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Abstract

Professional educators often advocate reflective practice; it is less clear that they model it and provide explicit instruction. Working with illustrations from initial teacher education, this paper describes the author’s own reflection‐in‐action that resulted in an explicit strategy for helping new professionals experience the potential benefits of reflective practice through their program of professional preparation. The author concludes that reflective practice can and should be taught. The results of explicit instruction seem far more productive than merely advocating reflective practice and assuming that individuals will understand how reflective practice differs profoundly from our everyday sense of reflection.
This document is the penultimate version of an article
subsequently published in Reflective Practice, 6(2), 199-204.
1
Can Reflective Practice Be Taught?
Tom Russell
Faculty of Education, Queen’s University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6
Email: Tom.Russell@QueensU.CA
There seems to be more rhetoric about the value of reflective practice than there is detail about
how professional educators can help beginning professional develop the skills of reflective
practice and acquire initial experiences. My own interest in reflective practice resides in the
context of pre-service and in-service teacher education. My experiences in pre-service teacher
education began in 1977 and thus preceded the arrival of Schön’s (1983) explicit naming of ‘the
reflective practitioner’ as a goal for education in the professions. Initial teacher education
already had a strong commitment to having students keep journals of their practicum experiences
in professional settings, and I can recall student complaints that virtually every person teaching
them seemed to require a separate journal. Thus I was not at all surprised when reflective
practice attracted a great deal of attention in the mid-1980s and then seemed to fade away when
there was little evidence that reflective practice prepared better new professionals.
More than 20 years later, there is a journal named Reflective Practice that confirms that
many professional educators continue to pursue reflective practice as an important element of
professional preparation. There is also healthy and important debate about reflection; writers
such as Fendler (2003) might challenge the approach offered in this paper. As many teacher
education mission statements attest, initial teacher education continues to espouse the importance
of reflective practice. Yet year after year those whom I teach report that many of their teachers
urge them to engage in reflective practice but no one either helps them develop specific skills or
provides a personal model of reflective practice. Others have also made similar observations:
We have often asked our students to reflect on field experiences without ever
discussing the qualities of good reflection, often with disappointing results.
Students do not automatically know what we mean by reflection; often they
assume reflection is an introspective after-the-fact description of teaching.
Reflection, meant to make teaching and learning understandable and open, has
itself been an invisible process to many of our pre-service teachers. (Ward &
McCotter, 2004, p. 255)
In recent years I have attempted to explore this issue personally with encouraging results. I
argue here that the question ‘Can reflective practice be taught?’ deserves the explicit attention of
professional educators. My illustrations are drawn from my personal practice in initial teacher
education, in the tradition of self-study (Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001; Loughran et al., 2004).
What is Reflective Practice?
The absence of any clear agreement about what reflective practice is and how we recognize it
helps us understand why it is not clear how to teach it. Several research projects in the 10 years
following publication of The Reflective Practitioner in 1983 helped me to develop a personal
understanding of what might be new and significant in Schön’s work (Russell & Munby, 1991;
Munby & Russell, 1994). Schön distinguished between reflection-on-action (which seems to
closely resemble our everyday concept of reflection as thinking back through recent events) and
reflection-in-action. Three elements of Schön’s (1983) account of reflection-in-action attracted
This document is the penultimate version of an article
subsequently published in Reflective Practice, 6(2), 199-204.
2
my attention: (1) a puzzling or surprising event during teaching might stimulate ‘reframing,’
recognizing a new way of perceiving or thinking about the professional situation of practice,
(2) the new perspective might stimulate a novel course of action, and (3) actually carrying out
the novel course of action might provide evidence for deciding if the new perspective and
associated new actions deserved to be included in future professional practice. In this paper, I
organize the presentation of my argument to illustrate these three steps of my own reflective
practice as I explored the question, ‘Can reflective practice be taught?’
Reflecting-in-action on the Teaching of Reflective Practice
A Puzzling Event
In 2000, several individuals in our initial teacher education program spoke openly about
reflection as ‘fluff,’ particularly when they compared it to the work they had been assigned in the
final years of their undergraduate studies. Virtually anything they wrote seemed to count as
‘reflection’ and they reported that stories circulated of individuals who invented experiences
simply in order to complete an assignment quickly. This hardly seems a productive introduction
to the nature of professional learning, particularly when professional educators themselves
attribute high value to reflection. I resolved to try to understand the issue more completely and
attempt some changes to my own practices intended to foster reflective practice.
Reframing to Develop a Novel Course of Action
In 2001, one student seemed to pay particular attention to my teaching. He had more time than
others because he did not intend to become a teacher; he was completing our pre-service
program while waiting to start a training program in another field. He was the one person that
year who accepted my invitation to send electronically a weekly practicum report during the 10-
week practicum in the first half of the program. I responded each week with comments, usually
within 24 hours. At the end of the program, his advice to me and my colleagues could be
summed up as ‘Talk far less about reflection and becoming a critically reflective practitioner.’
Instead, teach people how to reflect, through the assignments given, and then conclude the year
by demonstrating how the assignments had developed skills of ‘reflective practice.’ This
individual offered the following comments on our structured discussion of his practicum.
Writing my side of the story allowed me to reflect back on what had gone on over the
previous week and forced me to formalize my thoughts and opinions based on my
experiences to that point (versus just keeping a mental picture).
Our discussion in the story ended up being more general in nature as opposed to
detailed. Issues or events I mentioned tended to be turned into a broader subject (i.e.,
debriefs and strategy tips turned into watching for why experienced teachers do what
they do vs. what they do). In this sense, the interaction tended to be more in-depth than
conversation with other teacher candidates, as we tended to want to tell anecdotes to
each other and were limited in our abilities to mentor each other. The daily grind was
front and centre among the teacher candidates, but the story often pulled the discussion
towards more fruitful topics.
The benefits of the story were hindered due to the way in which our dialogue took
place. I wrote up my experiences of the past week and you promptly responded. In
reading the reply, I would often spend just a short time digesting what was being said
and quickly fall back into the world of practice teaching, all but forgetting what was
said.
This document is the penultimate version of an article
subsequently published in Reflective Practice, 6(2), 199-204.
3
The true benefits of the story came when I went back [to Queen’s] in January and
commented on everything both you and I wrote. I was able to reflect back on the
practicum as a whole and was not under any real time restrictions.
In revisiting my thoughts I was able to take a more objective look at my thoughts and
discard or reinforce them as I went. I was also able to spend more time examining what
you had said. Although I would not be able to put suggestions into practice, I was in a
better position to evaluate the potential impact of your suggestions with the experience I
had gained over the practicum.
Overall, this was an exercise in reflection. Each week, I would write about the main
events of the previous week and their impact. I would then (albeit for a short time)
revisit the previous week when I received your response. Finally, I was able to devote
my full attention to what had happened when reviewing and commenting on the entire
dialogue. By going back to the story . . . my experiences were kept fresh in my
memory.
I can say that I have spent more time thinking about what happened during my year than
I would have had I not engaged in this dialogue. (Anonymous candidate, personal
communication, 28 August 2002)
These encouraging comments suggested a potentially valuable contribution to professional
development. They also provided helpful insights into how the electronic ‘discussion’ compared
to discussions with others. I resolved to extend this approach to teaching and supporting
reflection to my work with an entire class of teacher candidates.
Exploring the New Perspective in Action
The 2003-2004 program year provided my first opportunity to explore a explicit approach to
teaching reflection. For many years I had asked teacher candidates to write the ‘story of their
year learning to teach’ in installments at several points through the program; I provided little
structure, and the results were extremely varied.
To give the revised approach appropriate structure, I prepared a word-processing file
containing five tables, one to be completed at each of five points through the program: (1) after
four weeks of classes prior to the first practicum, (2) after five weeks of teaching, (3) after ten
weeks of teaching, (4) after seven more weeks of education classes, and (5) at the conclusion of
the program. Each table has three columns—the first with questions intended to foster thinking
about professional learning, the second for responses, and the third for my subsequent comments.
The table format is advantageous because each cell expands as one types, permitting responses
of any length. Questions are posed about particular features of the recently completed phase of
the program and about broader issues related to development as a professional. The following
examples are indicative:
What do you see as your major strengths as a new teacher?
What challenges do you see in learning from experience?
Summarize your major insights into the nature and challenges of teaching during the
practicum.
In what deliberate ways will you try to change your teaching style in the final practicum?
In what specific ways could we improve the contribution of theory to practice?
To what extent has this assignment helped you understand your early development as a
teacher?
This document is the penultimate version of an article
subsequently published in Reflective Practice, 6(2), 199-204.
4
Assessing the Impact of the Reframed Approach
Responses exceeded my expectations. I began the year by speaking of reflection as ‘the R-
word,’ not to be mentioned in our classes despite its frequent mention in other classes. I wanted
experience, not my talking, to introduce the process. Only after my students received my
comments on their first responses could they begin to get a sense that they were actually
engaging in reflective practice rather than being told about it. The exchange of files five times
over the duration the program proved helpful in creating a personal relationship with each
individual in a class of 30. In our final class meeting, I drew explicit links to reflection and
people did seem to see that they had experienced significant guidance in how to reflect. My
course evaluations were the most positive of my career, and one factor seemed to be this
structured approach to a personal dialogue that created a written record of significant experiences
and reframed perspectives over the duration of our pre-service program.
Now in my second year with the new approach, one member of my physics method class
sent the following comment with the third of five installments of the assignment (referred to as
‘Story’):
Story is by far the best assignment of my B.Ed. I look back on parts 1 and 2 and I'm
amazed at what I wrote. It is truly an excellent record of this adventure. (Anonymous
candidate, personal communication, 2 January 2005)
Intrigued, I requested details and received the following elaboration:
Story is a dialogue, a communication between you and me, rather than a one-way essay.
It enables me to focus my thoughts and discover what I am actually thinking and
feeling. The volume of words is not that great, but I spend a great deal of time writing
it.
Doing Story is quality time. I'm investing a year of my life and a lot of money on this
venture. When I do Story, I'm learning; it's time well spent. It's all about me. I won't
find answers in any book or journal; it all comes from within, and there are no RIGHT
answers.
I know you are actually reading, thinking about and reacting to my inputs. I really look
forward to reading your comments.
It's an excellent record of my B.Ed. I simply won't have any other; journals just don't
work for me. (Anonymous candidate, personal communication, 3 January 2005)
This is only one individual’s perspective, yet the message that this particular set of assignments
is fostering reflection in these ways indicates a good match between the reported values and the
ones I believe are important in the development of teachers’ professional knowledge (Munby,
Russell, & Martin, 2001).
Can Reflective Practice Be Taught?
My interest in discussing practicum experiences with those I teach led me to develop a suitable
structure and process at a time when I was also prompted to think more carefully about the gap
between the goal of developing critically reflective practitioners and the lack of explicit
strategies and support for reaching that goal. I continue to explore the effects of a new practice
that was stimulated by a new way of listening to future teachers. I now believe that professional
educators may have underestimated the complexity of Schön’s (1983) contribution to how we
think about the nature of professional learning. Fostering reflective practice requires far more
than telling people to reflect and then simply hoping for the best. I now believe that reflective
practice can and should be taught—explicitly, directly, thoughtfully and patiently—using
This document is the penultimate version of an article
subsequently published in Reflective Practice, 6(2), 199-204.
5
personal reflection-in-action to interpret and improve one’s teaching of reflective practice to
others. Further research on strategies for teaching reflective practice should prove valuable for
professional educators.
Acknowledgements
An earlier version of this paper was presented on 24 June 2004 to the Third International
Conference on Reflective Practice, Gloucester, UK. Funding from the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada supported data collection.
References
Bullough, R. V., Jr., & Pinnegar, S. (2001, April). Guidelines for quality in autobiographical
forms of self-study research. Educational Researcher, 30(3), 13-21.
Fendler, L. (2003, April). Teacher reflection in a hall of mirrors: Historical influences and
political reverberations. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 16–25.
Loughran, J. J., Hamilton, M. L., LaBoskey, V. K., & Russell, T. (Eds.) (2004). International
handbook of self-study of teaching and teacher education practices. Dordrecht, The
Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Press.
Munby, H., & Russell, T. (1994). The authority of experience in learning to teach: Messages
from a physics methods class. Journal of Teacher Education, 45, 86-95.
Munby, H., Russell, T., & Martin, A. K. (2001). Teachers’ knowledge and how it develops. In
V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed., pp. 877-904).
Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
Russell, T., & Munby, H. (1991). Reframing. The role of experience in developing teachers’
professional knowledge. In D. A. Schön (Ed.), The reflective turn: Case studies in and on
educational practice (pp. 164-187). New York: Teachers College Press.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York:
Basic Books.
Ward, J. R., & McCotter, S. S. (2004). Reflection as a visible outcome for pre-service teachers.
Teaching and Teacher Education, 20, 243-257.
... Despite this growing understanding of critical reflection as a multi-layered experience, the research on how to teach critical reflection writing to preservice teachers requires further investigation. Russell (2005) advocates for reflective practice to be taught 'explicitly, directly, thoughtfully and patiently'. The challenge for teacher educators is to raise students' awareness of the critical reflection written genre, so that they may demonstrate their development in reflective thinking and practice. ...
... These studies helped us develop a conceptual framework, synthesised from the previously discussed theoretical principles, offering students an uncomplicated framework for use in their writing attempts. Our framework (See Figure 1) comprises three elements: the first is experience (Kolb 2015;Russell 2005), a significant event or experience that is the catalyst that ignites the reflection process. Drawing on their experiences from previous practice teaching placements and visits to a local school to research multistage classrooms are examples our students used in their writing. ...
... die Arbeiten in Berndt et al., 2017). Wie der Aufbau von Reflexionskompetenz nachhaltig unterstützt werden kann, ist nach wie vor eine theoretisch und empirisch viel diskutierte Frage (Farrell, 2012;Leonhard & Rihm, 2011;Loughran, 2002;Nagro, 2020;Russell, 2005;Trempler & Hartmann, 2020). Das Nachdenken über erlebte Schulpraxis kann dabei auf dem Hintergrund verschiedener Konzeptionen von Professionalität im Lehrberuf erfolgen. ...
... Im Beitrag wurde deutlich, dass die Aufgabenstellung, selbst erlebte Situationen in Unterricht und Schule differenziert darzustellen und zu analysieren, eine unterstützende Ablauf-und Inhaltsstruktur wie auch einen zeitlichen Denk-und Schreibprozess mit Feedbackschleifen benötigt. Der Aufbau von Reflexionskompetenz sollte daher gezielt in spezifischen Lehr-Lerngelegenheiten adressiert werden (Loughran, 2002;Nagro, 2020;Russell, 2005). ...
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... The teachers' journals revealed their new perception of themselves which was coloured by the will to learn, the joy of discovery, and the courage to confront the newness of the research experience. Reflection on all of this brought out the potential for them to learn and to be changed by their learning (Barnett, 2007(Barnett, , 2011Russell, 2005), and to even see themselves as agents of change in their particular contexts . ...
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Teachers' knowledge and how it develops
  • H Munby
  • T Russell
  • A K Martin
Munby, H., Russell, T., & Martin, A. K. (2001). Teachers' knowledge and how it develops. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed., pp. 877-904).
Reframing. The role of experience in developing teachers' professional knowledge
  • T Russell
  • H Munby
Russell, T., & Munby, H. (1991). Reframing. The role of experience in developing teachers' professional knowledge. In D. A. Schön (Ed.), The reflective turn: Case studies in and on educational practice (pp. 164-187). New York: Teachers College Press.