This is where the magic happens (How keeping a reflective journal rejuvenated my teaching practice)

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I recently read an article by Michael Griffin and Manpal Sahota about improving one’s teaching through reflective journal writing.  It inspired me to write about my own amazing experience that proved their point.

When I am training teachers to reflect on their experiences, I ask them “What evidence can you point to that supports your interpretation?”  Evidence is our objective description of what did or didn’t happen. If we can’t point to something concrete that we observed, our interpretations may be faulty, incomplete, and even completely wrong.  I’m such a believer in the power of reflective practice that I always tell teachers if they just take one thing away from the course, it should be the skill of rigorous, disciplined reflection.

So is my belief in the value of reflection based on evidence?  Here’s my story:

In early 2014, at the end of a teacher-training course in Korea, feedback from the teachers indicated that I needed to work on giving clear instructions.  I brought it up at the farewell lunch with co-trainer Phil Thompson. Phil responded that he over-models how to do an activity to such a point that he worries he’s being patronizing.  (I later realized that Phil’s humility was really his graceful way of suggesting that I needed to work on modeling when giving instructions.)

On the 12-hour flight home to San Francisco, I had an inspiration. After a month working with talented trainers like Phil Thompson and German Gomez, who consistently walk the talk, modeling what we trainers say we believe about experiential learning and reflection, I decided to work on improving my instructions-giving by keeping a reflective journal.

My intention to purposefully reflect on how I give instructions and what helps and hinders students’ ability to understand immediately changed how I felt about the upcoming spring term. Suddenly, I thought of my class of adult immigrant beginners as my laboratory, where I could try things out, experiment with various techniques.  There would be no failures, and no disasters; whatever happened would simply be the results of an experiment.  Through reflection, I would process those results, and come up with action plans for the next experiment – the next class session.  This was positively liberating. In fact, it was exciting!

Here’s how it worked:  while planning my lessons, I resolved to actually write down word-for-word how I would say the instructions, how I would model the activity, and what I would write on the board.  Before going to class, I would write a bit in my reflective journal about my plans, especially about anything new I was going to try out, or something I feared would be challenging. Then I went to class, to conduct my experiment.  I noticed that before class I was much more relaxed, thinking “Whatever happens will happen. We’ll see.”

After class, I would have my usual reactions:  something worked really, really well and I was thrilled to be a teacher, and/or something failed horribly and I was the worst teacher on the planet.  I’m my harshest critic, practicing focalism,  a cognitive bias where I devote disproportional attention to the negatives.  While I drove home, I “reflected” on the puzzles from my lesson, but it was the intuitive, gut reaction, undisciplined kind of reflection that we all do automatically, and which often leads us to inaccurate conclusions. For the life of me, even with the intention of reflecting rigorously, I simply couldn’t do it in the car.

Once home, I immediately pulled out my reflective journal.  (I had “borrowed” one of the blank journals we give teachers taking the Korean course.) Then I sat and wrote.  I first wrote an objective description of a slice of the lesson where giving instructions was critical – whether successful or unsuccessful.  The description included everything I could remember about what I said and did, and what students said and did, and whatever else seemed like it might be relevant: the materials, how students were grouped, the environment in the classroom, etc.

Then I started writing interpretations.  This is where the magic happens in reflective practice.  What I couldn’t do in my head, in the car, literally poured out of me once I sat down with my journal and pen. I wrote down my initial gut reaction as to why something went the way it did, but I also came up with many other possible interpretations that I hadn’t thought of, and wouldn’t have thought of, if I hadn’t been doing this written reflection.  When I say this is where the magic happens, what I mean is that when we learn to reflect rigorously, we insist on 1) getting as much evidence down as possible, in the description, and then 2) coming up with multiple interpretations of the evidence, even if at first we’re certain that our initial instinct is correct.  It’s the multiple interpretations, which invariably turn out to be revealing and to contain precious truths, that make reflective practice such a powerful tool. 

Here’s an example of multiple interpretations.  During a Q&A activity to practice the use of the prepositions “on” and” next to,” I observed many students asking “What’s on next to the book?” using both prepositions together. I don’t remember what my preliminary conclusion was as I drove home that day, but I see in my journal that I came up with eight different interpretations of why students might have been using both options together in the same sentence!  Some of them had to do with how I gave instructions or modeled the activity.  Some had to do with the materials students were asked to use for the activity.  Some were more fundamental:  about whether I had sequenced and scaffolded previous activities so that students were ready for this one.  Each interpretation led to generalizations about what helps students, and to specific action plans for me to implement in the future.  My favorite action plan from this particular reflection was  “Don’t let the textbook push me around!”

Every experiment/class/reflection that spring term resulted in action plans, which I would implement in the next class session.  Here’s an example from the first post-teaching entry in my reflective journal:

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For me, hand-writing in a real journal was absolutely essential.  I have no idea why, or even how I knew to begin with paper and pen, since it has been years since I abandoned notepads in favor of the computer. In any case, I am certain that my reflections wouldn’t have generated so many ideas if I had done them on the computer.

This process turned the not-so-successful events in my classroom into useful evidence, which I analyzed so I could keep tinkering with how I gave instructions.  This produced a subtle, but wonderful shift in my attitude about my class, and about myself as a teacher.  It really invigorated my practice.  I tried all kinds of things that term. Some I ultimately rejected, others I still do.  Here’s an example of something I developed back then and I still do it now: I keep the upper left corner of the white board reserved for instructions.  There are permanent bullets and I add the details for each activity:

 Who?  (solo, partners, table group)

What?  (point to pictures, ask and answer questions)

Page?  (worksheet, page 72)

How many times?  (each partner 5+ times)

How long? (5 minutes)

When I’m giving the instructions, I stand near the Instructions Corner of the board, I point to the bullets, and I ask Comprehension Checking Questions (CCQs) like “Are you going to work solo, or with a partner?”  Then I tell students to begin the activity, before I move away from the Instructions Corner, so they know they can stop listening to me and focus on their task.

The reflective journal also helped me maintain realistic, healthy expectations for myself:  sometimes my instructions will be ineffective, sometimes a model of clarity.  And that’s ok. It’s the path, not the destination, that I’m focused on.

Did that spring term of written reflection result in permanent improvement?  Yes and No. I’m much better at giving instructions, and it’s no longer mentioned in trainees’ feedback at the end of courses.  I’ve even developed a fun and effective workshop on Giving Clear Instructions (which I do partly in Haitian Creole). But, as I re-read the journal I kept back then, I re-discovered some “ah-hahs” that I’d totally forgotten about. And that’s another reason to keep a written reflective journal. I will recycle some of those ideas, just in time for the new class that begins next week!

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