Reflective practice as part of teachers' professional development

Many teachers come from professional backgrounds where reflection on practice is an important part of their work. For example, courses in areas such as building, architecture and civil engineering often include a reflective practice component because it's an important skill for practitioners.

Here's a great example from Davis et al (2009), Assessing design and reflective practice in capstone engineering design courses.

If you 'Google' the phrase 'reflective practice in higher education' you will see that it is used in two different but related ways:

  1. Teachers, as professionals, reflecting on the practice of teaching
  2. Teachers employing activities and assessments that require students to reflect on their learning.

This discussion page focuses on the first definition, but the second definition is also relevant, and is covered in another discussion on 'Indepth Reflective Practice' for learners.

The aim of this discussion is: To develop skills in reflective practice for teachers (using Fink's Taxonomy):

  • Foundational knowledge - Understand the concept of reflective practice;
  • Application of knowledge - Build skills in reflecting on practice both individually and collaboratively;
  • Caring about the subject - Explore the value of reflective practice to teaching and professional development
  • Learning how to teach and learn - Develop an ability to reflect on teaching practice
  • The human dimension of learning - Understand oneself and how one's teaching impacts on learners;
  • Integration of knowledge - Develop skills as a reflective practitioner that are transferrable to other spheres of life.

Reflection-in-practice and reflection-on-practice

Reflection on practice is part of evaluation of teaching practice. As teachers, many of us routinely think about what we do in teaching spaces and how and why we do it. Reflective practice allows us to ask questions, in a structured or disciplined way, about those issues, particularly about the unspoken assumptions that we bring to our practice. Reflective practice typically involves the application of a reflective cycle such as this one for language teachers from the National Capital Language Resource Center in Washington.

Here's a graphic model from the School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham:

Why reflect on teaching practice? Some reasons might be that it keeps us fresh, motivated, engaged. It's a great way of supporting applications for promotion and teaching awards! And it improves our teaching and learning.

Many resources on reflective practice are based on the work of educationalist and planner Donald Schon. His book, 'The Reflective Practitioner' (1983) challenged professionals in areas as diverse as architecture, education, town planning and health, to question the widespread assumption that their professional decision-making was guided by a 'technical rationality'. In environmental planning, for example, he argued that the idea that planning decisions could be based solely, or largely, on factual, technical and scientific information, led planners to downplay (or outright ignore) the human and social dimensions of environmental decision-making.

Donald Schon and Martin Rein co-authored the 1994 text 'Frame Reflection'. Schon and Rein argued that professional practitioners, including us as teachers, should reflect carefully on the 'frames' through which we view our practice. How we frame a problem makes all the difference to how we plan solutions, yet much of what frames a problem is unspoken and implicit. For example, how many of us, as professionals, believe that technical facts should be the basis of decision-making? And as teachers, who among us has made the unspoken assumption that our students seem unable to think for themselves? And in the coffee room at morning tea, who has found those beliefs reinforced in conversations with colleagues? Reflective practice requires us to step back and question those beliefs and assumptions - whether the outcome is that they are retained, modified or discarded.

Along with Chris Argyris, Schon developed the idea of 'reflection-in-action' and 'reflection-on-action' through a process of 'double-loop learning':

Double-loop learning requires us to step outside the typical problem-solving process to examine the assumptions that underpin our planning. In double-loop learning, we not only evaluate our practice, but we also reflect on how we evaluate. See this explanation of Reflective Practice and Double-Loop Learning in Teaching.

The key question in reflective practice is: What are we taking for granted in our practice and our problem-solving?

A group exercise in reflection on practice

(If you are working as a group we can prepare this exercise for you)

For this exercise you will need to work with colleagues. Each of you will post a reflection (either in a blog or on a 'Google Document', to be read by your colleagues, in which you:

  1. describe an experience you have had as a teacher where things didn't go as well as you'd planned;
  2. reflect on why this problem occurred, including examining any assumptions you made about the situation (e.g. about students' skills and abilities; the level of materials used; etc); and
  3. describe what you would do differently next time, including your goals and your plan for achieving those goals;
  4. once all the blogs have been posted, read through other blogs and provide feedback on at least THREE other blogs. In your feedback you should identify any assumptions that you think your colleagues bring to their problem and proposed solution;
  5. later, once all feedback has been posted, return to your blog and reflect on the feedback from colleagues. In light of that feedback, add to your blog posting describing how, if at all, your further reflection has changed your view of the problem and solution.

The point of this exercise is for you to uncover and reflect on the (often unspoken) assumptions that you bring to identifying problems and planning solutions.

You might consider conducting a similar exercise with your students as a way of requiring them to reflect on their own practice as learners and as future professionals.

Research and industry stakeholder feedback consistently tells us that employers value the ability to critically reflect on a problem as much, if not more, than they value job-specific skills. Many 21st Century professions require critical practitioners to be able to provide innovative solutions to complex, rapidly-changing problems involving multiple stakeholders and multiple dimensions. Do you, as a teacher, encourage, model and assess your students for those graduate attributes?

Teaching 'e-portfolios' as a tool for ongoing reflective practice

Teaching portfolios are a great way of reflecting on practice and are essential for performance management, promotion, and teaching awards. All teachers should have a portfolio which covers the last five years of their teaching career. If you are interested in developing a teaching portfolio, check out Te Puna Ako's Moodle course on E-Portfolios for Staff 101 (you will need a login).

Unitec's Living Curriculum and reflective practice

There are some clear synergies between being a reflective teacher and practitioner and supporting Unitec's Living Curriculum. The Living Curriculum comprises these elements:

Complex conversations
Socially constructed
Blended delivery
Discipline-based & interdisciplinary
Literacies for life-long learning
Embedded assessment

Both the Living Curriculum and reflective practice view teaching and learning as ongoing conversations, where knowledge is constructed in collaborative activities. As reflective teachers and learners within the Living Curriculum, our challenge is to work with change and uncertainty, and to respond to the dynamic nature of professions in the 21st Century through innovative teaching. e-Learning, which puts learners in touch with a world of constantly evolving ideas, is a critical part of this process.

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Comment by Caroline Malthus on May 28, 2010 at 14:55
A further resource on the principles underlying reflective practice (of both types mentioned above) for teachers is at

It is written with teachers of law in mind and includes a useful booklet outlining ways of building greater reflective practice into courses.

A challenge for me is to come up with or locate useful materials for developing skills of reflective on practice / reflection on action and on learning in students, in ways that are genuine rather than just going through the motions of reflecting because the teacher has set an assessment task which includes reflective questions. Learners sometimes seem mystified as to why the teacher is asking them for their reflections, and they feel that the things they might write or say seem altogether too obvious or trite.

I think it's worth building up to such tasks through regular formative practice of reflection. There's a school of thought of course which says that we shouldn't actually be assessing reflection...that it's not appropriate to grade this kind of learning.

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