Finding the middle ground between reflection and inquiry

When I first started writing this blog, I didn’t think it would last very long. Its name, ‘Reflecting English’, was a bit of an afterthought, a quick admin decision. Over recent months I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the word ‘reflecting’. Intuitively, practitioner reflection has a vital role in the iterative process of teaching – plan, teach, reflect … plan, teach, reflectyet it is also subject to a number of weaknesses.

I am not intending to argue against reflection. In fact, I think it is impossible to be a half-decent teacher without it. It’s just that I have come to understand its limitations more clearly. Let’s say a student misbehaves during my lesson: I reflect afterwards and decide to move him to the front where his behaviour dramatically improves over the next few weeks. Perhaps my students are struggling to answer a particular exam question: I reflect and decide to spend a lesson carefully modelling an answer step-by-step and their responses significantly improve in an end of term test. In both scenarios, I can tentatively conclude that my action has had the desired impact over time – and, even if I am wrong about the cause of the change, things have improved so there is little need to look back.

It is when we share our reflections that we need to be more careful, especially when we use them to make claims about ‘what works’ or, even more so, when we use them to help us to reach judgements about the quality of other teachers. We are subject to a huge range of biases and exemplary classroom teachers can overlook the strong effects of the automatic, unconscious elements of their practice. This can easily lead to attributing success to an intervention, when other unnoticed factors are at play. In the complex social environment of the classroom, cause and effect are hard to isolate.

An alternative to reflection lies in more rigorous inquiry. This might come under a number of guises. At last weekend’s excellent Research Leads event at the University of Brighton a number of models were shared.

I discussed the action research model we are currently working on in partnership with Dr Brian Marsh: three teachers are running inquiry projects based on areas of interest that match with school priorities.

James Mannion shared his revolutionary Praxis model, an online platform which, to paraphrase Freire, encourages teachers to reflect and act upon their classrooms in order to transform them. Praxis provides a structure for inquiry and evaluation beyond traditional reflection.

Another presenter, Nick Rose, shared the inquiry tools he has been building to support his coaching work with teachers: these include coaching logs, focused and formative observations and classroom climate logs.

In many schools, lesson study triads have been set up as vehicles for inquiry.

However, as exciting as these ideas and innovations are, just how much reach do they have? Sadly, teachers remain hugely hard-pressed for time and, even if these models become embedded, will they meaningfully change the culture of schools? My personal view at the moment is that involvement in an inquiry project should be optional for an experienced and successful teacher. That does not mean, however, that this teacher should not engage with evidence in any form.

So, is there a third way, a middle-ground between reflection and disciplined inquiry? Some are suggesting that the growing interest in research is really a growing interest in more rigorous evaluation and informed decision-making. To bring these about, we need to provide more checks and balances at various levels in our schools so that we avoid some of the obvious biases and flaws of thinking.

The suggestions below follow two simple principles: 1) they  lead to more robust evaluation and decision-making and 2) they do not lead to increased workload.

Share ideas before meetings. Groupthink is the psychological phenomenon where desire for conformity within a group leads to lack of creativity and poor decision-making. A simple solution is to ensure that before meetings – especially those that will evaluate past interventions or decide on future ones – ideas are independently submitted and compiled so that they can be shared. (Cut 15 minutes from the meeting time to allow this to happen.) A broader range of ideas is likely to be on the table and it is less easy to suppress dissenting or quieter voices.

Allow time for questions. At meetings, teach meets, 15-minute forums, etc, ring-fence time for questions. Be brave and actively invite tough questions. Everyone will learn a lot from them and you may refine your actions as a result. Make sure you provide an option for people to privately share their thoughts too: sometimes we need to chew the fat for a while or would prefer not to question publicly.

Appoint people to take the role of devil’s advocate. Every leadership team and department could benefit from  someone who takes this role. (You might want to call it the critical friend role.) The aim is not to annihilate every new innovation; it is to test that its potential strengths outweigh its potential weaknesses. Alex Quigley has written an excellent post on the importance of this role. Similarly, I love the idea of the premortem – when teams imagine a project has failed in the future and they work out the causes.

Encourage tentative language. Quite simply, school culture is rooted in language. A simple and subtle shift is to encourage educators to choose their wording carefully – does/did work and will/has work(ed) become seemed to work, might work, could work, etc. This is not a call for relativism, just for more careful skepticism. If modelled by leaders, this change would be relatively easy to implement.

Encourage a broader engagement with theory/research/ideas/other schools/other classrooms. We need to broaden perspectives. Often we do not ask questions of our own practice because we do not realise that there are questions to be asked. Introducing staff to the world of blogs and twitter are easy ways in to help teachers to consider their practice in new ways. Circulating a blog of the week and a research bulletin, or encouraging teachers to video themselves or providing them with the cover to watch another teacher in action can lead to more rigorous reflection.

Anyway, there are a few ideas for you. I might be wrong, but I think there is a gap between day-to-day reflection and more extensive inquiry that could be bridged by a simple whole-school approach.

Please take the time to comment. These ideas are in their embryonic stages.

Thanks for reading.

This post by Gary Jones on groupthink and bias has informed some of my suggestions.

Related posts:

The art of teaching clearly: on why we should treat intuition with care

Creating a research-rich climate: our first steps

3 thoughts on “Finding the middle ground between reflection and inquiry

  1. Interesting stuff, Andy – and you’ve motivated me to reread Alex’s Devil’s Advocate post, which I read at the time but think I need to revisit and reflect (ha!) on.

    I know what you mean about biases – have been having an EdD writing day today and am just writing about Reflexivity, so it’s very much on my mind. But I just see reflection as conscious thought about our practice, which has to be better than NOT thinking about what we do/how we do it/how we feel about it/how it could perhaps be better. When we’re so busy doing the job and in our own individual hamster wheels, time to step back, pause and evaluate can be squeezed. I accept that more rigorous inquiry might be required if we’re making significant decisions about how to change our practice. But for me the day-to-day reflection is one way in which we might avoid what you describe as “exemplary classroom teachers overlooking the strong effects of the automatic, unconscious elements of their practice” as it can make the unconscious conscious.

    Think I need to go away and do some more thinking about this, though.

    Thanks for the post. I like the specific advice you offer to help avoid group-think and to make us more discriminating in our responses.

  2. Good thoughts, I encourage my undergraduate students to synthesise action inquiry and reflective practice approaches adapting and improving models to suit their context and the issues they are dealing with. I don’t have a problem with rigour and reflective practice. Change in the heat of the moment due to reflecting in action may not be rigorously thought through but is usually better than continuing to follow a plan that is not working. Reflecting after action can be as deep and rigorous as needed.

    I find the double and triple loop concepts quite useful, in particular the notion of examining governing variables and what can and can not be changed. To see beyond single loop solutions it can be useful to step back and stand in objective shoes to examine your own practice and that is not always easy. With training, experience and a professional work role it is understandable that many people will feel like they are a good intuitive practitioner but it is important to regularly look deep and check whether intuitive actions are based on sufficient knowledge and understanding.

    1. How are your personal beliefs influencing your behaviour, your interpretation of an event and your response to it? This is tough, you really have to be honest with yourself, that can be embarrassing but can also be rewarding if you are able to dig deep and examine who you really are, what assumptions you might have made and what affective drivers might be limiting your behaviour.

    2. Are you following accepted norms of behaviour, it is easy to slip into following a workplace vibe – do these need to be challenged and changed? We usually do it this way; why? What else could we do?

    3. What is governing your behaviour and your potential solutions at the workplace policy and procedure level? Are your actions in line with policy? Does the organisation need to learn new strategies; is change at this level needed?

    4. Does workplace practice and policy align with governmental aims and requirements? Are we doing what we should be doing? This can also be tough you might not agree with the government, you might not like the Ofsted criteria but as you are obliged to work with / aspire to those criteria you need to be sure you have interpreted them well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s