Professional Self-Reflection: teachers as philosophers


This post belongs to an occasional series on teacher professional development. Previous posts include The Reflective Teacher as Reflective Learner and Teacher Professional Development in the UK: North & South.

If philosophy is the quest for wisdom then every teacher who respects the import of their vocation needs to be a philosopher as well as a teacher. The two should be indivisible, since the teacher who seeks to lead a learner to wisdom must have some personal knowledge of the possible paths to wisdom. Without such knowledge – a knowledge that must be continuously searched for and renewed, a knowledge that can never be fully realized – the teacher will never know the true value of their teaching to the learner.

The grade book, the certificates, the diplomas achieved by students can only ever be limited and fragmentary indicators of a teacher’s (and, of course, a learner’s) success. Those who choose to limit their teaching horizons to marks and test scores and qualifications will never know what it truly means to teach. Nor will they ever fully appreciate the full scope of what their students learn.

confuciusConfucius wrote:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

His opinion is still valid, of course, although I’m less sure of the order in which he presents the three paths to wisdom. Perhaps imitation is the easiest, but teaching by modelling involves the use of imitation to some extent, and it is through modelling that the teacher can begin to map the routes to wisdom for the learner. If modelling and imitation come first, then the path to wisdom is broadened and made firmer under-foot through offering practical experiential learning to students. Learning from experience plays a critical part in combining information and skills in context to create knowledge, and the meaning and form that such experiences can take are as varied as the countless subjects and disciplines themselves that comprise the broad sweep of human activity.


greek-female-thinkerConfucius, rightly, acclaims reflection as the cardinal route to wisdom. We begin to learn by imitating those who know what we also want to know. We learn even more by trying our new knowledge out in the real world in some sense. But we only truly begin to embed that knowledge within us, we only truly begin to ‘know’, when we set out to cast a critical eye over our practice and we question why we do what we do, how we do it, what works, what does not work, and how can we do better.

In teaching, as in other professions, reflection can take many forms, each as valid as the other, but each bringing a different range and kind of insight to our professional practice. A small subset might include:

  • socratesCritical self-reflection – taking the time to go back over our own teaching, either from memory, or from notes taken, or increasingly today from a video of our teaching; we do this with the aim of challenging ourselves on what went well or not, and why;
  • Collaborative reflection – working with one or more colleagues who join with you in reflecting on your teaching, perhaps having observed your lesson live, whether in situ or via live video, or having watched a recorded video of your teaching after the event; of course, this can, and perhaps should, be reciprocal – collegiate reflection can be very powerful indeed;
  • Coaching and mentoring – working with either a more experienced colleague or an external expert who watches you teach (again either by classroom observation or through the use of video) and is able to offer advice – this can be done live or in retrospect, or both. Equally, working with a colleague or colleagues to mentor/coach each other can make for very effective professional reflection. Every teacher is an expert in his or her own right!

Writing as Reflection

But one other form of self-reflection deserves to be mentioned, one that can be done in conjunction with all of the above and with any other forms of professional reflection – that is writing!

Gillie Bolton, in her book Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development (already deservedly into its 4th edition) – a book that looks at reflective practice across a broad range of professions –  states that:

Reflective writing IS the reflective process…

boltonbookBy this she means that writing for ourselves is not merely the recording of what has previously been thought. Rather, the actually process of sitting down to write about your own professional practice will help you to capture highlights (and lowlights), consider thoughts, feelings and values that came to mind either during the practice or as you reflect, and give you the means to draw out issues and ponder them at a level that cannot always be achieved by simple reflection or in discussion with others. A critical aspect of reflective writing is that we are not writing for another authority such as a manager or inspector – it should be a key component of our professional autonomy, although a component that does not preclude sharing our writing with others in any way that we are comfortable with. As Bolton writes:

In writing we pay deep attention to parts of ourselves we do not listen to often enough…Writing enables us to go through the mirror and gain perspective, rather than merely reflect on back-to-front mirrored images of self.


In this regard Bolton also promotes the power of reflexivity as an added element of professional reflection. Where reflection is an in-depth analysis of our professional practice, reflexivity is about reaching beyond analysis to find strategies for change, about questioning the very values that underpin our practice, and about developing responsible and ethical responses to any practice that is driven by our assumptions or by organisational structures or by our culturally-determined expectations. It is the mind ‘reflected back upon the mind itself’ (OED) and as such is a means by which we can ask ‘why’ just as much as we ask ‘how’.

Writing for ourselves about our own professional practice, whether in a private journal or a public blog, can give us the platform we need to take our professional self-reflection to a whole new level.

Teacher as Philosopher

By reflecting on our own teaching, by thinking deeply about not only how we do things but why we do them, we become philosophers, whether or not we have explicit knowledge of the kinds of intellectual tools that an academic philosopher might possess.  By deciding to take on the noble and honoured status of teacher we should also be willing to become philosophers in our own right.