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Reflection in learning and teaching: Reflective practitioner

25 Mar 2019 | Kate Cuthbert Kate Cuthbert leads the fellowship scheme at Nottingham Trent University as part of the provision accredited by Advance HE. In this blog she discusses reflection in learning and teaching.

Kate Cuthbert leads the fellowship scheme at Nottingham Trent University as part of the provision accredited by Advance HE. Last week NTU hosted a Fellowship Week, with a series of face-to-face activities and a social media campaign. Much of this was about raising the profile of fellowship through the sharing of experiences including curating #fellowshipat4. Ahead of this month's #AdvanceHE_Chat on 27 March 2019, Kate discusses reflection in learning and teaching.

Just reflecting on reflecting….sounds blissful doesn’t it? Well, it's not the zen-like status that might be conjured up. I am writing this blog in the middle of marking, teaching observations, supporting awards submissions and working-up plans to support our fellowship development at NTU. This is just the reality felt by many in teaching and learning - reflection whilst considered a necessary academic pursuit and much-needed part of our professional lives often takes the back seat whilst we leap into the next task. The time to pause, take stock of activities and learn from experience to move our teaching practice forward is limited, largely on the hoof and predominantly a lonely activity. Whatever “model of reflection” called upon, the loop is often left unclosed and learning from an experience/situation is not built into next steps. 

There are many touch points for reflection in learning and teaching roles. These touch points can be categorised in terms of their presence in the teaching lifespan (pre-post-teaching sessions, interactions with learners, period reviews, validations, curriculum designs, post-assessment stages) or indeed at junctions within our career development (appraisals, new portfolios of work, fellowship writing). Reflection can also straddle the continuum of formal or informal from writing-up a case study for Fellowship to the photocopy conversation, which promoted a rethink about a session on your commute home.

Many of the how-to books on being an academic point to the centrality of reflection. Ashwin’s (2015) edited book ‘Reflective Teaching in Higher Education’ suggests that reflective activity links to curriculum development and the quality checkpoints in delivering a better student experience. 

The struggle to reflect

Reflection was deemed to be fundamental to the development of a faculty- done in partnership with students the gain increased (Clayton and Ash, 2005). The work prompts two useful recommendations. Firstly the notion of collaborative reflection (entering a reflective phase/activity with others and joining up the reflective outcomes in a more holistic way) and secondly involving students in the reflection outputs. With that flexibility noted and justification for engaging in the practice, why is it such a struggle to be methodological in reflection?  

In supporting colleagues as they prepare for HEA fellowship you do hear a fair amount about reflection. Here’s some of the soundbites that represent the struggle to reflect:

  • I don’t have time: Reflection is often perceived as a luxury rather than a critical investment to prevent additional work later down the line.
  • It’s just not what we do: The practice of reflection doesn’t always rest well within the cultural norm of the discipline, department, institution and career point. 
  • Who’s going to listen/ act on reflection?: How do you communicate the outcomes of a reflection? It is often hard to collate the by-products of your reflective activity, which convey the value of the process. It is even harder to communicate the practice and value to others in order to mainstream reflection. 
  • It’s all a bit hug a tree: Reflection has a bad reputation for being flimsy whereas in reality, the actual disciplined habit of reflection is fairly difficult to embed. Furthermore, a structured approach can elicit significant learning. Race (The Lecturer's Toolkit: A practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching Oxon, Routledge 2015, 4th edition) recognises that surface-level questioning produces surface-level outputs. Race proposes that for deeper criticality the reflective questioning needs to be a series of clustered inquiry points that drill down and unpick the situation. 
  • Who cares?: Reflection can feel very egocentric or indeed the dreaded imposter syndrome creeps in and your own reflective voice fails to carry weight (even with yourself). The cringe factor is turned up to 11 out of 10. Furthermore it is rare for us to be granted “permission” to engage in a reflective process outside of discrete activities. 

So there’s some work to do reimagining what reflection might look like in our context. The reimaging needs to challenge the stereotypes, to create a sense of urgency about engaging and to locate reflective practice within the daily routines and cultural habits. 

Reflecting on this together

We often talk about transformative learning experience in the context of what we offer up to our students.

  • What does transformative learning mean in the way we develop as teachers/academics/people involved in learning (whatever you call yourselves!) and how important is reflection in that?
  • How would you reimagine reflection to work for you and your academic practice? 
  • What are the support mechanisms to nurture reflective practice to make it common practice?

Before joining NTU as the Fellowship scheme lead, Kate worked with the Higher Education Academy (now Advance HE) as an academic consultant. She has developed expertise in curriculum design and organisational change.

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