Can reflective practice be taught?

Rohit Dhankar

“How can we teach reflective practice to student teachers in our teacher education institutions?” This has become an important question as the Indian education system is striving to improve the quality of education. Perhaps a short and direct answer to this question is: we cannot. But this brevity can be misleading; as it could be interpreted as ‘we cannot help student teachers become reflective practitioners’, in addition to being an uncharitable interpretation of the question itself. That certainly is not what I wish to communicate here. We can help student teachers become reflective practitioners – in teaching, obviously – but we can not teach ‘reflective practice’ directly. One of the results of overuse of the term ‘skill’ is that we assume that things like reflective practice are directly teachable. A common understanding of ‘skill’ is normally an activity like swimming, driving or the ability to understand arithmetical algorithm to add two numbers. These things can be taught directly through practice, require very little understanding of what one is doing and the main element in teaching these skills is repeated practice. When we term reflective-practice, critical-thinking, decision-making, etc., as skills, we assume that these can also be taught directly through repeated practice involving very little understanding of what one is doing. This is not true; the word skill misleads us into the unwarranted generalization of a teaching strategy unsuitable for complex abilities like reflective practice.

With this understanding, the question becomes: can we do some formal teaching to help people become reflective practitioners? I believe yes, we can. But what we need to do would be a complex affair with uncertain results. To understand the issue properly we need to first understand what being a reflective practitioner in teaching involves.

Reflective practice
First, let us note that to call an activity or practice teaching, it has to necessarily meet at the least, four conceptual criteria:
a. It needs to be an intentional or deliberate activity
b. It should have some content to be taught
c. The learner should know the intention as well as have some idea of the content, however dim and vague at the beginning, and
d. The activity should make a cognitive connection with the learner’s current level of understanding as well as with the content of teaching.

The practice that meets these criteria can be called teaching. For someone to be a reflective practitioner, it is necessary to have some idea of what that practice is. Therefore, a teacher, to be a reflective practitioner, will require a notion of teaching, a method of doing it and practical capability to perform the task. It is not necessary that he should have learnt it from someone else, or that it should be theoretically complete and perfect. He might have formed the notion and may have developed the method on his own, and both may need improvement.

Second, we need to distinguish between ‘reflection’ and ‘free flow of thought’. ‘Reflection’ is a deliberate intense gaze on experience, information, formulated insights, and principles to ‘discover’ or create patterns that might be helpful in achieving set goals, fill in the gaps in understanding and spot problems and anomalies. Reflection builds on what one already knows – systematically, logically, and imaginatively – to reach where one wants to go. It is an exacting and difficult process; may not always be enjoyable; actually could be quite tortuous. In fact, the greatest joy in reflection comes at the end of the tunnel, when one glimpses some faint ray of light. Thus, it requires habits of mind where ideas are taken seriously, strain is accepted, perseverance is seen as necessary, and courage to follow logic is carefully cultivated. It may not be for the joy seeker and one who moves only with ‘fun’. The task plainly is uphill.

Third, reflection does not happen in a vacuum. It requires pre-existing information, ideas, assumptions, and desirabilities or goals. It requires ways of dealing with ideas, precision of language, organizing principles and ability to reason out. In short, it requires frameworks of ideas and rational capabilities. Thus, reflection is possible only within and through a theoretical framework, and requires a sound grasp of reasoning.

Fourth, it is said above that one needs a ‘theoretical framework’ and ability to reason to be able to reflect; but we should hasten to add that a prisoner of a given theoretical framework and a slave of pre-conceived ways of reasoning will be a poor practitioner of reflection. Such a person can do a good job of logical deduction in a given system; but the spark of reflection would be missing. Reflection often requires calculated risks, re-examination of accepted and often dear to heart principles, jumping beyond the logic and looking ahead of reason. Thus, reflection requires open mindedness, abandoning beaten paths, venturing into new ideas and methods of thinking; in short it requires courage to face the unknown and unseen with scepticism in the heart for one’s own tools that may help in facing the unseen and unknown.

Fifth, ‘reflection’ involves looking back, looping, being conscious of what one is doing; this is an activity of ‘looking at oneself’; not in a narcissistic manner, but as a critical other. Kabir said ‘nindak neare rakhiye aangan kuti chhaway’ (keep the critic close by, make a hut for him in your own courtyard), one has to go further to be a reflective person: has to imbibe the critic as part of one’s own self; one has to become comfortable with playing two roles simultaneously – that of a practitioner and of a disinterested critical witness.

Now, if we happen to agree with the above characterization of being reflective; what would it take for the teacher to become a reflective practitioner? How can others (teacher educators) help him/her become a reflective practitioner? This is the question of content and approach, and a fuller answer will require empirical studies in addition to conceptual understanding. I will only try to understand what we can derive from the above characterization of reflective practice.

Thoughts on content
One way to arrive at the content – what should be taught – of teacher education programmes is to take cue from the points made in the above characterization of reflective practice.

It should be ensured in the curriculum that the student teachers develop their own notion of what teaching is and should have a reasonable command over the practice of teaching, otherwise they will have no basis for organized experience to reflect upon.

They should form the habit of mind to be as fully aware as possible of their practice, its impact on the children and to be critical of it. This is a disposition which can develop only if one is committed to the profession of teaching and cares for the children. This last point indicates that it is necessary to understand the worth of education in human life as well as the value of teaching if one is to be a reflective practitioner.

We have talked of the necessity of theoretical framework for reflection. It is a complex matter; one cannot do justice to it in a short piece like this, but a few broad areas of knowledge and understanding can be noted. The teacher needs to know the subject matter of what he/she is teaching. He/she should have a reasonable grasp of pedagogical practices that can make that knowledge accessible to the students, and this understanding needs to be rooted in some theory of learning. He/she should understand the nature of knowledge in general and of the subject he/she is teaching in particular. He/she should be able to relate his/her activity of teaching with the well-being of the student, social desirabilities and good human life. In other words, he/she should have a good grasp of philosophical, social, and psychological foundations of education. This much is absolutely necessary to be a reflective practitioner in teaching.

Some thoughts on pedagogy
The pedagogy for fostering reflective practice has to encourage critical appreciation and learning with understanding. Perhaps one can think of this matter in two parts. One relates to the institutional atmosphere. If the teacher education institute has an atmosphere of academic enquiry and seriousness it is likely to be imbibed by the students as well. The values, concerns, commitment, and care in the general functioning of the institution will go a long way to foster the same dispositions in the student teachers.

The second aspect is classroom teaching. Unless the classroom teaching emphasizes academic rigour, critical outlook, self-learning, and open-mindedness, it will be almost impossible to foster reflective practice. Only the teacher educators who are reflective practitioners themselves can forester reflective practice in their students.

It should be a necessary condition in the classroom teaching of teacher education institutes that students will be expected to accept only those propositions and practices which they themselves have examined and have found to be true. Nothing should be accepted on authority or faith. The students should have the freedom to question their textbooks, teachers, and all that they are supposed to learn. They should develop a disposition to examine everything and assume epistemic responsibility for what they have accepted after examination.

Teaching practice during the teacher education programme is the only possible means that brings the academic understanding and critical disposition to bear upon the actual practice of teaching. Therefore, a substantial time should be spent in schools in understanding the curriculum, textbooks, planning their own teaching, and actual classroom teaching. The students should be provided ample opportunity to examine their own teaching experiences critically with help from their peers and teachers. Reflective practice is not an individual and subjective affair. Both the practice of teaching and reflection are social in nature.

Conclusion
Therefore, perhaps we can reasonably assert that it is possible to foster reflective practice in student teachers. But that can be done only if we form a clear idea of reflective practice, develop a curriculum that includes all the needed equipment and knowledge for it, use a pedagogy that is suitable to develop reflection and mastery over the practice, and if we have teacher educators who themselves are reflective practitioners.

The author currently teaches Philosophy of Education at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru and is convener of the Philosophy of Education unit. He founded and headed a voluntary organization called Digantar from 1978 to 2010. He has also been part of many NCERT initiatives in developing material and curriculum through various committees. He can be reached at rohit.dhankar@apu.edu.in.

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