IATEFL 2012: Exploring the discourse of reflective practice

Bróna Murphy has just finished her afternoon session on reflective practice.  Here are some notes from her talk, interspersed with my thoughts (prefaced by ‘…’).

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The talk in a nutshell:

Experienced and inexperienced teachers reflect differently.  The inexperienced are often criticised for not being as good at it!  So what are the implications of this for teacher education?

And in a bit more detail:

The case for reflective practice is well-established (just look at Adrian Underhill’s song about reflective practice this morning!).  Teachers’ ability to reflect, analyse and act on their learnings is central to much teacher education nowadays – at all stages of teachers’ careers.

The problem is, despite its long standing, the notion of reflective practice has “lost its sharpness”. (Morrison, 1995:82).  From person to person, our understanding of what reflection is and how it’s done varies quite a bit.

Reflection is moving away from being a solitary process.  We co-construct meaning and reflection.

She quotes several authors in summarising that new pre-service teachers desire, but don’t achieve reflection; they reflect on the past and present but not the future; and their reflections tend to be superficial and shallow.

…But in my experience of teacher training on the (pre-service) CertTESOL course, this isn’t always the case.  Maybe this is something some trainers encourage (unwittingly, I hope), but my colleagues and I have often stressed to pre-service trainees the need to consider the bigger picture – i.e. it’s not enough to be superficial, or to think only about their performance on the course.  They need to reflect on what they’re ultimately going to be, when (if?) they pass the course: a language teacher, with real, demanding students who deserve a good learning experience.

In her corpus analysis, the pronoun “I” occurs almost equally in both spoken and written reflective discourse.  But “you” occurs far more frequently in spoken reflective discourse!  This reflects what she said earlier about reflection being a negotiation, a co-construction of meaning, a dialogue.

Some examples of “you” dialogue occur in clusters, typically used by supervisors/observers: “you could have”, “how do you”, “you have to”, “what do you”, etc.

“Think” is by far and away the highest frequency verb in spoken reflective practice data from the corpus.  Typical clusters are “do you think…” and “what/why/how do you think…”.  Essentially, spoken reflection adds the “you”; written reflection is heavy on the “I”.  She argues that all this suggests guidance, allowing teachers in training to reflect and spot things they may not have considered.

“Good” is used less in written reflections – trainees tend to focus on the negative in this case.

“Need” tends to be used more in written reflection by inexperienced than by experienced teachers.  (The most common cluster with “need” is “I need to…” (e.g. work on, improve, learn how), etc.

“Think” tends to be used more in written reflection by experienced than by inexperienced teachers.

On these last two points, it appears that the trainees feel the pressure to be more assertive and bring up their game.

…So, inexperienced teachers feel less confidence in their own knowledge and more pressure from supervisors to ‘get it right’?

48% of the time, experienced teachers were concerned with how the students were feeling (based on corpus data on use of “feel” in reflections).

98% of the time, inexperienced teachers were concerned with how they themselves were feeling (based on corpus data on use of “feel” in reflections).

Use of “I” in corpus data shows that experienced teachers are re-framing in their reflections, being more evaluative: “I should have”, “I could have”, etc.

Inexperienced teachers are pre-occupied with their progress and discussing these developments.

Corpus data also shows that NOT ALL experienced teachers do critical reflection – 48% of the “I could have” occurrences came from just one teacher, and 68% of the “I should have” occurrences came from just two teachers combined!  There’s quite a bit of individual variation.

Murphy argues that reflective discourse is shaped, influenced or moulded by various factors: level of experience, medium (spoken/written) of reflection, genre (reflections/observations) and individual factors.

What does all of this mean for teacher education?  Murphy says we should argue for more (collaborative?) reflective opportunities; we should acknowledge and accept stages of reflective development; we should consider new means of reflecting (e.g. blogs?); we should consider individual differences; we should appreciate stages of reflection and encourage guidance where necessary; these findings should inform reflective frameworks.

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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