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Education Fellowships

Reflective Practice and Folk Pedagogies

20 October 2022
White board with pens

by Michael Willett, Associate Fellowship Programme Lead.

With the new academic term now underway, this is a valuable opportunity to renew our commitment to reflective practice – or, for anyone who is new to teaching, such as our PGR tutors and demonstrators on the Launchpad and Associate Fellowship Programme, to start adopting a reflective stance towards learning and teaching.

At its heart, reflective practice is a process of analysing and learning from our lived experiences. This is not a new concept; in the early 20th Century, American philosopher and philanthropist John Dewey famously said: “we do not learn from experience […] we learn from reflecting on experience”. In other words, it is not our experiences themselves, but rather the meanings we choose to take away from them that have the most profound impact on our learning, and lives.

Reflective practice in teaching means deconstructing our past and current educational experiences – both good and bad, and as both teachers and learners – to understand our behaviour and actions, challenge our assumptions and biases, and, ultimately, bring about improvement in our teaching and support for learning. This is a continual, ongoing process, and considered by many scholars to be the point of departure and the centre of practice for all teachers. Some scholars call reflection the “beating heart” of teaching. Ellie Friedland (2015) sums this up:

‘Teachers have to commit to a lifetime of honest critical reflection about their own practice, assumptions, and biases […] to analyse and critique their own behaviour and understand how it affects those with whom they work, and how it does and does not reflect theories of best practice. This is how we make adjustments in our practice, and how we learn and grow.’

There are various frameworks that can help us to undertake reflective practice. On the Fellowships programmes we introduce two of the most widely-cited models; Terry Borton’s (1970) “What, So What, Now What” approach (later developed by Rolfe, 2001), and Graham Gibbs’ (1988) six-part reflective cycle. In my own personal experience I find Gibbs’ model to be really helpful, as the six dimensions break down the reflective process into manageable chunks, and there is also a specific focus on emotions, which can play a huge role in what we learn and take away from a particular experience.

One of the central goals of reflection, and why it’s important to analyse our experiences as both a teacher and a learner in a constructively critical way, is to avoid what Jerome Bruner (1996) calls folk pedagogies – in other words, teaching in the same ways you were taught, without explicitly considering their rationale, limitations or possibilities for development. Even in the very best-case scenario, assuming you had fantastic teachers who exemplified a range of good practices, then to teach in the same ways is to simply reproduce those practices without evolution, innovation, or a sense of your own identity as a teacher. But in the worst-case scenario, it could end up perpetuating the reproduction of some truly terrible teaching practices for the next generation of students. John Dewey (1938) even went as far as to say that ‘if we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow’.

The ultimate goal, then, of reflective practice in teaching, is to create a better educational experience for everyone: teacher, learners, and the climate of our institution overall.