build understanding.

  • Instructional methods and presentation mediums engage the range of human senses.

  • Learning design and instruction aligns to, and supports the working of memory systems.

  • Deliberate practice is employed to develop competence/expertise.

  • Assessment practices are integrated into the learning design to promote desired learning outcomes and provide quality feedback.

  • A psychological climate is created which is both success-orientated and fun.

These core principles of learning can then be used to design customised evidence-based reflective practice tools (Sale, 2020). While these tools cannot eliminate all subjectivity in an appraisal discourse, it mitigates the areas of potential conflict and, most importantly, its use is consistently experienced as positive by practising teachers.

Core principles of learning are not meant to be exhaustive or summative – as new validated knowledge on psychological functioning is to be accommodated as appropriate. However, they do constitute powerful universal heuristics in the design and facilitation of learning in all contexts (eg. face-to-face teaching, blended learning, fully online).

What this means is that teaching can be designed, conducted, and evaluated from a sound pedagogic base. In other words, teaching can be subjected to a systematic evidence-based pedagogic analysis, which will increase both diagnoses of learning events in terms of their effectiveness and efficiency, as well as designing learning events with a high probability of successful outcomes.

This will significantly enhance all teaching and training professionals ability to conduct a more rigorous and useful process of reflective practice; whereby they can not only identify what has worked well, or not so well, but also the underlying psychological principles that have led to such outcomes.

In summary, EBRP provides an approach and a methodology to both diagnose lesson effectiveness and predict teaching and learning possibilities through a systematic, focused and more objective base for understanding the experience of learning. As Treadwell (2017) noted in the wider context:

Our ability to reflect on our practice underpins all professional associations. If the medical profession stopped looking for best practice, then the role of technologies and the realignment of how hospitals met their purpose in the 21st century would not have resulted in the transformation of hospital services over the last 20 years.

Education has just begun this process and it will take the same passionate determination to ensure that every school is developing each learner’s competencies, enabling their ability to learn – anything, anywhere, with anyone, at any time.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as Advisor, Researcher, and Examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.