Reflection in ELT
Reflection is one of those words that everyone knows, and everyone thinks they do quite effectively until someone comes along and really defines the word, and maybe asks some pertinent questions about the quality of those reflections. That is when everyone stops and has to reassess the whole concept. I am guilty of this, especially in the early part of my teaching career, and occasionally even now! Meaningful and effective self-reflection is one of the most challenging but more rewarding practices for an individual in any profession, but more so in teaching. One might ask why teaching is special in this regard. Teaching is actually quite a lonely profession in that while you may have excellent colleagues, at the end of the day, it is just you with your learners. No one else is in the classroom with you to support, challenge, question, or guide you. Being responsible for someone’s language progress requires you to constantly assess your approach and skills as a teacher.
What is reflection?
In some cultures, reflecting on your actions, behaviour, and development is taught from a young age but in others, the onus is on people around you to tell you how you are doing. In some professions, self-reflection is a part of the training, while in others, it is not given much attention. This can also vary between training programmes within a profession. In the world of ELT, this can result in novice teachers following their training blindly, experienced teachers stagnating in their approach, and managers being seemingly harsh during post-observation feedback conversations. It is true that most teacher training courses have some reflective practice built in. Trainees are informed about the benefits of reflecting on one’s teaching, but enough emphasis is perhaps not placed on how vital reflection is for both professional progress, and the planning and delivery of lessons on a daily basis. As Mann (2005, p. 105) describes, reflection is articulating “an inner world of choices made about the outer world of teaching”. Being able to describe, analyse, and evaluate teaching practice, and develop based on those thoughts is what effective reflection is. It involves both intellectual and affective aspects, both of which need to be explored. (Boud, Keogh & Walker, 1985 p. 3).
How do teachers reflect? – Types of ‘reflectors’ and issues
The most basic form of post-lesson reflection is to think about what went well in the lesson, what did not go well, and what the teacher would do differently next time. While this is a great starting point because at least it highlights that one must look at both positives and action areas, it can be limiting, and not very meaningful. Some will take these three aspects and reflect quite deeply but most teachers do not have the time or inclination for that. What often happens, and again something I am guilty of, is, the teacher finishes a class, has a quick little think about the overall lesson, can maybe identify one or two strengths and action areas, then gets on with the day. These thoughts are very rarely recorded anywhere, explored, or even revisited but the teacher can confidently say that they reflected.
Being a teacher, and having worked with other teachers as their mentor or manager, has exposed me to a range of reflection types. There is the ‘ranter’, who is extremely self-critical and feels nothing in the lesson went well. They can only see the faults and end up feeling quite dejected after a reflection leading them to avoid doing a reflective activity unless absolutely required. They also tend to try to change even good practice without realising it because they believe it was all bad. Then you have the ‘romantic’ who believes the lesson went very well indeed and there is nothing they would change. Finally, the ‘revelations’ type of teacher, who has several great ideas that come up from the lesson, that may or may not have to do with how the lesson actually went. However, more often than not, these ideas are not recorded, and end up being forgotten. It is rare to find a teacher whose reflections are balanced, objective, constructive, and truly meaningful, at least among novice teachers.
Moreover, thinking about what went well can be deceptive because many times, new teachers focus on lessons being fun but forget to look at how effective it is in terms of real-life application. So, while an activity or the lesson was fun and engaging, which could be defined as “having gone well”, students may not have left the class with new knowledge or skills. Similarly, the question about what the teacher could have done differently can be a little pointless. In a language institute, it is highly unlikely that you will teach the same lesson to the same group of students and so, doing the lesson again with changes seems irrelevant. You may teach a new class the same lesson, but the students would be different which would mean you need to adapt it to suit the new group anyway. It might seem obvious that the reflection needs to extend beyond the literal meaning of the question but as we have seen, teachers do not always have the time and/or interest, nor the training, to think about it in that much depth.
The final issue is that as teachers embark on the journey of meaningful self-reflection, they tend to focus on stating what happened in the lesson, rather than exploring why it did, what caused it, what reactions the learners had, etc. Reflections are often superficial like “students didn’t participate well”, “it was an engaging lesson”. It would help teachers to say at what stage did students not participate and why they feel that happened, or what about the students’ responses demonstrated that the lesson was engaging.
Tips for meaningful reflection
The question, then, is how does one reflect meaningfully? There are a few tips I follow and have shared with colleagues that we have found useful.
- Be regular with your reflective practice and document it. You can choose what works for you. You need not do a detailed reflection after every lesson. You may choose to do it once a week or once a fortnight. Whatever you decide, it helps to stick to it. It is also a good idea to find a way to document your reflections so that you can revisit them, either for ideas or to check progress. There are many ways to do this.
- Write in a journal. This is the classic method and works well. You can use different colours to highlight different types of reflections.
- Use a digital tool. You can type up your reflections so they are all in one easily accessible folder, send an email to yourself, or do an infographic for your reference (if you are the more creative type).
- Make a voice recording. Most phones have a recording app. It does not have to be a long recording, maybe just a few minutes to capture all your thoughts right after a lesson.
- Have a focus area for each week/month. The tendency is to try and reflect on everything all the time. It can be more effective to identify some action or exploratory areas and just focus on one or two of those for a period of time. You can create a reflection document based on these focus areas to avoid being tempted to start thinking about all aspects of the lesson.
- Avoid using passive voice. This one sounds almost ridiculous but it does make a difference. Many teachers write “This was done well.” There is no clarity on who did what, why, or how! While these may seem obvious, especially to the one writing, it can change your perspective when you write in the first person. Not only do you take responsibility for the good and the not-so-good practice, but you also think more deeply about it. So, try saying something like, “I clarified the language point in a meaningful way, using relevant examples”.
- Have a reflection buddy (if possible). It is nice to have someone to discuss lessons and ideas with. Having someone who can observe your lessons every so often, give you feedback and ideas, and be a sounding board is wonderful.
- Watch your own lessons. Depending on accessibility and consent from learners, it can be beneficial once in a while, to take a video of your lesson and watch it back. This can show us aspects of our teaching that we are not aware of. It highlights our tone of voice, choice of vocabulary, mannerisms, responses to students, etc. These are areas that often we think we do in one way but may actually be quite different in practice.
It is important to remember that reflection is a lot more than just ‘having a think’ about a lesson. (Harrison, 2012 p. 7) It involves asking questions, exploring aspects of teaching, and considering ways to develop one’s skills further. While it may seem tedious to incorporate reflective activities into a busy teaching week, having a routine and being prepared with documents or tools beforehand can result in reflection being thought-provoking, rewarding, enjoyable, and an essential aspect of your teaching practice.
Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). What is reflection in learning? In Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (Eds.) Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page Ltd.
Harrison, J. (2012). Professional learning and the reflective practitioner. In Dymoke, S. and Harrison, J. Reflective Teaching and Learning: A Guide to Professional Issues for Beginning Secondary Tecahers. London: SAGE Publications.
Mann, S. (2005). The language teacher’s development. Language Teaching 38, pp.103-118.
Venunathan, S. (2015). Impact of guided collaborative reflective practice on in-service English language teachers. (M.A. Dissertation). University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom.
Seetha has been in the field of ELT for over 17 years. She has taught across contexts, age groups, language levels, and course types. She is now a freelance teacher, trainer, and CELTA tutor. Besides training and designing customised courses/workshops, she enjoys cooking, travelling, and meeting new people.