Reflective Teaching Practice in Adult ESL Settings.
by Florez, MaryAnn Cunningham
For those working in adult English as a second language (ESL) settings,
finding practical options for professional development is a concern. The
field has a range of program types, a largely part-time workforce, limited
financial resources for training, and varied policies and requirements
for professional credentialing or certification (Burt & Keenan, 1998).
Implementing approaches to professional development that accommodate these
factors while providing opportunities for staff to expand their knowledge
is a challenge. One practice that has gained popularity in recent years
is reflective teaching. This digest discusses the reflective practice process
and its implications for adult ESL teachers.
FOUNDATIONS AND CHARACTERISTICS OF REFLECTIVE PRACTICE
Reflective practice is an evolving concept. In the 1930s, John Dewey
defined reflection as a proactive, ongoing examination of beliefs and practices,
their origins, and their impacts (Stanley, 1998). Since then, reflective
practice has been influenced by various philosophical and pedagogical theories.
One influence is constructivism, which views learning as an active process
where learners reflect upon their current and past knowledge and experiences
to generate new ideas and concepts. A humanistic element of reflective
practice is its concern with personal growth and its goal of liberation
from values that can limit growth (Kullman, 1998). Critical pedagogy, espousing
examination of underlying power bases and struggles, and American pragmatism,
emphasizing active implementation, testing, and refining of ideas through
experience, also shape the concepts of reflective practice, particularly
in the United States (Brookfield, 1995).
THE REFLECTIVE PROCESS
In reflective practice, practitioners engage in a continuous cycle of
self-observation and self-evaluation in order to understand their own actions
and the reactions they prompt in themselves and in learners (Brookfield,
1995; Thiel, 1999). The goal is not necessarily to address a specific problem
or question defined at the outset, as in practitioner research, but to
observe and refine practice in general on an ongoing basis.
Last year, Practitioner A participated in a series of workshops on fostering
reflective teaching practices. As a result, she has been compiling a portfolio,
a process that asks her to reflect on, analyze, and synthesize her work.
It includes her autobiography as both teacher and learner; lists describing
her semester assignments; copies of lesson plans, handouts, and other materials
she has used; and written reflections on articles or books, classroom events,
conversations with colleagues, and workshops.
This year, she is assigned to teach a beginning-level adult ESL class
rather than her usual intermediate level. She decides to focus her reflective
effort on tracking her work with this new learner group. The following
steps are integral to the reflective process:
1. "Collect descriptive data". Reflective practitioners need detail
and breadth of perspective as they gather information on what is happening
in the classroom. They can achieve this through the data- collection tools
they select. Brookfield (1995, p. 29) suggests using four possible "lenses"
to create a balanced picture of practice: practitioners' own writings about
their experiences as learners and teachers (autobiographies); learners'
eyes; colleagues' eyes and experiences; and existing theoretical literature.
Practitioner A asks a beginning-level teacher from her previous reflective-practices
training to observe her class twice and discuss it with her during their
lunch break. Practitioner A writes notes about learners' responses to activities
on the handouts and lesson plans she already collects for her portfolio.
She writes a one-page addendum to her autobiography as a teacher that focuses
on beginning-level learners. She also begins an audio teacher's log, recording
during her commute home her reflections on each day's class.
2. "Analyze data". After data have been collected, they can be analyzed
in terms of the attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, goals, power relations,
and consequences that they reveal. What happened that was expected or surprising?
What theories about teaching or personal experiences with learning are
revealed in the data? How do these theories relate to the practitioner's
stated beliefs and attitudes? What is revealed about the relationships
among the participants? What are the consequences of the practitioner's
actions? These questions can be asked of the data collected (Crandall,
2000; Gebhard, 1996; Stanley, 1998).
Weekly, Practitioner A summarizes in writing her audio log entries.
She compares her log with her observation notes and her colleague's observations.
She begins to notice a pattern of learner reluctance to speak during activities
that prove challenging. She questions the learners about this, but they
offer little feedback. She finds herself comparing them to her intermediate
learners who offered their opinions and asked for help.
3. "Consider how the situation or activity could have been different".
Whether looking at the data in the moment or in retrospect, practitioners
need to examine alternatives to the choices they have made as well as the
beliefs behind them (Stanley, 1998). Considering how other practitioners
address similar situations, generating alternatives and asking "what if"
questions push practitioners to broaden their reflection beyond the data
they have collected. (Gebhard, 1996).
Practitioner A discusses her analyses with her colleague who prompts
her to think of ways to facilitate and foster learner input rather than
ways to change her practice to accommodate the learners' reluctance to
speak. Practitioner A visits her colleague's class to observe his approach
and also talks to two other beginning-level teachers about the issue.
4. "Create a plan that incorporates new insights". Because reflection
is conducted not for its own sake but to improve instructional practice,
practitioners must link information and insights gained from the reflective
process to changes they are making in the classroom (Farrell, 1998). The
changes need not be huge-small changes can have an impact on teaching and
learning (Gebhard, 1996). The important thing is that practitioners incorporate
their new insights in their ongoing planning and decision making, observe
the impact, and continue the reflective cycle.
Practitioner A implements an initial feedback system in which learners
raise one of three colored index cards to signal their understanding of
content or an activity. (Red: Stop, I don't understand. Green: Go ahead,
I understand. Yellow: Caution, I'm not sure.) She continues to use her
data gathering tools to monitor the effects of this practice in her classroom.
BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES OF REFLECTIVE PRACTICE
There are benefits and challenges to implementing reflective practice
in adult ESL. Following is a summary of those discussed by educators such
as Bailey, Curtis, & Nunan, (1998), Crandall (2000), Farrell (1998),
Stanley (1998), and Thiel (1999).
"Flexibility". The field of adult ESL varies in instructional contexts,
learner groups, curricula, available resources, and amount and type of
teacher preparation. Because reflective practice springs from the needs
and interests of the practitioners, it can address this variety. It can
be constructed as an individual or group process, although, because good
reflective practice draws upon the input of learners, colleagues, and others,
it is by nature collective. New teachers examine successes and failures
in a constructive environment; seasoned teachers further self-awareness
and knowledge through personal experience.
"Practicality". Reflective practice is immediately useful to adult ESL
practitioners who have limited time and resources to divide between teaching
and professional development. Because it asks practitioners to make connections
between what is happening in a specific context and their broader beliefs,
it can be useful to those who move from site to site and teach in varied
contexts. Opportunities to explore and reflect on new techniques, ideas,
and approaches are built into the process, and links between theory and
practice are central.
"Professionalism". Reflective practice calls for ongoing exercise of
intellect, responsibility, and professionalism. It promotes deliberate
actions in planning and implementing instruction and ongoing engagement
with theory. Teachers improve their ability to react and respond as they
are teaching-to assess, revise, and implement approaches and activities
on the spot.
"Sustainability". There is a need for sustained development for adult
ESL practitioners, rather than discrete workshops and conferences (Burt
& Keenan, 1998; Crandall, 2000). Reflective practice creates a cyclical
process that allows time for reflection, implementation, and follow-up.
It centers on development and exercise of skills and attitudes that eventually
become a regular part of good teaching. Once mastered, it should integrate
with regular teaching responsibilities.
Practitioner A is excited to see that, after an initial adjustment period,
her learners are enthusiastically using the colored index cards to provide
feedback on their progress. She is now interested in doing research on
learner self-assessment and reflection and in incorporating further development
of those skills in her instructional plans.
Reflective practice requires a commitment to continuous self-development
and the time to achieve it. Practitioners should be trained in reflective
practice and given time to experiment with and master the general process.
Reflective practice may prove emotionally challenging. Some practitioners
may not be ready to confront the uncertainty about their teaching philosophies
and competence that can be a part of the process.
Reflective practice offers practical options to address professional
development issues. It encourages practitioners to generate and share their
insights and theories about teaching. If adult ESL practitioners and programs
are willing to invest time and resources in initial training and sustained
efforts, reflective practice can be an effective professional development
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