Reflections from Transyvlania

[I bet you thought that people in Transylvania didn’t actually have any reflections didn’t you?]

Anyone who has ever been a teacher knows the value of reflection. What did I observe in my lesson? What did the students do/not do? What conclusions can I draw from this? How will this inform future lessons? This rough cycle of questions is (or should be) familiar to all teachers, and will certainly be familiar to anyone who has taken a valid teacher training course. It is, I hope, a given that reflecting on our practice in this context is an extremely valuable thing to do, and will ensure that we focus on the students’ learning and that we continue to develop as teachers.

But it is not just teaching and teachers that benefit from this process. Reflecting in and on action (as Donald Schon and later Peter Senge termed it) is valuable for all of us, in whatever field of endeavour. I would like to suggest that managers of language teaching organisations should therefore consider two specific courses of action. Developing the reflective skills of and building in reflective time for their staff, and, also, for themselves.

I’ll start with managers themselves. Every week you do loads of managementy things. I won’t list them all here, but obviously there are tons of different tasks you do in the week – some planned, others responding to circumstances. Do you ever take a moment to reflect on what you did? To sit and think through a series of questions which might help you learn from the experience (in a fairly structured way)? Probably not. We tend to assume that there is too much to do. All of our (expanding amount of) work is crammed as tightly as possible into the time available. How would we ever find time to reflect on top of all that? Yet somehow, though there are always more things to do, and new tasks that we have, we always do seem to find the time. So, if necessary, think of reflection as yet another vitally important management task. Because it is one.

If it helps to have a plan laid out to structure this reflection time, here is one: First, decide when you are going to reflect. One option would be at the end of the week, since that works in the looking-back-at-what-I’ve-done sense. The downside is that if you set 4pm on Friday as a weekly reflection time, there’s always a danger that it will get shunted back by other things, until it’s too late and it gets dropped as being less important. This is really only something you can work out with the knowledge of your own schedule and your working approach. I find that it works for me to set two times a week as reflective time – at the end of the Tuesday, and at 111am on Friday. I do everything I can to keep these times fixed (and treat the times like predetermined meetings with myself). If it is really impossible to avoid scheduling something else at 11am on a Friday on a particular week, then obviously do that and move the reflective “meeting” back a couple of hours. To start with put aside an hour for each such “meeting”. When the time comes, make it clear that you cannot be disturbed for that time, and turn off your computer (at the very least make sure you are not distracted by incoming emails – for me actually turning it off is the only way I can really do that).

Start by brainstorming a list of all the things you’ve done since the last time you reflected. Note them all down. Some of the things will be easy as they will have been scheduled, others may be harder to recall since they may have been short and unplanned. But try as much as possible to remember everything you did in the week. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order. Now take a look at your list. Is there anything that stands out? Something that didn’t go well? Something that went very well? An event or activity that seemed to contain a critical incident or other learning moment? Take that activity and break it down, asking yourself the following series of questions:

  • What exactly happened? What did I do? What did others do? (What, not why. List everything you can remember, no matter how trivial, just in case it turns out to have relevance)
  • What possible explanations are there for these events (what I did, what others did, actions, reactions, etc)? Make a list of any or all that you can think of.
  • Which of these explanations are most likely to be factors in what happened? Can I draw any general conclusions from this? What can I learn about management, my own management style, and about the needs and styles of others?
  • Based on this, is there anything I could have done differently, more successfully? If some similar situation arises in the future, what do I want to make sure I remember?

Obviously there’s nothing earth-shattering about this set of questions, they are a standard set of questions designed to take one around Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. But by doing this in a structured way it’s more likely that you’ll get something valuable out of it.

There’s one way of doing it better though, and that’s to involve others. Get their input into how things have gone, get their input into the way you’ve handled things. The more feedback you can get and the more opinions you can accumulate the fuller your view of things will be. But now we’re getting onto feedback, another of my little obsessions… and for now, this will have to do.

7 Responses to “Reflections from Transyvlania”

  1. Ruby Says:

    Very persuasively put, and giving a set of questions to ask yourself is helpful and structured. I have found that while many trainee teachers (and even more so for experienced teachers) the idea of keeping notes for reflection is great as an idea but gets put aside because it doesn’t seem “as important” as preparing the lessons and giving students feedback.
    I know that your focus is primarily practical, but it might be of interest to know that there is a whole body of research developing around “self-study of practice”. it kind-of makes it seem a more legitimate way to spend time and effort! See and and Doing reflection, making it systematic, writing it up – and you’re in good company!

  2. Sara Hannam Says:

    Hi Andy,
    I think this is a very workable and clear list and what you propose is essential. When not reflecting like this on events it is easy to make difficult situation worse or to miss out on opportunities. Speaking personally, I do this at the end of each day for 10 minutes as I find that is an easier pace to handle in the fast changing work place. But I do have another criteria which perhaps could be added to your list? Are there any ethical implications in any part of this situation that either I or others are not considering? This might be in relation to a member of the team or in relation to services delivered to students, or something more structural, but I find that this is really really important in ensuring that the reflection process is as holistic as possible.
    Hope its OK to add that in!

  3. Karenne Sylvester Says:

    This is an excellent post. Whether teacher, student, trainer, writer or manager stopping, pausing and reflecting on the journey makes the journey more meaningful.

    We simply learn more when we acknowledge what we’ve learned and what we’ve left to learn.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.


  4. Sara Hannam Says:

    Sorry Andy can you just amend that post above to say “when not reflecting…” so that it makes sense. There is no edit function and I hit send too quickly!

    [Andy: OK, done!]

  5. Victor Hugo Rojas B. Says:

    Taking stock of how things have been going is a good idea to question ourselves: Are stages of our lessons going well? I think, spending a good amount of our time and thoughts on the positive components of lessons will benefit students in consideration of improving our teaching. Moreover, are the strategies a bit more challenging, both for us and for our students? There may be a lot of questions searching for reflective responses, then the most important thing is to reflect upon and write about our teaching on a regular basis is a must.
    Regards from Lima, Peru

  6. Sandy Says:

    Andy, I find that reflection, at the end of the day, is often more than ably assisted by several large slugs of whisky and a full pack of cheap local cigarettes.

    The brainstorming, when undertaken in the same conditions, also takes on a slightly surreal quality too!

  7. Further reflections « From Teacher to Manager Says:

    […] when I last posted to this blog (many apologies for the extended hiatus everyone), I talked about how managers could use the concepts of reflective practice, familiar from teaching, in their own “management practice”.  I also said, during that […]

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