In our everyday lives, when we use terms like reflection or reflective thinking and sometime reflective teaching we usually mean that we are looking back at something and thinking about what happened and why it happened.

We are trying to learn from our experiences so that we can use this knowledge to guide what we do in the future. In this sense, the concept of reflection is certainly not a modern one. Throughout history, reflective thinkers have been highly regarded for their ability to analyze complex situations, to recognize subtleties in problems, to think divergently, and to offer solutions to problems that others found perplexing.


Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Galileo, Newton and Einstein are examples of such thinkers. We can reflect about anything, but when you are learning to be a teacher it is particularly useful to reflect about yourself as a learner and as a teacher. Reflecting on learning and teaching is not a new thing—most teachers have probably always done it. However, it has been only relatively recently (in the study of learning and teaching) that the importance of reflection has been widely recognized.

Most Western writing in this area seems to be based either directly or indirectly on the work of Dewey (1933) who made a distinction between ‘routine action (guided by tradition, habit, authority and institutional expectations) and ‘reflective’ action (guided by constant self-appraisal and development).

These ideas have been refined by later writers such as Van Manen (1977), Zeichner (1981-82, 1983, 1987), SchOn (1987), Cruickshank (1987) and Korthagen and Kessels (1999).

The writings on this theme, and the teacher education programs that have developed from these ideas, all have as their general aim ‘the development of teachers who have the skills and dispositions to continually inquire into their own teaching practice and into the contexts in which their teaching is embedded’ (Zeichner, 1987). Although all the literature on reflective teaching emphasises the idea that teachers should think about their teaching, various writers approach the topic from quite different points of view. In fact, until relatively recently there was not strong agreement on what, beyond mere thinking about teaching, is the essence of reflective teaching. When trying to place the various views about reflection or reflective teaching into a manageable conceptual framework, it is useful to consider the perspective provided by Gilbert (1994). She suggests that there are essentially two views of education. From one perspective, education is seen as “a servant of the economy” and competent teachers are thought of as “technicians” who have developed certain specifiable skills’ and who can produce ‘pre-determined learning outcomes in students: Gilbert refers to this as a ‘ tech nicist’ view of education.

From the alternative perspective, education is seen ‘fundamentally as an agent of social change and teachers are seen as ‘innovative professionals’ whose competence goes well beyond simply having’a set of specific, identifiable technical skills’ (Gilbert, 1994). Gilbert refers to this as a ‘liberatory’ view of education, a term based on the ideas of the Brazilian educator Paulo Enke.

(Education that is laboratory encourages learners to challenge and change the world, not merely uncritically adapt themselves to it.)

Different views of teaching give rise to different views about reflection or reflective teaching.

#1 Technical view of reflective teaching

Those who take a technical view of teaching tend to favor reflection on the technical aspects of teaching.

#2 Laboratory view of reflective teaching

Those who take a laboratory view of teaching tend to favor reflection on the moral, ethical, political and social factors that influence teaching.

These approaches to reflection or reflective teaching are often considered as incompatible, but they can equally well be viewed as complementary. Let’s consider how that is possible.

Van Manen (1977, 1991) identified three different levels of reflection—technical, practical and critical.

They are defined as follows:

#1 Technical reflection: reflective teaching

At this level teachers are concerned with the technical application of educational knowledge in the classroom to maintain order and to achieve predetermined outcomes; reflective skills are developed and used to improve the application of research-based knowledge. (This type of reflection is the central focus of the work of Cruickshank (1987)).

#2 Practical reflections: reflective teaching

At this level teachers become concerned with goals, the connections between principles and practice, the assumptions that underlie their practices, and the value of their goals.

#3 Critical reflections: reflective teaching

At these level teachers become concerned with issues beyond the classroom, so that moral and social issues such as equity and emancipation can inform their reflections on classroom practices. [Brookfield (1995:8) goes a step further by suggesting that reflection should not be considered as critical unless it serves two distinctive purposes: the first being to understand the power relationships in teaching and the second being to question the assumptions and practices that ‘seem to make our lives easier but that actually end up working against our long term interests:) Zeichner and Liston (1987) addressed this issue slightly differently by focusing on criteria for reflection rather than levels of reflection.

They noted that when teachers use technical criteria for their reflection using reflective teaching they concentrate on the application of previously acquired knowledge for the achievement of given objectives. When they use educational criteria, teachers consider how situational and institutional contexts influence teaching and learning, and they consider the value of different educational goals. When they use ethical criteria, teachers reflect upon the moral and ethical aspects of teaching and education. It should be noted that Zeichner (1990) opposes the notion that these levels/criteria should be seen as hierarchical, since this conveys the impression that technical and practical reflection will ultimately be transcended by critical reflection. As Zeichner (1990) rightly claims, ‘this reflective teaching devalues technical skill and the reality of teaching and should therefore be rejected’. Some of the most influential writing on reflection has been by Donald Schen (1983, 1987). He argues that technical models of professional knowledge (based on knowledge gained from independent scientific research) are inadequate for explaining how professionals, such as teachers, develop their professional knowledge and improve their practice. Schon uses the concept of ‘frames’ to explain how teachers perceive the situations in which they work.

Basically, a frame is a view or a set of expectations (based on knowledge, values and beliefs) that teachers use to interpret and organize their environment and to guide their behavior in that environment. Teachers’ frames are determined by their past experiences and their previous efforts to make sense of those experiences. Some teachers are able to ‘frame what happens in their classroom in multiple ways (that is, view it from different perspectives), whereas others are able to frame it in only one way and, therefore, can see only one set of possibilities for action in a given situation. When teachers are able to deliberately change the way they are looking at a situation they are said to ‘reframe it. This would happen, for example, if a teacher initially thought that students’ lack of effort was due to laziness but then deliberately started to look at how his or her approach to teaching might be demotivating the students. ‘To achieve change, teachers need to discover that their existing frame for understanding what happens in their classes is only one of several possible frames’ (Barnes, 1992). This idea that reframing a situation needs to be a deliberate ‘mindful’ act is taken up in considerable detail by Linder and Marshall (2003) and it forms the basis of the suggestions by Shay (2003) about ways in which teachers might resolve differences of opinion about the quality of students’ work. Geddis (1996) suggests that the frames teachers use have two interacting components.

One component is a descriptive conceptual scheme that enables teachers to see classroom events in a particular way; the other component is a script which provides organized patterns of action arising from that way of seeing. Both the conceptual (what teachers think) and action (what teachers do) components of these frames must be the focus of reflection if teachers are to learn from their experiences. Using the notion of frames, Schott (1983, 1987) argues that professionals develop their expert knowledge through two separate, but related, processes that he describes as reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Both approaches to reflection involve similar activities—framing and reframing problematic situations—but they occur at different times in relation to the situations being considered. Reflection-on-action is the typical self-evaluative thinking that teachers engage in after most lessons. It is a deliberate attempt to understand past events in order to shape future action. Because it occurs when the teacher is able to concentrate on reflecting (free from other distractions), the teacher can carefully choose the focus of reflection and the frames that will be used to guide that reflection. Both the frames and the process of reflection can be explicit and deliberate.

Here is a short video on reflective teaching.

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