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Reflective practice: a foundation for action research & effective teaching

Reflective practice:

a foundation for action research and effective teaching Matthew Clarke


Matthew Clarke

Dr Matthew Clarke is Dean of Education at the Higher Colleges of Technology. He began his career in education teaching in pre-school and primary schools and has taught students in ESL as well as university settings in the UK and Australia. He has been a leader in teacher education in the United Arab Emirates since 1999 and has been central to the creation of a thriving and internationally accredited Bachelor of Education degree at the Higher Colleges of Technology. His research interests combine discourse analysis, teacher formation and cultural studies.


Reflective practice: a foundation for action research & effective teaching

Introduction This paper provides a brief discussion of the key importance of reflective practice as a foundation for action research in particular, and effective teaching practice in general, in the teacher education program at the Higher Colleges of Technology. In particular, I argue that the fundamental qualities of reasoning, inquiry and reflection that underpin these two complementary and commensurate approaches are particularly suited to addressing the pressing needs of education and schooling in the contemporary UAE. These pressing needs are discussed briefly below.

UAE Education and the call for reform The UAE as a relatively new 'nation-state' has made remarkable strides in a number of areas. However, one of the areas where considerable scope for further improvement exists is school education. Increasingly, in recent years local commentators have called for radical improvements in UAE schools. This call has been echoed in academic discussions of the needs of UAE education generally and of UAE government schools in particular: Due to dramatic changes that are taking place in the world, particularly in the UAE, the role of the education system has become the focus of critical analysis. This has resulted in a series of rather severe criticisms of the education system in the UAE. Some of these criticisms include: o o

inappropriate methods of teaching and learning inflexible curricula and programs Mograby, Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1999

The need for significant improvements has been accepted by the UAE Ministry of Education and Youth and led to the development of Vision 2020; an ambitious plan to reform education in the Emirates by embedding continuous quality improvement as a 'strategic pillar' in the practices of UAE schools, reflected in increasingly effective teaching, appropriate methodologies and rigorous evaluation processes (UAE Ministry of Education and Youth, 2000). More specifically, Vision 2020 states: Radical change in teaching/learning concepts, practices, means and styles will be effected‌The focus will shift from teaching to learning, from the teacher to the learner, from memorization to creativity, reflection, imagination and innovation. To attain this objective, continuous training for teachers and supervisors will be provided to change the traditional roles they play into more effective roles to promote, develop and instill the culture of innovation which is a societal ambition. UAE Ministry of Education and Youth, 2000: 87 It was this widespread recognition of the need for change and improvement in UAE schools and classrooms that led to the development of the HCT B.Ed. degrees. The HCT's B.Ed. degrees aim to provide teachers who are able to transcend traditional


Matthew Clarke

notions of teaching as the routine and mechanistic application of received teaching methodologies in the classroom. Instead the HCT seek to develop teachers who are able to engage with teaching as a creative, innovative, imaginative and reflective professional practice. This notion of teaching as reflective professional practice and the synergistic links between reflective practice and action research are discussed below.

Reflective Practice and Action Research: commensurate constructs Ziechner and Liston endorse Dewey's notion of reflection, as “that which involves active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or practice in light of the reasons that support it and the further consequences to which it leads”, and make the point that reflection is not so much a series of steps or a procedure but rather, a holistic orientation to teaching; a way of being a teacher that entails open-mindedness, responsibility and wholeheartedness (Zeichner and Liston, 1996: 9-10). With a similar emphasis on broad approach rather than procedure, Roberts sees the Deweyan reflective paradigm as concerned primarily with self-awareness, deliberative thought and a problem-solving orientation (Roberts, 1998: 53). Following Roberts (1998) we recognize a Deweyan philosophy as one perspective on reflection that is appropriate to language teacher education (Roberts, 1998: 55). Such an emphasis on a broad, open-minded stance towards teaching; on reasoning as a key aspect of effective classroom practice; on inquiry into ongoing issues that arise within the classroom and into consequences of particular actions related to these issues, are also key aspects of action research. Indeed action research is particularly suited both to the needs of beginning teachers and to a classroom culture in need of practical improvements. For while not dismissive of theory, action research is ultimately practical “in Aristotle's sense of practical reasoning about how to act rightly and properly in a situation with which one is confronted” (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2000: 569). Within this spirit of reasoned inquiry, our student teachers investigate a classroom issue of particular interest to them during their teaching practice in their final year of study. In order to accomplish this, they follow a cycle of 'plan-act-observe-reflect-revise plan'. This cycle relies and builds upon the awareness of one's own thinking that Vygotsky (1986/1934: 171) cites as one of the key purposes of school learning, and which is also the essence of detached reflection: School instruction induces the generalizing kind of perception and, thus, plays a decisive role in making the child conscious of his own mental processes. Scientific concepts, with their hierarchical system of interrelationships, seem to be the medium within which awareness and mastery first develop, to be transferred later to other concepts and other areas of thought. Reflective consciousness comes to the child through the portals of scientific concepts. One of the key aims of our teacher education programs is to encourage the transfer and extension of this capacity for reflective consciousness to our students' own teaching practices, so as to continually refine their own understanding of themselves and their


Reflective practice: a foundation for action research & effective teaching

classroom practice and, ultimately, increase the learning of their own students. The development of this reflective capacity among student teachers is facilitated through both inter-personal and intra-personal dialogue. A critical component of the latter approach is to encourage students to infer personal theories from practice for, as Britzman notes, “To theorize about one's experience means to engage one's reflective capacities in order to be the author of that experience� (Britzman, 1991: 50). Interpersonal dialogue involves conversations between two or more people and the construction, through this dialogic process, of self - what I think; other - what she thinks; and shared meanings, knowledge or understanding. The purpose of this publication is to share examples of student teachers' action research studies, which mark the culmination (at least during the official 'student' phase of their development) of the knowledge and understanding that has been developed through this process of reflective dialogue with self, peers and teachers. The remainder of this chapter explores this notion of student teachers engaging in reflective dialogue, using examples drawn from Web CT online discussion forums. Through these examples I hope to demonstrate the suitability of reflective inquiry for the educational challenges facing the contemporary UAE.

Student teachers engaging in reflective practice The Web CT discussion forums were created by HCT Education faculty as a platform for inter-college student discussions to enable students to reflect on their teaching experiences with peers in other Emirates and, thus, to co-construct further teaching knowledge together. What follows are examples from these Web CT discussions, in which student teachers discuss and share experiences in classrooms and schools and reflect on their growth and development as teachers over the four years of their degree. The students here embrace reflective practice, as well as critical thinking, selfawareness and the capacity for growth, development and change, all of which are key ingredients to educational improvement in the UAE: Teaching made me realize that I have qualities I never thought I have and developed others. I became a critical thinker and a reflective one. I learnt how to reflect on my teaching and the methods I use. I loved being able to use my imagination in teaching because I thought that I would not be able to. I also realized that children are different, with different abilities and different ways of thinking. I used to think that children are children, yes they are funny and you can laugh with them but they also think about things you never give a second look. After all what I've gone through these four years, I learnt that no matter how long I learn I will never get enough. I will always be a student. I will always be a learner. Fakhra, Year 4 student, This student's emphasis on the links between critical thinking and reflective practice was echoed by another student in the online posting below:


Matthew Clarke

Teaching enhanced my critical thinking skills. It made me a reflective person who reflects constantly on everything, not only on the incidents that take place in school but also on every article I read or programme I watch. I just feel that reflection deepens my understanding of certain things and strengthens my beliefs about teaching. I know that what I am going to say might seem odd to some of you, but I feel that reflection, somehow, makes me a better person! Yes, teaching has changed my life and when I look back on the things I have learned in the last four years, I realize it's been a positive change. Nada, Year 4 student The students in the above postings not only recognize the value of reflection but link this to their overall development as effective teachers. The real test of their appropriation of reflective practice, however, is their ability to not just talk about, but to 'do' reflection. Below, are some sample entries from student teachers' journals, which are one element of their teaching practice portfolios. In the first excerpt below a student teacher is engaging in what Schรถn (1983, 1987) calls 'reflection-on-action'. That is, the student is reflecting after the event about what worked, what didn't work and why it didn't work. 'Zoo Animals' was the third lesson in the unit. Materials were clear and supported the aims and content of the lesson. Despite the fact that the lesson met its objectives, the pair work did not work well. The task was complicated and students did not understand what they had to do. Even though I gave them example, it didn't suit the learners' level. The content was appropriate for Grade One students and the stages were well timed. The sequence of activities worked well, but the pair work too long time, hence I didn't have time to do the reflection stage. Roweya, Year 4 student The student teacher is working with her class using a 'teaching-learning cycle' (Love, Pigdon and Baker, 2000) that includes stages of 'tuning-in', 'knowledge building', 'transformation', 'presentation', and 'reflection'. In the latter stage the teacher encourages students to consider what they have accomplished during the lesson or unit. Using this cycle as a tool for scaffolding her thinking, the student teacher is able to identify precisely where the main problem in her lesson arose. She recognizes that her expectations for the transformation stage - when the students work with the 'knowledge' in order to transform it into personal understanding - was in effect, beyond the students' zone of proximal development. As a result of these difficulties no time was left for students and teacher to reflect on the experience. In the excerpt, below, another student teacher reflects on the critical importance of allowing time and space in the classroom for constructive, formative feedback: Now as I become more experienced, I'm more aware of the importance of providing the students with constructive feedback. Providing the students with constructive feedback is an essential aspect of the teaching and learning cycle. It allows the students to have a clear picture of how well they are performing and if they need to put extra effort. Providing the students with positive feedback is considered as a vital tool to increase students' self-esteem and learning motivation. It also one of the 16

Reflective practice: a foundation for action research & effective teaching

important components of social interaction patterns between the teacher and her students. Through this interaction pattern the teacher provides her students with the guidance and modelling to help them meet the potentials and move through their zone of proximal development (Cameron, 2001: 219), either individually or as a whole class. Fethiya, Year 4 student One interesting aspect of this excerpt is that the student teacher is advocating for her own students the very same reflective practices that we, as teacher educators have been encouraging and modelling in the college classroom. The student teacher refers to the need for her own students to be able to stand back from their efforts and achievement, in order to “have a clear picture of how well they are performing�. The student's words, here, echo those of Vygotsky, cited above, about the significance of school learning for developing the individual's capacity for reflective consciousness. In this way, through externalization and deliberation, the students' progress becomes an object of their consciousness and, hence, more amenable to direction and control. Theorizing broader principles from one's experience is a form of engaging one's reflective capacities (Britzman, 1991). Whereas the student in the excerpt above does this based on her general beliefs and experiences, the student in the excerpt below employs a process of induction to draw a theoretical principle from a specific incident. In this she echoes Dewey's core notion of reflection as 'educative', as opposed to 'routine', experience (Zeichner and Liston, 1996): I feel that I was using a variety of strategies appropriate to children needs. For example, the Learning Centres cater to different learning style and multiple intelligences. I was pleased to see students guessing the taste of food, the sound of different things, the smell of items, and the shape of objects. In addition, I was delighted to listen to them repeating the sentences related to the five senses and applying their knowledge to writing by working individually and completing the puzzle.... My experience lead me to think that when students are immersed in discovery learning, they are more engaged and there is a bigger chance for them to remember the concept because they discovered it themselves. Afra, Year 4 student I have depicted reflection as an intellectual and emotional orientation, rather than as a series of steps. Often reflection will be triggered by an uncomfortable experience or one where expectations and reality did not match (Zeichner and Liston, 1996). In the excerpt below a student's reflection is prompted by just this sort of unease and discomfort: ...I would have also changed other things as I was challenged by their behaviour. They needed lots of time to sit on the carpet and become settled. Throughout the story students moved form their places and talked. I should have then asked them to go back to their seats but I was worried that it might make things worse. Another solution could be that I could ask them to do TPR in their place, for example stand or breathe in and out. Because I spent a lot of time on getting students attention while telling the story, students did not get to play the game, which was when students would be asked to be active and go


Matthew Clarke

back to their seats. Therefore, students spent a longer time on the carpet listening to me, which made things worse... Shaikha, Year 4 student Here, the student teacher presents the key elements of reflection as we have discussed it. She is clearly self-aware: “…I was challenged by their behaviour.”; she engages in deliberative thought: “…I was worried that it might make things worse.”; and she reframes the situation as part of a problem-solving orientation: “Another solution could be that I ask them to do a TPR…” (total physical response activity). She is truly engaged as a reasoning, inquiring and reflective professional.

Conclusion In the above examples of students engaging in reflective practice, we have evidence of an open-minded stance towards teaching that utilizes reasoning as a key aspect of effective classroom practice. This reasoning stance provides a basis for inquiry into ongoing issues that arise within the classroom and investigation into consequences of particular actions related to these issues. Such an approach - which forms the underlying basis for both reflective practice and action research and which emphasizes qualities of deliberation, self-awareness and a problem solving orientation to the classroom - is surely a fundamental ingredient for ongoing educational improvement in UAE schools.

References Britzman, D. (1991) Practice Makes Practice: A Critical Study of Learning to Teach. Albany: SUNY Press. Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. (2000) Participatory Action Research. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds.) The Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Love, K. Pigdon, K. and Baker, G. (2000) Building Understandings in Literacy and Teaching. Melbourne: University of Melbourne. Mograby, A (1999) Human Development in the United Arab Emirates. Education and the Arab World. Abu Dhabi: Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. Roberts, J. (1998) Language Teacher Education. London: Arnold Publishing. Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books. Schön, D. A. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishing. UAE Ministry of Education and Youth (2000) Vision 2020. Abu Dhabi


Reflective practice: a foundation for action research & effective teaching

Vygotsky, L.S. (1986) Thought and Language. A. Kozulin (ed. and trans.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Zeichner, K.M. and Liston, D.P. (1996) Reflective Teaching: An Introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.


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This paper provides a brief discussion of the key importance of reflective practice as a foundation for action research in particular, and e...

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