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Learning to teach: becoming a reflective practitioner


How often do you find yourself replaying in your head the events of the day or an incident in your life? Whether it is going through a conversation that happened to digest what has been said, thinking about sequences of events that led to a certain conclusion, or thinking about how you felt or reacted at a point in time. At this level, we are quite used to the idea of reflecting on our own actions.

Reflective practice is a term strongly associated with learning in professional contexts such as teaching, nursing or social work and can be thought of in a number of ways. It can be described as a learning tool, something that is going to help you to synthesise, explain, make sense of and ultimately develop meaning from, your experiences.

It can be considered to be a professional competence, as reflected in the standards you are expected to achieve by the end of your Initial Teacher Education (ITE) course. Finally, it might be thought of as a type of dialogue or prose, a particular type of conversation or a writing style that captures your personal views and relates them to evidence you have collected from elsewhere.

Before considering the nature of reflection and the theoretical ideas that underpin it, it is worth considering why reflective practice is considered so important both within ITE and within career long learning in education.

Reflection point: Think of a situation where, through reflecting on what has happened, you have acted differently or changed your initial view of a situation.

This OpenLearn course is part of a collection of Open University short courses for teachers and student teachers.

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Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the role of reflective practice in ITE (Initial Teacher Education)

  • recognise some models of reflective practice

  • identify the difference between reflection, analysis and description

  • understand the difficulties in ensuring that reflection leads to learning and begin to develop some strategies to ensure reflection supports development.

1 Difficulties with learning to teach

Learning from your experience in schools is central to your ITE and your subsequent professional development. During your course, your school placements will develop your practical skills and knowledge and provide you with opportunities to demonstrate your learning. Time in school is likely to make up the vast majority of your course time so how do you make sure you are learning effectively while you are there? To help you understand how to learn effectively, it is worthwhile considering some of the complexities of workplace learning in order to frame our discussion of how reflective practice can support you.

1.1 Complexities of workplace learning

Working in any specific educational context is likely to highlight differences of opinion. These may be the result of differences between:

  • members of staff about what strategies they employ or the beliefs they hold
  • the pedagogy of different teachers and the pedagogy promoted by your ITE course leaders
  • ideas you have read about in journals or books and what you see happening in the school
  • your own beliefs, views and assumptions and those of other people.

These differences in perspectives are a normal occurrence in school-based workplace learning. How you deal with these situations is important. They can be the stimulus for learning if you ask questions such as:

  • Why have these differences occurred?
  • Is it to do with the personalities involved and their beliefs and values?
  • Is it due to the particular context in which the contradictions have occurred?
  • Have they arisen because of your own assumptions, beliefs and values?

ITE requires you to synthesise these perspectives, make links between them and make informed, reasoned decisions about what to take forward into your own practice and what not to.

Experiencing differences in perspective, whether between members of staff or between practice and literature, can have an emotional impact. You might experience moments during your course where you feel confused and frustrated by seemingly contradictory advice or information. You may feel tempted to dismiss information to reduce the complexity. However, viewing these differences in perspective as an opportunity to learn enables you to turn them into a positive experience. This may include discussing the issue with your mentor or tutor, reading around the issues to get a broader frame of reference or asking more people for their opinions to test out your thinking.

1.2 Professional judgement and practice wisdom

You may hear the terms ‘professional judgement’ and ‘practice wisdom’ used during your ITE course, particularly if you ask a teacher why they made a particular decision about how to teach. Sometimes, it is difficult for an experienced teacher to unpack what lies behind their decision-making processes (Hobson, 2002, Jones and Straker, 2006). What often lies behind professional judgements or practice wisdom is years of experimenting with different approaches, incorporating different ideas from research, theory and practice, and constant critical reflection.

Activity 1: Practice wisdom, theory and experience

Timing: Time: 20 minutes

There is a triangular relationship between practice wisdom, theory and experience, see Figure 1 (Lunenberg and Korthagen, 2009).

Described image
Figure 1 Triangular relationship between practice wisdom, theory and experience

Listen to ‘What’s in a name: mentoring and tutoring explained’ focusing specifically on the dialogue by Hannah Watson (mentor) and Dave Smith (tutor), about the difference between the two roles. (Please note that The Open University’s PGCE course mentioned in this audio has now been discontinued.)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1
Skip transcript: Audio 1

Transcript: Audio 1

Sarah Vaughn:
I’m Sarah Vaughn, I’m the PGCE tutor for the Open University.
Hannah Watson:
I’m Hannah Watson, I am a mentor at South Nottinghamshire Academy.
Simon Bland:
Hi, I’m Simon Bland - I am the student teacher here.
Hannah Watson:
Okay, well done. It’s always very difficult when you’re under pressure and you’ve got people observing and stuff. We’ve picked out some really positive points from the observation and some stuff-- Sarah’s got some really good targets that we’ve discussed for you to work on. The starter activity was good, for them to have a think about relating a bit to literacy, key words and stuff as well. A lot of the question and answering was quite good, maybe thinking a bit more about you can scaffold it, so how you can push the more able to give more explanations, so, going into a bit more depth with some of the more able, especially the instrumentalists. The difference between a tutor and a mentor is the mentor is school-based, whereas the tutor is based with the university. So, they’ll come in and do observations every now and the, but the mentor is the person who is there day-to-day to observe lessons and give feedback and give as much support as possible.
Sarah Vaughn:
We both felt that the pace of the lesson was very good for the first sort of two thirds of it. You gave them a task and said they’d got five minutes, but actually you gave them 12 minutes so then you’d lost time. And then you did your peer feedback and said ‘you’ve got two minutes’, and I’ve just written down here ‘how realistic is it?’ If that’s a valuable part of the lesson, two minutes is probably not long enough to do it in. And the knock-on effect of all of these little things was that the beginning of the lesson was so calm and focused and the end of the lesson felt more of a scramble, and your voice pitch went higher as your stress levels increased. And we all do it, and we all know having people observing you makes you much more sensitive to the fact that you haven’t done something that you’ve written in your lesson plan or you haven’t got everything through that you need to get done.
A mentor’s focus is on coaching and education; although the tutor covers that too, I take more of the bulk of the summative assessment role for actually making sure the assessment levels are accurate. So I will ask a mentor what grade a student has reached in a particular lesson; we’ll discuss the grading in terms of the overall levels of attainment for qualified teacher status.


Simon Bland:
So, should I have scrapped something at that point? ’Cause I knew I’d lost the time...


Sarah Vaughn:
I think being an effective tutor means that you’ve got to have really good, secure subject knowledge of your own. And I think it’s really useful to be a practitioner currently while you’re tutoring. I often refer to my own teaching experience while I’m talking to a student about the lessons that I’ve observed. Being a teacher has an impact on your knowledge of teaching to help coach your students.


Hannah Watson:
By giving them a few more minutes to go away and improve, and perhaps not doing the self-assessment when you’ve got that little time...


Hannah Watson:
A good mentor is somebody who knows themselves what good teaching is, so that when they’re watching somebody else they can see what they’re doing well and how they can improve, and being able to give good quality feedback to help the student improve as well. Also, somebody who’s generally quite approachable so that the student feels that they can go and talk to them about any ideas that they’ve got or anything that they’re struggling with so that they can then have the support that they need. A good mentor is someone who is open to ideas as well, so not asking the student to do everything their way but happy for the student teacher to come and experiment with different ways of teaching, or different ways of doing things and not being afraid to let them have a go at doing that. Being able to sit and watch somebody teach and thinking ‘oh, actually, that was really good – maybe I’ll try that one time’ or watching something and thinking ‘yeeahh... I’m not sure about that, I would perhaps do it this way’; it’s quite a nice thing to be able to do because there isn’t a lot of opportunity to be watching lessons when you’re busy teaching all of the time. It was only a few years ago that I did my PGCE and it’s nice now, a few years later, to be able to be a mentor and realise how far that I’ve come in those years to be in the position where I can give advice and feedback and support somebody else – it’s quite rewarding to have been through that cycle. It’s good being a mentor.


Sarah Vaughn:
What I would like to see is you giving the task, the time-limit, checking that everybody has understood that, knows where they’re supposed to be going to do that--
Hannah Watson:
Yeah, you didn’t ask ‘any questions, is everybody happy?’
Simon Bland:
I do that! I have a horrible habit of always thinking ‘oh, and just one more thing...’ It’s like Colombo or something, but not in a particularly helpful way.
Sarah Vaughn:
And they’ve gone. They’ve started to move. The chairs are making a noise. They’ve started to chat ’cause they’re moving to the next stage. And you are going ‘hang on a minute, hang on a minute...’


Simon Bland:
Sarah knows completely what is required to pass this course and what are the common developmental needs of training teachers. She’s seen me from the start so she’s got a good idea of what my needs analysis was, where I’m going, what my blind-spots are likely to be. Hannah is obviously a lot closer to me, Hannah being my mentor – closer to me through this placement. They both guide me, they both make observations as to what I need, but Hannah obviously sees it closer. She sees the different relationships that I’ve built up with students and they’re students that she knows a lot better than I’m ever likely to get to know them.


Hannah Watson:
...I’m thinking about other classes, maybe like the year 9s, that could become a bit off-task if they can see the time’s going... then it’s a reference for you and perhaps for them...
This is Royal Alexandra and Albert School
Dave Smith:
You could have very easily said: ‘look, if you’re done this already, just go straight to the second question. But if you haven’t got a note, complete the first one.’


Dave Smith:
I’m Dave Smith, Open University tutor on the PGCE course. Well, the mentor is hands-on on a day-to-day basis and so inevitably they’re working within the structure and ethos of the school, and they need to help the student to perform effectively within that particular ethos and that particular context. And so often their advice might well be quite clearly directed towards what is required in a certain situation. The tutor is coming in from outside, seeing the student on a much less frequent basis, and is actually unable to be in a position to give specific advice on specific contexts; so, their role is always to open out the discussion to think about what might be done in other circumstances, how else could things have been done – that’s a really key difference between the mentor and the tutor.
Dave Smith:
A tutor has got probably two main functions. One is trying to get the student to apply things they’ve read about to--theories and so on--to their own practice. And the other is getting them to realise that, while certain aspects of their practice might be very applicable in the context they’re in, that they might need to modify or adapt that practice for a different group of kids or a different school or what have you. So it’s that idea of, rather than focusing on the here-and-now (which I think is very much the mentor’s role), the tutor has got to try and take them away from the here-and-now as much as possible, and try to get them to project possible alternative situations and alternative contexts, and how they might need to change in those situations.
End transcript: Audio 1
Audio 1
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

How does the discussion relate to Lunenberg and Korthagen’s diagram?


Hannah clearly identifies the immediate, context specific nature of her role. She acknowledges the importance of being a good role model, yet being open and flexible enough to accept different opinions on practice. Although it is not explicitly stated, it is plausible that these different opinions and ideas may have come from previous experiences of teaching, personal experiences of teaching the classes at that school, and ideas from theory or literature.

Dave’s comments reveal that he believes it is his role to ensure that practice wisdom, theory and experience are brought together, considered and discussed with the student. He outlines his role as being one that ‘opens out’ the debate to beyond the immediate context. He explicitly mentions making links between theory and experience as a way of doing this.

Learning to teach is about working with these complexities, learning from them and successfully transferring your learning to new contexts. Reflective practice is one way to ensure this happens and we will now go on to think about what reflective practice involves.

2 What is critical reflection?

Critical analysis and reflection is a key tool in helping us learn from the contradictions and complexities we encounter.

Activity 2: Importance of critical reflection

Listen to the clip of Dave and Sarah explaining what is meant by critical reflection and the importance of critical reflection in learning to teach. (Please note that The Open University’s PGCE course mentioned in this audio has now been discontinued.)

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
Skip transcript: Audio 2

Transcript: Audio 2


So, what I was going to do to start is what we’ve always done in the past which is ask you to try and identify rather than just a general talk about ‘it went well, it didn’t’, but try and identify two or three things that you think were very positive either because you’ve met targets or that you think someone coming in for a snapshot will’ve seen that would be a good feature of your teaching. And then obviously another two or three where you think if you did it again you might consider doing it slightly differently.
The good things… (x) targets... I deliberately tried to slow the pace down, fit less in. Instructions-wise I made an attempt of giving nice clear instructions – don’t think it came off...


I’m Dave Smith, Open University tutor on the PGCE course. A reflective practitioner is someone who isn’t just able to say ‘ooh that went well’, or ‘that didn’t go well’, or, ‘oh dear, I feel terrible today’, but is actually able to begin to analyse different elements of what they’ve done and crucially look at a range of evidence that can give them some idea of the effectiveness of what they’ve done. Every child’s a black-box, every classroom is a black-box; we never know exactly what’s going on, but we can aim to look for a range of evidence and we can aim to link that evidence to what we’ve done and therefore to get an idea of whether what we’ve done has been effective and whether it needs to be modified both in general, or whether it needs to be modified for this particular class; and, perhaps a higher level of thinking, whether even though it was effective here, under which situations might it not be effective.


I’m going to talk about your extension work and you gave out that sheet with the multiple choice questions. Do they have any feedback on whether they got them right or wrong?
No, I didn’t get them feedback.
What about if you’d collected those sheets in? What could you have done?
Yeah, okay – that’s a good idea, I could’ve marked it. There’s also credit systems I could use. I could also have printed off an answer sheet and said ‘look, how did you do? Let me know how you’re getting on.’
Absolutely. So, what I’m saying is that I thought the work was appropriate, but I felt in a sense they were doing extra work and they got nothing for it and you’ve just told me two or three ways you could’ve done it or could do it if you did that another time.


My name’s Neville Ashcroft and I’m a student teacher. Reflective practice has been useful. There’s one example in the last placement where a particular lesson didn’t go well; the main problem was that the pupils were not focused at the beginning of the lesson, they were very excited and that level of inattention, unfocusedness prevailed for the rest of the lesson. So, the next lesson I had to try something different. I got them to focus really quickly – gave them a task immediately on the door when they came in to set the tone of the lesson. And that appeared to work.
I think an effective learner as a student needs first and foremost to be able to analyse their practice and, probably even before that, to analyse other people’s practice. So, observation of other teachers can really reveal whether a student has that ability, because if they can’t analyse the practise it’s very difficult to reflect on it and adapt it and modify it. So, the student who tends to make very broad, general, sweeping statements about ‘well, yes, that lesson went well’ – immediately you’ve got to try and pin them down to either particular aspects of the lesson that went well or to go a little further and explain why those aspects of the lesson went well. Once they’ve done that then they are in a position to think about how their practice could be changed, to think about the evidence they’ve got for the impact of their practice and, crucially, to think about the impact they’re having on student learning.


I’m Sarah Vaughn. I’m Simon’s PGCE tutor. And we’re here with Simon to give him some feedback and to talk about teaching and learning. It’s a sort of tutorial really, to draw together some of the threads of what I’ve seen this morning and also the work that he’s been doing at home in his study. First of all, Simon, I just wanted to say thank you very much for letting me come into the lesson this morning and it was a really interesting lesson and it really was just the teaching and learning bits that you need to work on. So you’ve got something quite concrete there that you know you need to work towards and address for the next time I come in. And I think those are going to be two of the main targets that I’m going to focus on when I come back in – looking at the differentiation strategies. So, looking at how you can support children who’ve got literacy difficulties and also it’s the other end as well – the stretch and challenge bit – so that you can open out the tasks for the gifted and talented children that you’ve got.
I know that’s something that I need development. The thing that I was more annoyed at myself this morning for was not scrapping a bit of the lesson, because I know who they are in that class – I know who. It’s predominantly boys who are the ones who are going to struggle with this, that and the other, but I just didn’t deal with that so well. But I knew in my head what I would probably want to do.


So what we’re talking about is the ability to reflect critically on your own practice. That is, to look at it in detail and to take it apart and to think about different aspects of what you have said or how you have phrased something, or how you have put together instructions, or how you have scaffolded the steps that you expect your pupils to go through and looked at what worked and what didn’t work. And if something hasn’t worked, is that because you missed out a critical point in your sequence of events.


…Have a couple of minutes afterwards. I know you thought I’d forgotten you.


I’m Simon Bland, I’m a PGCE student. The first placement school I realised that I was maybe delivering an alright level of teaching to a tiny minority of the students because x number of them will quite happily while away a lesson doing nothing, x amount of them don’t want to talk to you and want to completely disrupt. It’s so easy to go with just either those that disrupt: concentrate on them, concentrate on them, concentrate on them... and then find that all your best students did nothing as well because they got sick of it, or those that just want to stare out the window did nothing. It was a realisation of how little I’d achieved in a lesson, even if I may have made progress with one or two students. And of course it was down to me – the students were behaving like students do. But, you have to be in control.
A good student will be a person who is reflective, thinks about their own practice, thinks about their own behaviour, thinks about the way they present themselves to the children in their classrooms. Somebody who will be able to recognise when they need to ask for support and help, and somebody who will act upon any support and information that’s given to them. They need to be somebody who’s open to positive criticism, to coaching and mentoring. And you have to be very well organised in order to make sure that you’ve addressed all those things and make them all piece together successfully.
Your practice improves every time you get a new class and particularly if, when you get that new class, you make a conscious attempt to adapt what you’ve done before to that class. That is, I suppose, how the experience can build provided you are a reflective practitioner. That can be complemented by specific training by training days, by advice from other people, but once you’re a practitioner the most important aspect of development comes from your own reflections.
End transcript: Audio 2
Audio 2
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Both Dave and Sarah emphasise the importance of being able to analyse lessons and basing that analysis on the evidence available.

Critical reflection allows us to synthesise different perspectives (whether from other people or literature) to help explain, justify or challenge what we have encountered in our own or other people’s practice. It may be that theory or literature gives us an alternative perspective that we should consider, it may provide evidence to support our views or practices or it may explicitly challenge them.

Critical reflection also allows us to analyse what we have learned and how we have learned to enable us to take control of our own development. It is in light of these two functions that a great deal of importance is placed on critical reflection in the professional development of teachers.

The rest of this course will help you to understand critical reflection and introduce some tools to support effective reflection.

2.1 Defining reflective practice

The term ‘reflective practice’ derives from the work of Dewey and Schon. Dewey (1910, p.6) wrote that reflective practice refers to ‘the active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it’. This means that you will have a questioning approach; you will consider why things are as they are, and how they might be.

Dewey went on to say that being reflective ‘enables us to direct our actions with foresight … It enables us to know what we are about when we act’. This is extremely important in teaching. What you do in the classroom and how you behave should have been carefully planned, informed by theory and experience and be purposeful.

Schon (1983) presents a slightly different view. He regards reflection as having two aspects: reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.

Reflection-in-action refers to the quick thinking and reaction that occur as you are doing, for example in the classroom you may be teaching a topic which you can see the pupils are not understanding. Your reflection-in-action allows you to see this, consider why it is happening, and respond by doing it differently. This could involve reframing your explanation or approaching the topic from a different perspective.

Reflection-on-action is what occurs outside the classroom when you consider the situation again. You may think more deeply about why the pupils did not understand, what caused the situation, what options were open to you, why you chose one option and not another. Your responses will depend on your existing level of knowledge and experience, your understanding of theories and your values.

Activity 3: Reflecting

Timing: Time: 20 minutes

Using what you have read so far, list five factors that might affect your ability to reflect-in-action and five factors that might affect how you reflect-on-action.


Reflection-in-action may be influenced by factors such as: your emotional reaction to the situation as it happens, your previous experience of similar situations, the interactions you have with certain individuals at the time and what strategies you have to deal with the situation.

Reflection-on-action may also be influenced by your emotional reaction albeit after the incident, discussions you have or other people’s comments about the situation, the consequences of the events or your involvement with the individuals involved in the incident after the event.

Dewey and Schon’s ideas are manifest into a number of commonly used terms including reflection, reflective practice, critical reflection, critical analysis and critical thinking. In ITE you may be asked to produce evidence of some or all of these in conversations, written assessments or school documentation such as lesson evaluations. The following sections will explore some of these and help you understand what they mean.

3 What is critical analysis?

Critical analysis involves analysis and critical thinking.

Analysis is the process of breaking a complex topic into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it. An example of this would be exploring the reasons behind a pupil not understanding a concept. An unanalytical approach might just say that they weren’t ready to understand the concepts being taught. A more critically analytical approach might break down the issue into a number of factors that might have influenced the pupil’s inability to understand. These might include:

  • the pupil’s previous learning and understanding
  • the way the concept was presented
  • the context of the lesson (time of day, previous lesson, the pupil’s mood)
  • the way the teacher assessed the pupil’s understanding.

Critical thinking is essentially a sceptical or questioning approach to knowledge. Someone who is thinking critically will question assumptions and think about issues from a variety of perspectives. It involves looking at ideas and information from a detached position, trying to set aside personal values and opinions, and looking for evidence to bring to bear on the issue under scrutiny. This might involve asking:

  • Why was it taught that way?
  • What theoretical principles promote or challenge the way it was taught?
  • Are there alternative views or methods?

Critical analysis and thinking is not the same as criticism of someone or what they do, which is made from a personal, judgemental position. This is important to bear in mind during your school placements, particularly if you find yourself in a situation where you have a difference of opinion with your mentor or school coordinator.

4 Features of reflection

As we have discussed already, teaching is a complex activity, in which decisions are made in complex contexts. In addition, there are theoretical perspectives to consider, and the process of reflection brings all these aspects together.

Reflective practice is widely considered to be an important activity for professional development. There is a huge amount of literature exploring and debating reflection and reflective practice in education. There are some key features of reflection that are widely accepted:

  1. Reflection results in learning – through changing ideas and your understanding of the situation
  2. Reflection is an active process of learning and is more than thinking or thoughtful action
  3. Reflection involves problematising teaching by recognising that practice is not without dilemmas and issues
  4. Reflection is not a linear process, but a cyclical one where reflection leads to the development of new ideas which are then used to plan the next stages of learning
  5. Reflection encourages looking at issues from different perspectives, which helps you to understand the issue and scrutinise your own values, assumptions and perspective.

Therefore, when the term ‘critical reflection’ is used, it refers to a combination of the analytical, questioning (or critical thinking) and reflective approaches. It is this combination that would characterise a critically reflective conversation.

4.1 Critical reflection in reading and writing

As part of your ITE course you may be asked to produce written work which demonstrates critical reflection.

Reading for critical analysis and reflection involves:

  • Making judgements about the way arguments are made in the text.
    • Are they convincing?
    • Are they based on reliable evidence?
  • Considering the arguments from a detached position which allows you to carefully scrutinise what is being said.
    • What is missing or doesn’t relate to my understanding of the issues?
  • Reading to understand different ways of thinking about a subject rather than just collecting information or quotes.
  • Considering how the literature relates to your own practical experiences.
    • Does it support, challenge or even undermine your experiences?

Writing in a critically reflective and analytical style involves applying these ideas to help you develop arguments, use evidence and demonstrate the link between theoretical perspectives and experiences in practice. The following activity will help you to understand what is meant by critically reflective writing.

Activity 4: Identifying critical reflection

Timing: Time: 30 minutes
  1. Read the extracts from the lesson evaluations of two student teachers who team taught the same lesson, Lesson analysis.
  2. Using different colours, highlight what is descriptive, what is analytical and what is reflective.
  3. Come to a conclusion about whether each student teacher has been critically reflective.

You may have found it difficult to mark places where the authors are being critically reflective as this is inevitably intertwined with the other three types of writing. It is how description, reflection and analysis are used that will determine whether the writing as a whole is critically reflective. For example, passages which analyse theory or practice may use description or reflection to support a particular view or may be used to demonstrate where there is an alternative view to consider.

Both texts can be described as being critically reflective, although they employ different styles. There are elements of description and reflection but these are usually used as evidence to support critically reflective statements or arguments. The interweaving of theory, practice and reflection gives weight to the arguments the author is presenting, with very few statements that are based solely on personal opinion or experience. The use of questions can be helpful as a starting point for a discussion with the student teacher’s tutor or mentor.

Having considered what critical reflection is, we will now think about how to ensure reflection leads to effective learning.

5 Reflecting effectively

In a busy school placement you may find that you concentrate on immediate reactions, big issues or surface level responses to situations. This is a common experience, and well established in the research literature as Finlay notes in her paper ‘Reflecting on reflective practice’.

Busy, over-stretched professionals are likely to find reflective practice taxing and difficult. Bland, mechanical, routinised and unthinking ways of doing reflective practice are too often the result.

(Finlay, 2008)

Other authors have expressed concern about the concept of reflective practice and have challenged concepts such as Schon’s ‘reflection-in-action’. For example Ixer, writing about reflection in social work practice, argues that ‘reflection-in-action’ cannot be applied to those working in professionally demanding situations in the same way as it can be to other professions. He suggest that in these situations:

Practitioners are seen as applying knowledge built up from their own experience which is ‘tacit’ and therefore difficult to access and discuss. Reflection aims to develop conscious control of knowledge in such circumstances, through a process of metacognition, so that professionals are able to self-analyse and learn to operate more effectively in demanding situations. In essence, this means that they develop transferable skills which are lifelong and not context-specific.

(Ixer, 1999)

This quote contains important messages about effective reflective practice that are worth unpicking. Firstly, Ixer’s use of the phrase ‘tacit knowledge’ acknowledges that at times you will be acting in an unconscious, routinised way. This links with the discussion about practice wisdom, and how established teachers can find it difficult to express their thought processes or how they learned a particular strategy.

Secondly, Ixer mentions metacognition, which is commonly defined as thinking about thinking. The idea of developing pupil’s metacognition is increasingly being discussed in educational literature with a view to helping pupils take conscious control of their own learning. However, there is also increasing evidence that teachers need to develop their metacognitive awareness to increase their own professional learning and to enable them to support pupils develop their metacognitive skills effectively (Veenman et al., 2006, Kuhn, 2000, Kistner, 2010). Being metacognitively aware as a teacher, involves understanding how your thinking (and therefore learning) is developing.

Finally, Ixer highlights how, through metacognition, and conscious control of your thinking and learning, you will be more equipped to transfer your learning between different contexts and situations. This is a critical point as you move between different school contexts and develop career long learning habits to ensure you are able to adapt your practice to new ideas in education.

5.1 Ensuring reflection leads to learning

So, how can we ensure that reflective practice leads to learning? Both Finlay and Ixer’s criticisms of reflective practice hint at a distinction between surface level reflection (routinised, bland and unthinking) and a deeper level (conscious control, self-analysis, metacognition). As stated by Cartwright (2011), LaBoskey takes this idea further by making a distinction between ‘common sense thinkers’ and those who are ‘pedagogical thinkers’. This distinction gets to the heart of how to ensure reflection is an effective learning tool.

LaBoskey defines ‘common sense thinkers’ as those who reflect in an unconscious way, suggesting they are happy to use a ‘trial and error’ approach to learning to address short-term issues that are context specific.

‘Pedagogical thinkers’ are more conscious of their actions asking the questions ‘What is my intuitive response to this, and why am I feeling or acting this way?’ (Laboskey in Cartwright, 2011). Labosky suggests that it is by taking conscious control, that pedagogical thinkers ‘take a long term view of how to solve problems… remain open to learning… recognise there are no simple answers and the conclusions they reach are likely to be tentative’ (Laboskey in Cartwright, 2011).

6 Tools for reflection

In your ITE course you may be asked to demonstrate your ability to critically reflect in a number of ways. Some commonly used tools include:

  • learning journals (via blogs or off-line formats)
  • webfolios
  • written assessment tasks at designated points in the ITE course
  • lesson evaluations
  • tutorials or meetings with your mentor or tutor.

Whatever the format, these tools provide an opportunity to demonstrate deep level reflection, but are all susceptible to the kind of surface level reflection that Ixer, Finlay and Laboskey warn against.

So how can you evaluate whether you are using these tools effectively? One answer is to develop an understanding of some models of reflection, which will help you shape your responses and guide you as to what you may be missing out. The next section will introduce you to a few models.

6.1 Models of reflection

There are many different models of reflection as a quick search online will prove. Using models, or at least being aware of their similarities and differences, can help you to deconstruct experiences, ensure you are accessing the deeper level reflective questions and issues, and ultimately provide a way to structure your learning from situations.

Boud’s triangular representation

Many models are cyclical in nature, representing the idea that reflection leads to learning, but this learning is never completed or able to be transferred without reflecting on it further in different contexts. The most simple model could be seen to be Boud’s triangular representation, Figure 2.

Described image
Figure 2 Boud’s triangular representation

This model, although capturing the essentials (that experience and reflection lead to learning), has limitations. It doesn’t guide us as to what reflection might consist of, or how the learning might translate back into experience. Aligning key reflective questions to this model, see Figure 3, may help.

Described image
Figure 3 What does reflection consist of?

6.2 Gibb’s reflective cycle

Alternatively, other theorists have broken down the cycle into further stages, an example of which is Gibb’s reflective cycle, see Figure 4.

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Figure 4 Gibb’s reflective cycle (Adapted from Dye, 2011)

Gibb’s model acknowledges that your personal feelings influence the situation and how you have begun to reflect on it. It builds on Boud’s model by breaking down reflection into evaluation of the events and analysis and there is a clear link between the learning that has happened from the experience and future practice.

However, despite the further break down, it can be argued that this model could still result in fairly superficial reflection as it doesn’t refer to critical thinking / analysis or reflection. It doesn’t take into consideration assumptions that you may hold about the experience, the need to look objectively at different perspectives, and there doesn’t seem to be an explicit suggestion that the learning will result in a change of assumptions, perspectives or practice. You could legitimately respond to the question ‘What would you do next time?’ by answering that you would do the same, but does that constitute deep level reflection?

6.3 Atkins and Murphy model

Atkins and Murphy (1993) address many of these criticisms with their own cyclical model, see Figure 5.

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Figure 5 Atkins and Murphy model

Murphy and Atkins’ model can be seen to explicitly support the kind of deeper level reflection that was discussed earlier in this course. This is not to say that the other models aren’t useful, far from it, but that it is important to remain alert to the potential to provide superficial responses as the critical, questioning and challenging elements of critical reflection are not as explicit.

Activity 5: Lesson analysis

Timing: Time: 30 minutes

Open the document Lesson analysis  that you used in the previous activity and then re-read the notes made by the students.

  1. Analyse the notes in terms of Figure 4 and Figure 5 (Gibb’s model and Atkins and Murphy’s model). What strikes you about the level of reflection of two responses?
  2. What learning is evident in the two responses?
  3. What aspects of the models you have looked at are evident from each of the responses? Which are missing?

Both students are reflective in their evaluations. However, in the second account, the student is exploring possible explanations for the issues that have arisen. The actions that this student decides to take are likely to lead to a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the issues that arose during the lesson. The model described in Figure 5 is probably slightly more helpful in this respect.

It is also worth highlighting that a written evaluation is invaluable in terms of helping the students to remember what happened at a time when they will be being bombarded with new experiences.

7 Transformational learning

Mezirow (2000) argues that reflection only leads to learning if it leads to transformation. Merizow suggests that transformation occurs where the original starting point causes a dilemma that needs to be addressed, and then suggests that there are a series of possible phases which may be gone through.

  • A disorienting dilemma – loss of job, divorce, marriage, back to school, or moving to a new culture
  • Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • A critical assessment of assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and actions
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional testing of new roles
  • Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.
(Adapted from Mezirow, 2000, p. 22)

What is particularly striking about Merizow’s ideas is the emphasis on conscious, self-managed learning. The learning is not a direct result of the experience, it happens because the individual takes charge of their critical reflection and explicitly plans and carries out steps to learn from it. This level of personal responsibility for learning is crucial during ITE.

Reflection point: Think of a scenario where a lesson you teach goes very badly. How would Merizow’s model help you ensure you learnt effectively from the situation?

8 The next step

Reflective practice is not only the domain of ITE, but of career long learning. Being an effective teacher requires you to continue learning throughout your career to adapt to the latest subject requirements, changes in pedagogy or responding to a new educational initiative. Therefore it is important to see developing your understanding of critical reflection, and your reflective practice as establishing learning habits that will support you well beyond the first year of teaching.

As discussed by MacGregor and Cartwright (2010), deep and extended reflection begins to develop into ‘Reflexivity’.

Bordieu and Wacquant (1992), Lawson (1985) and Steier (1991) have derived the meaning of reflexivity from its Latin definition, ‘to turn back on oneself’. Thus, to be reflexive means to think about one’s own concepts, values and what they bring to any situation.

(MacGregor and Cartwright, 2010, p. 240)

They go on to argue that reflexivity is about self-awareness and how we, as teachers, impact on situations and our pupils. This can in turn lead to experimentation, developing research questions that the teacher wants to explore further and ultimately can lead to them becoming classroom researchers, which is discussed in An introduction to classroom research.


This course has introduced you to the idea of critical reflection as a tool to help you synthesise the contradictions and complexities of teaching. It has explored the differences between critical analysis, critical thinking and critical reflection before considering how to ensure that reflection leads to effective learning. It has introduced you to a number of models of reflection to help you structure your practice and discussed how to evaluate whether you are reflecting (and therefore learning) effectively.


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Cartwright, L. (2011) ‘How consciously reflective are you?’, in McGregor, D. and Cartwright, L. Developing Reflective Practice: A guide for beginning teachers, Open University Press.
Dewey, J. (1910) How we think, Boston, D.C.Heath.
Dye, V. (2011) ‘Reflection, Reflection, Reflection. I’m thinking all the time, why do I need a theory or model of reflection?’, in McGregor, D. and Cartwright, L. Developing Reflective Practice: A guide for beginning teachers, Open University Press.
Finlay, L. (2008) ‘Reflecting on reflective practice’, PBPL CETL, Open University, [Online] Available at (Accessed 2 January 2012).
Hobson, A. (2002) ‘Student teachers’ perceptions of school-based mentoring in initial teacher training (ITT)’, Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 5–20.
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Lunenberg, M. and Korthagen, F. (2009) ‘Experience, theory and practice wisdom in teaching and teacher education’, Teachers and Teaching, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 225–40.
McGregor, D. and Cartwright, L. (2011) Developing Reflective Practice: A guide for beginning teachers, Open University Press.
Mezirow, J. (2000) ‘Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory’, in Mezirow, J. and Associates (eds) Learning as transformation San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, pp. 3–34.
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, London, TempleSmith.
Veenman, M. et al., (2006) ‘Metacognition and learning: conceptual and methodological considerations’, Metacognition Learning, vol. 1, pp. 3–14.


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