The “swampy lowland” of our classrooms: Reflection-in-Action

Swamp reflection

Report from our Reflective Practice Group 10/15

We met on Sunday evening in classroom space of the Canal Alliance, where many of us teach, and caught up with each other over mouth-watering home-made cornbread and carrot cake, home-grown cherry tomatoes, and other treats brought by the participants. Emily Goldberg and Tim Farey launched us in an “embodied cognition” activity that some of us had experienced in a recent workshop by Jiwon Chung about using theater in the ESL classroom.  Afterwards, we shared ideas for how to adapt the activity for use in our own classes.

The evening’s focus was on Reflection-in-Action, the reflection that we do on the spot, while teaching, to adapt to unexpected events in the classroom.  This concept was elaborated by Donald Schön (1930-1997), who observed that

Reflection-in-Action is the core of professional artistry.”

We began by reviewing the ELC (Experiential Learning Cycle), a reflective framework which begins with a concrete experience (the lesson) and then progresses to reflection on what happened, analysis of why it happened, and then action plans to apply in class.  These last three stages are all Reflection-ON-Action, because they occur after the fact; Reflection-IN-Action occurs during the initial experience.

ELC diagram

We began with two questions: “How often does your class go exactly the way you planned it?” (which drew laughter) and “When it doesn’t, how do you know what change is needed?”  Scattered around the room were several quotes and paraphrases of Schön’s philosophy, describing the circumstances that generate both the need and the capacity to react to what happens in the classroom, plus a few quotes from Carole Rodgers and Peter Senge on the same topic.  In pairs, we did a gallery walk and discussed what resonated for us.  One favorite was Schön’s observation (I’m paraphrasing a bit):

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes” incapable of technical solution.  The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant … while in the swamp are the problems of the greatest human concern.

After the gallery walk with a partner, the full group shared some of the highlights of our reactions to the quotes about reflection-in-action. One of the things I personally really love about Schön’s perspective is that it is respectful and descriptive (and not prescriptive) of the intuition, knowledge and reflective capacity teachers bring to bear down in the swamp.  I find Schön reaffirming.

Next: we prepared to reflect collaboratively on our own critical incidents. Each of us “brought” an event from a recent class, where something unexpected occurred, we reflected-in-action and responded there and then.  Schön noted that among professionals, teachers have a special challenge when it comes to reflection-in-action, because we can’t take a ‘time out’ to evaluate the evolving situation. And he acknowledged that ‘reflecting-in-action’ is especially difficult for newer teachers, because they are juggling so many other things.  It’s a capacity that develops with experience.  So…since our group includes teachers whose years of teaching experience ranges from 25 years to a few months,  the very-experienced paired up with the less-experienced to reflect on our lessons.

We followed a protocol for reflecting, inspired by the Critical Response Process approach to giving and getting feedback: In Part I, each teacher took a few minutes to share:

  • What they had planned or expected to happened
  • What actually happened
  • How they felt and what they were thinking in that moment
  • How they reacted to the unexpected turn of events

During this time, partners just listened, but didn’t speak.  (Note that everything the teacher has shared up to now, is the “What happened?” stage of the ELC framework.)

Then, after all the teachers had described their critical incident, we moved to Part II (the critical thinking “So what?” and “Now what?” stages of reflecting in the ELC framework.)  At this point, the protocol was that each teacher asked her partner for input on specific questions s/he had about what had happened in the lesson.

I hadn’t experienced this Critical Response Process approach before, just read about it.  The day before our meeting, a teacher told me she’d had a particularly difficult lesson that week, and she hoped attending the meeting might be “healing” for her.  This was the impetus for me to try the teacher-directed approach to getting feedback.  When we’ve had a challenging or painful experience, we often feel fragile; we may have a specific burning question we want to explore, but we might not be up to hearing all of the advice a well-meaning colleague could offer.  This allows each teacher to manage feedback in a way that will be most helpful to them.

We all felt the meeting was fruitful and worthwhile.  One indicator of the meaningfulness of our gatherings is that when we discussed upcoming dates, no one wanted to skip December, even though it’s a busy time of year.  Another is that at the end of the one-on-one reflection on one another’s  lessons, the teacher with 25 years’ experience volunteered that she’d gotten valuable new perspectives from her partner.

And the teacher who’d had a difficult week wrote me afterwards, saying “I’m glad I could make it last night.  It was healing indeed.”

Coming up: 

Nov 8             Lesson Planning Time; How do we keep it reasonable? One of the most difficult challenges for new teachers is the incredible amount of time we spend planning lessons. What’s reasonable?  How do we streamline the process and use the time we spend more efficiently?  It can’t be a simple as developing a repertoire of lessons, because every class and every student is different.  Bring your issues, experiences, questions and ideas.

 Dec 13           Holiday Party + SMILE: Setting sustainable goals for ourselves.  We have high expectations for ourselves and for our students.  At times we want to do more AND simultaneously, we feel overwhelmed. The SMILE approach was developed by Josette Leblanc, a reflective teacher trainer who focuses on self-compassion for teachers.

 Where & When:  We meet at 6:30 for social/snacks, and the workshop is 7-9pm.  Address:  93 Larkspur, San Rafael, California, upstairs in the “86 Building,” which is across the parking lot from the Canal Alliance main office.

Bring a snack or beverage to share.

Everyone is welcome!

For more Information:


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