Mirrors, images and reflections

Geetha Durairajan

Evaluating others and ourselves
As human beings, we engage in many kinds of reflections. Some of these are evaluations which are reflective and others reflect our values. Every time we look at another person, we evaluate them. This ‘judgment’ if it can be called that, is often unconscious and automatic. Without even realizing it, we judge the appearance, clothes, and even language (particularly accent) and actions of people. The nature of this ‘judgment’ or evaluation is a reflection of our values and ourselves. Those of you who are regular readers of my column Touchstone may recall my first article in that series titled ‘Coloured judgments’ (Teacher Plus, February 2012). I had assumed that a dark skinned woman in a crushed sari could not be an interpreter. This judgment was a reflection of my own values and showed me up in a bad light, not her. We look at other people and their actions and evaluate the actions to find them wanting, or think that they are fantastic. This evaluation is a reflection of our assumptions and our goals. Our views are reflected through our evaluation of other people. If I feel that it is not right for women to sing and dance in public or wear modern ‘revealing’ clothes, then I judge that woman as dressed ‘scantily’ or as wearing revealing clothes. If I am comfortable with shorts, mini-skirts, or short tops, I will probably ‘judge’ that woman as modern! This is true of all people, and all situations.

It is not only other people’s images that we judge. Very often we judge our own images or rather reflections as well. All of us look at ourselves in a mirror every morning when we get dressed. We may spend a few minutes but often that time spent doesn’t even register in our consciousness. When we get dressed for an important occasion, (an interview, a presentation, a meeting) however, all of us spend a little more time and take a bit more care with our appearance. Once dressed, we take a minute or two to look at our image in the mirror and do a mental check: “Am I okay, do I look neat enough, will I impress…?” When we do this, we are, in a sense, evaluating ourselves and passing judgment. But this evaluation of our own reflection is not from our viewpoint but from the perspective of the people whom we are going to meet/make a presentation for or be interviewed by. Through their eyes, as it were, we look at our reflection and judge ourselves. This is an evaluation of a reflection, which reflects in a sense, other people’s values.

What is reflective practice
These two kinds of evaluation involve two different kinds of reflections: in the former our own values get inadvertently reflected during evaluation while in the latter it is the reflection that is evaluated, based on our understanding of other people’s values. In both cases, however, it does not involve a deliberate reflection on either words or actions prior to evaluation. Reflective practice, which is what this article is about, involves just this; we need to look back and think about our own ‘thoughts, words, and deeds’ as it were, to enable us to grow and learn to ‘better our best’ if that is possible.

Children and reflective practices
As teachers, caregivers, and parents we expect our children to improve their own performances and to ‘better their best’. If we were to look within the context of an important examination, this ‘reflection’ becomes very important. Throughout my school days, when examinations became important in my life, I was taught by my mother to do a couple of things before sitting for any one of these ‘stressful experiences’. I was told to always spend the first five minutes reading the whole paper, select the questions I wanted to answer (if I had choice in the paper) plan my answers (quickly jot down the main points of each answer), do a quick time allotment and then begin writing. I was also taught (while allotting myself time per question) to keep aside the last ten minutes for revision and checking. In these last ten minutes I was taught to check my totaling if it was an arithmetic paper and the mechanics of language if it was any other subject. This planning, selection (if the paper is with choice), and revision or the last 10 minute checking is nothing but reflective practice. But I am not a unique adult and was no unique child. I am sure that my mother was not the only adult who asked her child to reflect on her own examination paper. “…Think about what you wrote, look back and find out what went wrong so that you can make sure that you don’t make the same mistake again,” are words that we have all uttered to some child or the other many times over in our adult lives.

We teach our children to do all this, to reflect on what they know, on what they are good at, and expect them to learn to make informed choices. Whenever needed we also expect them to take corrective action. A child who comes back with an arithmetic test answer paper where he has lost marks because of careless mistakes in totaling will get an earful from us, along with a “next time be more careful”. If this child is very remorseful and miserable because he forgot to “check” his answers, we may console and ask that child not to be so harsh on himself but to learn from that mistake. We teach our children to practice self-reflective evaluation and we expect this to become an intrinsic part of their educational lives. This is not the only ‘reflection’ we ask our children to do! As parents, caregivers, and teachers, all of us ask our children to reflect not only on examination performances, but their own actions and more importantly, to learn from them. Parents and caregivers only need to recall the times when they have punished their children for some ‘misdeed’ or even naughtiness by making them sit in a corner and asking them to think about what they have done.

Teachers and reflective practices
This reflection or ‘thinking about what we have done’, which we ask our children to do is the essence of reflective practice. It needs to be viewed by all of us teachers as a preparation-prototype of the serious reflection on practice that professionals like teachers need to do or rather become increasingly capable of. This reflection is like looking at one’s image in a mirror but not to look at attire or hair style but to look inwards and evaluate our own actions, beliefs, etc. Many of us, however, fail to do this in our teaching lives. We enable others to read or write better, to learn concepts, and even master them but we forget that we too are learners who can only try to enable learning to happen. We too need to learn and grow. Not by signing up for a course (that is the easiest) but by doing something much more difficult.

We need to look at our ‘mental reflection’ or teacher image in a metaphoric mirror, and be able to ask ourselves whether we are happy with it in our own critical eyes and in the eyes of other more enabled peers. As adults, who are also caregivers and parents, we may or may not have colleagues, friends, or more enabled peers to actually “reflect on our practices” and evaluate them to enable growth. But that does not matter and while helpful, is not always needed. A critical reflection on our own experiences and practices is crucial. In another of my Touchstone articles I wrote about running, hopping, and jogging and how it had never occurred to me that ‘jog’ is a very urban word! (Teacher Plus, September 2012). This is an example of reflective practice which helped me grow. I became aware of a wrong assumption in my teaching life and hopefully, will not make that type of mistake again.

All of us, as human beings do reflect on our actions; we only need to think of some food that we have cooked and the very short one minute ‘reflective tasting’ that happens: “is this cooked well enough? Have I added enough salt/sugar/spice”, etc. We need to take this into our professional lives and learn to reflect on our own teaching practices. We expect children who have sat for an examination to ask themselves, “What do I need to do next time?”, or “What else do I need to do?”, or “What did I not do?” and thereby evaluate their own performance and learn from it. We need to do this for ourselves as well, particularly in our teaching lives. If we do not practice, we do not have the right to preach!

Reflection is an important part of teaching and learning; if we stop reflecting on our own practices we will stop being learners. If that happens then we need to also stop teaching, for a true teacher is always a learner and if we expect our learners to reflect, then it is important that we also do so. Sometimes it may be necessary to look at our image in a mirror as the world sees it and reflect on this image and take corrective action. At other times it could be a “Where am I now and where do I want to be in 6 months or 3 years? And what am I doing to make it happen?” If we think of any good sportsperson we will quickly realize the importance of such evaluative reflection. With the availability of technology most professional players record their own performances and then do a minute critical dissection of it, along with their coaches.

The purpose of this ‘dissection’ is not to find fault but to find out what went well and what did not, to try and ensure that the same mistake does not happen again. It could also be to try and repeat a good shot or a good bowling or batting technique. Similarly we need to look at a lesson that went well and ask ourselves what made it good so that it can be repeated; if a lesson plan did not work out or had to be abandoned or modified then the changes ringed in also need to be reflected on. At other times it could be that we got very angry with one particular group of students; reflection might reveal that there was a hidden bias behind the anger; a bias of skin colour, caste, religion, etc.

Whether it is good or problematic practices, all of us as teachers need to reflect on our own practices for without such reflection, and evaluation we may continue to exist but will not live meaningful lives; we will grow old physically but will not evolve as human beings.

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.

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