The Reflective Teacher as Reflective Learner


The teacher has a place of honour in human history; there is an inherent nobility in teaching that persists even today when perhaps the teacher’s true worth is not adequately acknowledged by some parts of modern society.

The core purpose of teaching, at least in the Western democracies, should be to produce free and creative citizens capable of balancing the desire for personal independence with a recognition of our social and economic interdependence. That is a tough ask of our education systems today, and the best teachers are all too well aware that they have to approach their responsibilities from a position of continual doubt – perplexity, even – always questioning, and never believing they know all the answers. Doubt is healthy! Teachers grapple not only with the complexities of the task that confront them, but also with the reactionary tendencies of governments whose policies too often put a brake on teachers’ capacity to encourage precisely the creativity and resourcefulness that they know their students need in order to thrive in today’s world (and tomorrow’s). Good teachers know what learners need so much better than any government minister with a fixation on tests and standards and control.

Given the above, the teachers I have trusted least in my half century and more in education (a career that began, I hasten to add, aged five, when I started primary school) have been those who never doubted, who never questioned, whose practice was routine, unvarying (except when change was forced on them by decree), and who plied their classroom trade with no apparent heed to the social, cultural, philosophical or pedagogical rationale underpinning their labours. Such teachers tended to value docility and obedience in their students over creative thought, independence and any sense of learning beyond the superficial recall of the material taught.

As CP Snow once wrote:

When you look at the long history of man, you see that more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion.

The best teachers have always sought to reflect deeply on their own teaching, to think with honesty and rigour about their craft and their skills, and to work in tandem with their colleagues to support each other to improve their mutual effectiveness as teachers. Such teachers know that teaching is about so much more than mere presenting of information, so much more than mere memorization, and so much more than the simple transference of information from a book or the teacher’s brain to a learner’s brain. They also know that any teaching that requires that students accept the unquestioned authority of the teacher is ultimately detrimental to effective learning and, in any case, is ridiculous in today’s world.

Reflecting on Teaching – and on Learning!

I like Stephen Downes’ straightforward definition of teaching as ‘modelling and demonstrating’, since it moves us emphatically away from any of the tired traditional denotations of teaching rehearsed above. He likes to tell people:

…to teach is to be the sort of thing you want your students to be…

Like Downes, I disagree with those who tell us that teaching is dead, or that we do not need teachers any more. I believe that we need teachers more than ever, but we need them to be thoughtful, reflective teachers who admit they don’t know all the answers and who understand that everything they do has to be about learning rather than teaching. My own philosophy of education, expressed as I Am Learner, states provocatively that “I am not taught. I learn.” By that I mean that, ultimately, we as learners determine (consciously and unconsciously) what we learn, whether it be explicitly that which is being ‘taught’ to us, or, more likely, our own interpretation and version of what is being taught. Often that means we learn something radically different from, and even at odds with, what is being taught, because we do the learning!

The truly effective teachers know this and therefore know that they not only have to reflect on their own teaching, on what it means to teach, but also on how that teaching is transformed into learning by their students. That is by no means a simple process. Instead it is messy and ineffable (something that few government ministers could ever acknowledge). So, thoughtful teachers have to reflect both on their teaching and on their own professional development (in other words, on their own learning) as well as, of course, on the learning of their students. And the deepest reflection should be on the ‘how’ of learning rather than the ‘what’ of learning.

Empathetic Teaching

Reflective teachers, since they are modelling and demonstrating, and since they are being what they would like their students to be, have to build and sustain a high degree of empathy for how and what the student is learning, and will always strive to understand how their teaching is being received, absorbed, filtered, appreciated and interpreted by the student. That requires at least some understanding and acknowledgement of the learner’s starting point (in the broadest sense), on what they as students bring to the classroom, not just in terms of prior learning but also in terms of who they are, how they think, what they consider important to them. Good teachers will always want to know their students to the greatest degree possible within the bounds of the teacher-student relationship.

Techniques for Reflection

There are any number of techniques and practices that teachers can use to reflect on teaching and on learning. I would add, at this point, that I am not interested here in any ‘top-down’ model of reviewing the professional development of teachers, except insofar as that has been requested by teachers themselves – the most powerful and effective reflection on teaching will always be carried out by the teachers themselves for their own professional reasons and not by, or at the behest of, any external agency or ‘higher’ authority.

Teachers can and should make use of their peers, sometimes in a relationship of equal and mutual support, sometimes in a mentoring or coaching relationship (in either direction), and sometimes simply as professional colleagues offering advice and suggestions to each other on an ongoing basis in order to do things differently and better.

They can find the means to review their own teaching and their interactions with students, honestly and rigorously. They can simply use recall for this but, of course, today it can mean also using the power of video: recording their teaching so that they can watch and analyze themselves and their classroom interactions, and perhaps share their practice with colleagues and even the wider community of teachers. This involves a logical onward step from the use of peer relationships described above.

Critically, and to repeat myself, it is a process that the teachers themselves should always have complete control over. They should be able to decide when they wish to record themselves, why they want to do so, how they share it and who they share it with. Any measure of compulsion from ‘above’ in this process will diminish its power considerably, so, again, it is not a tool to be used by, say, a headteacher or principal as a means of appraising teachers. That has little or nothing to do with learning and certainly nothing to do with truly reflective teaching. It should be opposed at every juncture.

Involving Learners in the Process

I would also suggest that teachers should have the confidence and the courage to involve their students in this process too, since they are what education, schools and teaching are all about! With due regard to the age of the students involved (which will have a bearing on how and to what extent they can be involved – although even very young children should be brought into this where possible), a teacher’s discussion with learners about the efficacy or otherwise of a lesson or course, or of a particular methodology, or a specific set of resources, can be a very powerful means indeed of improving their practice over time.

Showing a willingness to take this step has a number of positive implications for teachers, not least that it embraces a recognition that it is the learning that is of ultimate importance, and that any improvements in teaching are only improvements insofar as they help students to learn more effectively. It also acts as a fundamental mark of respect from teachers for their students, allowing students to see that their teachers take their needs, and their views, seriously, and that their teachers are also learners. Teachers willing to bring their students into their professional reflections are walking the talk, by modelling good learning practice.

Meeting Scotland’s Improvement Agenda

The reflective teacher is a desideratum of every forward-looking education system in the world. Here in Scotland, much of our broad and multifaceted agenda for educational improvement is now dependent on us embedding the concept of the reflective teacher deep within our culture of teaching and in the culture of our schools. Curriculum for Excellence is itself constructed explicitly around notions of teacher autonomy, teacher professionalism and teacher self-reliance. The reflective teacher is therefore a critical component of Scotland’s drive for educational improvement, and one based on collegiate efficacy rather than on heavy-handed decree from above.

Similarly, the massively important quest for ‘Excellence+Equity’ built into the Scottish Attainment Challenge, in which every single teacher is asked to consider their impact on every pupil on a continual basis, including and especially on those learners who we know have to face the egregious barriers to learning that derive from poverty and deprivation. There is possibly no more vital driver for promoting the necessity for teacher professional reflection than this.

If we combine all of these with the recommendations from Graeme Donaldson’s 2010 report into teacher education in Scotland (“Teaching Scotland’s Future“) that every teacher should look to inquiry-based improvement and reflective practice to help them raise their game continually throughout their career, then there is an unassailable case here in Scotland for every single teacher in the country to pick up this agenda and run with it.

We cannot and must not doubt the transformative power of self-reflection by teachers, especially when it is combined with the potency of coaching and of feedback and, where possible, with bringing students themselves, as fellow learners, into that process.