What exactly is reflective pedagogy, and why should teachers care?
Updated: Oct 13, 2022
Hello friends, and welcome back to the Teacher Think-Aloud Podcast Blog!
Since this is only our second blog post, we thought we should use it as an opportunity to get back to basics and talk about something that drives everything we do: reflective pedagogy! We launched this podcast hoping to inspire teachers to dive deeper into their own reflective practice, and offer some jumping-off points to do so. So… what exactly is “reflective pedagogy” and why do we put it on a pedestal?
Reflective pedagogy draws from John Dewey, the father of experimentalism within education. In his words, "We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience" ... and that is essentially the premise of reflective pedagogy. Reflective Practice involves the process of continuous critical reflection to foster self-learning and to improve subsequent practices.
“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience” - John Dewey
Another important scholar in the world of experiential learning is David Kolb. Kolb captured this iterative process in what he called the Experiential Learning Cycle.
The first stage of learning is, of course, a Concrete Experience – in our case, a teaching experience. Then there’s the Reflective Observation stage, where teachers review what they did and reflect on the experience itself. Ultimately in this phase, the goal is to examine our lesson plan and how it compares to our thought process and reactions during the experience. After that is Abstract Conceptualization, drawing conclusions or learning something from the experience.
And then we move into Active Experimentation, planning and trying out something new based on what we’ve learned.
So, to summarize: Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, Experimentation...and the process starts all over again. It’s a cyclical process.
Within reflective pedagogy, teachers have two approaches to consider: top-down and bottom-up. In a top-down approach, teachers consider what they know from educational research and theories and apply what they know to their classroom teaching. For example, as a starting point, we might consider the theory behind learning vocabulary and then compare that to what we’re doing in the classroom. Through the process, we might realize that we are not teaching vocabulary in a way that aligns completely with the theory. From there, we might then try to realign ourselves and systematically apply that theory to our classrooms. In other words, the “top” is the theory that informs what’s happening in the classroom.
A bottom-up approach instead starts with what’s actually happening in the classroom and works its way up. Sticking with vocabulary as our focus, we might notice that teaching a large number of words all at once isn’t working for our students, so we decide to adjust and break the vocabulary into smaller chunks. This adjustment in our practice does connect to theory that confirms that input is more comprehensible when “chunked” (see Swain, Cummins) but theory is not the starting point. This approach is based on observation, theory later.
Though both a bottom-up and a top-down approach have pros and cons, we would argue that reflective pedagogy could and should be a combination of the two approaches. Our reflection on our teaching should indeed pull from what we learned during teacher formation programs, but also incorporate what we’ve learned along the way. Experience is the best teacher, after all.
We can’t ignore, however, that the thought of being critical of our practice might feel a little cringey, even if we know we’re doing it in the name of improving our practice and bolstering learning outcomes for our students. It’s easy to become hyper-fixated on the things we do wrong and from there, start ruminating on the experience, getting stuck in negative thought spirals (any other perfectionists in the house?!). We need to turn those thoughts into pointed, constructive feedback for ourselves that actually inspires action.
Cultivating a reflective practice can be challenging in many ways – it's hard to look ourselves in the mirror! It forces us to confront feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, and anything else we’ve tucked away since we started in the classroom. It’s a learning curve, but the most important thing is that we see it as a personal tool.
One of the perks of reflective pedagogy is that we can tailor it to match our needs, schedules, personalities, and social tendencies. Being more reflective in our practice might simply mean taking the time to jot down some notes about what went well in a lesson and ideas for how we might improve things next time around. It might mean taking a course, reading a book related to our subject matter, or listening to a podcast (hint hint 😉). This type of self-guided, continued professional learning is whatever we choose to make of it.
But something that we have personally found in our quest to deepen our reflective practice, is that it’s incredibly useful to come together with others who share our mission. We’ve found that having an accountability partner is not only rewarding, but key in sustaining the motivation to be reflective. When we work alone, it’s easier to say “ehh, I’ll read a chapter another time” or “I know I’ll remember what went wrong in the lesson, so no need to add it to my journal right now.” Having someone to share words of encouragement, and their own lessons learned in their reflective journey can be invaluable and fruitful.
Cultivating a reflective practice can also be facilitated in group settings, like through joining a book club, a PLN (professional learning network) or attending regional or national conferences. We find that there is nothing more invigorating than sharing with like-minded individuals.
Whether you decide to go it alone, or with a friend, remember that it is all about honing our self-awareness, which hopefully leads to us feeling empowered to make conscious decisions.
Want to learn more? Listen to our very first episode “What is reflective pedagogy?” on Anchor, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and check out our Reflective Pedagogy Resource List to read more about the frameworks and philosophies we drew from for the episode and for this blog post.