Power of reflexivity and reflective writing: Becoming a mindful Educator

by Karen Thompson

Late in 2020, I completed my master’s dissertation (Master’s Project) for the MEd in Academic Practice.  Having submitted it, I was waiting in a long post office queue to send my Christmas cards whist listening to Nathalie Sheridan’s podcast and experimental paper on ‘Becoming a University Teacher’ (2020).  Many of the stories she told chimed with my experiences over the past year whilst undertaking my educational inquiry.  This blog draws on some of the experiences and reflects some of the ideas presented in Sheridan’s paper.

My Master’s Project centred on student’s self-regulated learning on placement. Action Research formed part of my planned methodological approach and my intention had been to collect data from the students, placement hosts and teaching staff to inform my research.  My ethics application was in the university system as the pandemic developed and it was initially rejected due to the need to avoid any ‘in person’ interviews in response to Covid-19. With the pivot to online teaching, I decided to redesign the placement course to a virtual one. It was simple, the ethics form could be amended likewise; I could carry out the data collection remotely.  However, the School of Education made the decision that no research could include human participant data during the summer. I very much saw myself in the position of Scheffler’s pig who had squeezed under the gate and got stuck.  Whilst my situation was not resulting from one of panic or poor decision-making, the result was the same. I was stuck as I couldn’t go forwards or backwards.   No ethics = no data = no research! 

This led me to go to the drawing board.  I needed to find an alternative solution and asked myself many questions. How could I get passed the metaphorical gate?  Do I pause the research?  Do a change it to a literature-based study? I was keen to pursue my educational inquiry as it was an important moment in time to carry it out.  By taking time to think creatively, and in dialogue with my supervisors, I decided to take a critically reflective practice approach aligned with an action research methodology. This was not straight-forward, and it of course involved risk. Not only was I developing virtual placement course for the first time, but I was planning to write a master’s project using reflective practice with no data!

My starting point was returning to the writings of Schon and ‘The Reflective Practitioner’ (1983) and work of Brookfield (1995 and 2017).  It was through my reflective writing, situated in the literature, that I framed my inquiry. Using my lens as a teacher and learner, I undertook my educational inquiry to record and evaluate my experiences and interpret the student learning during the virtual placement. I examined this in the context of a Community of Inquiry through the social, teacher and cognitive presence based on Garrison et al. (2001) and Garrison and Arbaugh (2007). Making the journey alongside my students proved to be a very powerful study tool. The nature of this required me to be particularly mindful in considering meaning for my own practice, while all the time reading and interpreting the students’ learning. The inquiry took me in new directions that I hadn’t anticipated and gave me experiences that I hadn’t expected. 

My disciplinary background is that as a professional textile conservator and a teacher (prior to joining the university and as well as in my university position).  In these roles, reflective practice underpins my work as a practitioner, but also my student’s assignments, and for those who have done the PGCap/PGCert or MEd in Academic Practice, for example, reflective practice is widely used as part of the assessment process here too. Yet I wonder, how many of us are recording our experiences in writing as we go along?  How many of us have said to ourselves, ‘I will remember this key learning moment or critical incident’ but have not necessarily noted it down? We have reflected on the practice after the fact.

Schon’s (1983) ‘Reflection on Action’, which while an essential part of reflective practice, is only one part of the equation.  Thinking back to my own practice and now looking at my educational inquiry, ‘reflection in action’ was essential.  Returning to Sheridan’s podcast (2020) about value of ‘reflexivity’ and ‘reflection in action’, the mindful practitioner and the concepts of drawn from Nilsson and Kazami (2016) strongly resonated with me.  As Cohen et al. (2018, pp.302-303) comment, in many forms of social science research, understanding comes through conscious questioning of ourselves in our inquiry process and such reflexivity is an important part of this. Through my teaching this summer, I was consciously mindful of my practice and the students’ learning whilst asking the normal questions in relation to teaching practice such as: Is this effective learning for the students?  How well are the teaching strategies working? Do I need to adapt and change?  Do I need to pause and review?  What is the value of the teaching frameworks I am using? Using the reflective lenses of the learner, teacher, and the literature (Brookfield 1995) and working alongside my students, I was able to consider student learning in relation to questions about metacognition and social context to evaluate my teaching practice informing my extended educational inquiry.

The significance of making the same reflective journey as my students and being present in the moment was invaluable. I shared an empathy with them as we explored our learning journey together.  I felt more able to model what I was asking the students to do and how to think through difficulties drawing on my past and present experiences. It was a creative and engaging process. At the end of each session or day, I would spend 5 or 10 mins making a few notes focusing on my experience.  These were then evaluated at the end of the week.  Through the writing process, I returned to my observations and evaluations exploring my feelings and emotions, including disorienting moments or moments of uncertainty, as I looked at their meaning more broadly and interpreted the lessons learned. I found the act of ‘second order’ writing as described by Moon (2004) was particularly useful to draw meaning from my observations of my practice.  Mezirow (1981) describes the importance of this critical consciousness to learn from experience, and for me it was transformative.  The lessons learned from this educational inquiry in terms of self-regulation and the learning community in an online context for the virtual placement will be discussed in a future publication.  For now, through this experience, I am reminded again of the power and value of reflexivity and writing for the development of a mindful practitioner and educator. As I move into a new year, I plan to keep up my reflective log to ensure I capture those learning moments. Despite those seemingly impassable gates for me (and Scheffler’s pig), creative thinking, of course helped with a bit of risk taking thrown into the mix, opened-up the possibility of alternative approaches. Through this new learning opportunities arose. A good way to end a year and start a new one.  I wonder where my next journey will take me.

References

  • Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, 2nd ed.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.
  • Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2018). Research Methods in Education. 8th ed. London: Routledge.
  • Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), pp.7-23.
  • Garrison, D. R. & Arbaugh, J. B. 2007. Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions. The Internet and higher education, 10(3), pp.157-172.
  • Moon, J., A. (2004). A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning, Oxon, RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Nilsson, H. and Kazemi, A. (2016) ‘Reconciling and Thematizing Definitions of Mindfulness: The Big Five of Mindfulness’. doi: 10.1037/gpr0000074.
  • Sheridan, N. A Story about Becoming a University Teacher: Living by the Proverb. Accessed 5 December 2020. https://acdevadventures.blog/2020/09/05/a-story-of-becoming-a-university-teacher/
  • Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner, United States, Basic Books Inc.

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