Reflective Practice, Teaching Training and CPD

This page was first written as an attempt by me to understand what the term ‘reflective practice’ actually means. Having heard this banded around lots in school, and on my PGCE, the first version represented what I understood from my reading on the topic. Out in the ‘real world’ there seemed perhaps a veneer of shared understanding of its meaning: along the lines that the reflective practitoner is one who thinks about what they’re doing, or perhaps one who worrie about what they’re doing. No-one would want to admit to being an ‘un-reflective’ practitioner. 

Since I wrote the original piece, or rather collated it from a number of sources, several things have happened. Firstly it has consistently been the most popular (despite its dreadful grammar, skeletal bibliography and total lack of any kind of synthesis), and most-linked-to article on the site. Secondly I am much less callow and green: for most of my time as a teacher in a secondary school in Berkshire I have been the ITT mentor for the history department; I have also mentored newly qualified teachers in other departments; and more recently helped a troubled department coalesce as a highly effective team of teachers. Thirdly I have tried to reflect purposefully on my own practice, completing a PG diploma at Oxford University and starting an MA with Warwick. Finally I have just been teaching as a tutor on the Oxford Uni History PGCE course, and thinking during that year about reflection.

I would therefore like to pause and reflect again on the meanings and implication of the term ‘reflective practice’, in order to put my understanding in the context of my new experiences, to improve my article.  This is very much still a work in progress, as you’ll see if you read the piece!

Reflective Practice as a Slogan

Calderhead (1989) describes this model as a “slogan”for many contemporary teacher trainers. Part of its popularity seems to stem from its lack of definition and its supposed opposition to approaches which rely on behaviourist assessments of competency to assess student teachers. Its popularity should therefore be understood in the context of the struggle against reforms by the Conservative government of the 1980s. For instance, Furlong and Mayhew (1995) claim that the term’s power lies in its ability to “serve as a rallying cry for those determined to preserve some role for ‘theory’ in initial teacher training. However Schön’s Model, as can be seen below, has also been used as a justification for the removal of “theory” from teacher training, which further widens the appeal of the model: it has something that both sides of this debate can hold to.

Two forms of reflective Practive

Furlong and Maynard argue that part of the ability of the model to draw support from such a wide range of teacher educators is due to confusion caused by two different approaches that the term often covers, namely the approaches of Dewey (1910 and 1933) and Schon (1983, 1987).

Dewey’s Reflective Practice – Routine Action-v- Reflective Action

Dewey’s model is based on the fundamental difference that he sees between routine action – guided primarily by “tradition, instruction and imitation” (quoted in Furlong and Maynard: 31) which actions amount to “prejudices that is, prejudgements, not judgements proper that rest upon a survey of evidence”. (Dewey 1910: 4-5), and Reflective action. Reflective Action is instead based on “active, persistent and careful” consideration (1910:6), based on the need to solve a problem. For Dewey, it is in problem solving that we find “the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection” and without which “the course of suggestions flows on at random”. (1910:11)

However, Furlong and Maynard point out how the followers of Dewey have also emphasised a moral dimension or quality to his reflective practice. For instance they point out how Zeichner and Liston (1987) categorise three types of teacher:

* technician – whose focus is the successful completion of ends by others
* craftsperson – who considers education justifications for his or her actions
* moral craftsperson – who considers the moral and ethical implications of the institutional arrangements in which he or she is teaching.

Zeichner and Liston fear that without consciously reflecting on these matters, student teachers will not be equipped to recognise or deal with them in their practice. In this they reflect the idea of liberation of the critical theorist Habermas, which has it that a person is not free until he or she is able to embrace or resist the beliefs, attitudes or ideas of others by rational enquiry or criticism. Being a reflective practitioner is therefore in some cases an emancipation.

Dewey has it that achieving this liberation requires special characteristics, skills and experiences, which Furlong and Maynard summarise as (italics added):

* open-mindedness, responsibility, wholeheartedness (Dewey 1933);
* a store of experiences from which suggestions can flow;
* promptness, flexibility and fertility of suggestion (suggestions should come easily, in different situations but should still be realistic and practical); and
* orderliness, consecutiveness and appropriateness in what is suggested.

Criticism of Dewey’s Model of Reflective Action

Furlong and Maynard object to the picture of the unreflective teacher as a caricature. For them teaching is “multifaceted, unpredictable and complex; and it is never merely technical; it also involves educational and moral assumptions as well, whether or no the teacher is aware of them. ” (1995:45) They also argue that there is no necessary reason to prioritize the moral aspect as the highest level of reflection, pointing out that how children learn might be an equally important aspect to prioritize. Furlong and Maynard also pick up McIntyre’s criticism of Dewey’s model that reflective practice in this model will have very little relevence to beginning teachers, based as it is on reflection on experience, that beginning teachers lack. Placing reflection in the context of anything other than experience might lead to reflection based on nothing more than relativism. It is therefore vital to help teachers who are innovating, or indeed new-teachers find something to base their reflection on. Similarly, just as Furlong and Maynard criticise the placing of ‘reflective’ in opposition to ‘un-reflective’ teachers, it would be suprising to find ‘a-moral’ teachers, who cannot act in a moral framework because they have not reached a certain level in a hierarchy of reflective practice.

Schön’s Model of Learning to Teach

Schön views the actions of many teachers in a more positive light than Dewey, rejecting Dewey’s divide between unreflective and reflective practitioners and of the traditional view of reflectve teaching as the application of expertise to real world situations. Instead Schön sets out a model of what actually happens in classrooms, which he calls “professional artistry”.
Professional Artistry

This concept involves the creation by teachers, in response to “unique, uncertain and conflicted situations of practice”, of a frame of reference. This frame is not an application of knowledge or expertise to fix a known situation. Rather experience and expertise is used as a metaphor or exemplar in the construction of a frame that the teacher uses to try to understand the “conflicted” situation in which they find themselves. This process of framing is iterative, in that the frame constructed by the teacher, and use by them in order to carry our intervention in the situation, necessarily changes the situation in the mind of the teacher and, when the intervention is carried out, in reality also. Thus the frame is constantly changing in response to its own construction and the action it illicits from the teacher.
Types of Reflection

Schön sets out three types reflection that are used by the teacher in the construction of these frames.

* Intuitive Reflection. For Schön this is “revealed in spontaneous, skillfull execution of the performance: and we are characteristically unable to make it verbally explicit”. (Schön 1987:25). Intuitive Reflection is thus similar to, but distinguished from Dewey’s “routine action”, in that although the reflection is not “active, persistent and careful” consideration (Dewey 1910:6), it is none the less “skillfull”. Our inability to verbalize the reflection seems to equate it to freudian subconcious, or post-modern ideological processes, which affect our judgements without us necessarily being able to list the factors that have been brought to bear upon the decision. These similarities are deepend by the emancipatory effects of Schön’s “Reflection on Action”, whereby (for Furlong and Maynard at least) techers “progressively gain control of their own teaching” (Furlong and Maynard 1996:49)

* Reflection in Action. This is where the practitioner, facing an unknown situation, “is able to bring certain aspects of their work to the level of conciousness and to reflect on it and reshape it without interrupting the flow” (Furlong and Maynard 1995:48) This is a process we can go through without necessarily being easily able to set out our decision making in words.

* Reflection on Action. Can be simply described as talking about what we have done after it has been done. This type of reflection is never easy to do accurately, because “whatever language we use, our descriptions of professional practice are always constructions. […].” (Furlong and Maynard 1995:48). This reflection is always going to involve a distortion of what actually happened, in that words are static whereas for Schön “knowing in action” is dynamic. We might want to bring in Vygotsky’s ideas of the ways that langauge enables thinking to take place here. It seems that this constraining quality has, for some, advantages as well as disadvantages. For Vygotsky the act of construction brings with it reflection and a chance to “impose organisation on our thoughts” (Vygotsky, quoted in Britton xxxx).

Increasing ability to reflect and put into words their practice should be encouraged for Schön because it is through this that “they can begin to gain control of their developing ‘artistry’.


A fascinating aspect of Schön’s ideas, as presented by Furlong and Maynard, is that of ‘framing’; ‘In drawing on his or her past experiences the professional imposes a structure or frame on the problem at hand’ (1995: 47). What fascinates me about this idea is that it is such a subtle one. Although Furlong and Maynard use the word ‘impose’ in this quote, earlier in the same chapter they are at pains to stress that ‘The teacher does not try to fit this group of pupils rigidly into some kind of pre-existing pattern of understanding […] rather past experiences are used as a metaphor or example’. They go on to quote Schon, ‘The familiar situation functions as a precedent or metaphor or… an examplar for an un-familiar one’. This idea is potentailly useful as a concept for those new to teaching, or for those educating them, as it states explicitly the idea that working from analogy or metaphor might be an alternative to learning from direct experience of a situation.

Framing is such an interesting concept because it is a human one, an active concept that points out that of the attempt to understand the situation can actually alter it – there’s a wave / partical duality about human situations. Furlong and Maynard explain, ‘to draw on one’s understanding and experience is to begin with an interpretation which to some extent shapes the situation one faces’ and ‘The situation ‘speaks back’ to the pracitioner, demanding more reflection and further action’ (1995:47). It has interesting parallels with Friere’s assertion that, as humans, our (note the marxist flavour here) historical purpose is to become more human, through an iterative process of ‘naming the world’. It might be going too far to suggest parallels might be drawn between competency models of teacher ‘training’ and Freiere’s ‘banking model’ of education, in which those learning are empty vessels, filled by those who ‘know’ the world, and testing is a process of finding out how much has gone in. However the comparison might inform us of the ideas and feelings that were fuelling the conflict between those advocating ‘reflective’ practice against the tide of ‘behahviourist’ reforms brought in during the 1980s.

Criticisms of Schön’s Model As with any model of reflective criticism, there’s a risk of relativism in Shon’s approach.


Calderhead (1989)

Furlong and Mayhew (1995)

Dewey (1910 and 1933)

Schon (1983, 1987)

Zeichner and Liston (1987)

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