The Importance of Teacher Reflection

a teacher looking at her computer screen
When teachers reflect on teaching is more important than how they reflect.

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A reflective teacher is an effective teacher. And educators do tend to reflect on their teaching methods. In an article titled "Teacher Reflection In a Hall of Mirrors: Historical Influences and Political Reverberations," researcher Lynn Fendler states that teachers are reflective by nature as they continuously make adjustments in instruction.

"The laborious attempts to facilitate reflective practices for teachers fly in the face of the truism expressed in the epigraph of this article, namely, that there is no such thing as an unreflective teacher."

Yet, there very little evidence to indicate how much reflecting a teacher should do or how she should go about it. Research—and there is little published recently on the subject—suggests that the amount of reflection a teacher does or how she records that reflection is not as important as the timing. Teachers who wait to reflect, rather than reflecting immediately after presenting a lesson or unit, may not be as accurate as those who record their thoughts immediately. In other words, if a teacher's reflection is distanced by time, that reflection may revise the past to fit a present belief.

'Reflect-in-Action'

Teachers spend so much time preparing for and delivering lessons that they often fail to record their reflections on lessons in journals unless required. Instead, most teachers "reflect-in-action," a term coined by philosopher Donald Schon in the 1980s. This is the kind of reflection that occurs in the classroom in order to produce a necessary change at that moment.

Reflection-in-action contrasts with reflection-on-action, in which the teacher considers his actions soon after instruction in order to be able to make adjustments for similar teaching situations in the future.

Methods of Teacher Reflection

Despite the lack of concrete evidence supporting reflection in teaching, educators are generally required by many school districts to reflect on their practice as part of the teacher-evaluation process. There are many different ways that teachers can include reflection to satisfy evaluation programs and enhance their professional development, but the best method may be one where the teacher reflects frequently.

A daily reflection, for example, is when teachers take a few moments at the end of the day to debrief on the day's events. Typically, this should not take more than a few moments. When they practice this kind of reflection over a period of time, the information can be illuminating. Some teachers keep a daily journal while others simply jot down notes about issues that they had in class.

At the end of a teaching unit, once the teacher has graded all assignments, he may want to take some time to reflect on the unit as a whole. Answering questions can help guide teachers as they decide what they want to keep and what they want to change the next time they teach the same unit.

Sample questions can include:

  • Which lessons in this unit worked and which didn't?
  • With which skills did students struggle the most? Why?
  • Which learning objectives seemed the easiest for students? What made those work better?
  • Were the results of the unit what I had expected and hoped for? Why or why not?

At the end of a semester or school year, a teacher may look back over the students' grades in order to try and make an overall judgment about the practices and strategies that are positive as well as areas that need improvement.

What to Do With Reflections

Reflecting on what went right and wrong with lessons and units—and classroom situations in general—is one thing. However, figuring out what to do with that information is quite another. Time spent in reflection can help ensure that this information can be used to produce real change and for growth to occur. 

There are several ways teachers can use the information they learned about themselves through reflection. They can:

  • Reflect on their successes, find reasons to celebrate, and use these reflections to recommend actions they need to take to ensure success for students in next year's lessons;
  • Individually or collectively reflect on areas that need improvement and look for areas where lessons did not have the desired academic impact;
  • Reflect on any housekeeping issues that arose or areas where classroom management needed some work. 

Reflection is an ongoing process and someday the evidence may provide more specific guidelines for teachers. Reflection as a practice in education is evolving, and so are teachers. 

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