We need to reflect about our teaching to improve, but how common is it for reflection to lead to ‘ah-ha!’ moments about our teaching?
There seems to be an assumption that reflection should lead to profound, transformative insights. This is even given as a reason against using reflection in teacher education courses: Teachers think they can only pass their reflective teaching course if they have completely transformed their teaching by rejecting some fundamental assumption, so they invent transformative experiences (Macfarlane and Gourlay 2009).
But I think reflection rarely results in these sorts of transformations. I can’t even remember a time when suddenly my whole approach to teaching was transformed and I saw everything differently. My reflections about teaching typically result in small, satisfying changes, which I call insights, but which are not the massive, earth-shattering upheavals we might desire. When I reflect on my teaching I might tweak a teaching method, solve one particular issue I was wondering about, or come up with a better way of explaining something to my students, or devise a new strategy that I hadn’t thought of before. For example, this blog post is the result of my reflection about how I change and improve my teaching. I had a vague idea that I developed new insights, and I have clarified that these insights are frequently small rather than transformative.
I only rarely experience transformative ah-ha moments about my teaching when several different issues suddenly fall into place – one example was when, early in my teaching career, I suddenly realised that I had seen assessment solely as grading students, but it was better to see assessment more broadly as evaluating student performance, with or without grades. This realisation transformed a great deal of my teaching, but it was not a complete transformation. Perhaps it is a kind of like a micro ah-ha! It is a very satisfying experience where something hazy suddenly comes into focus.
Reflection frequently involves more plodding than great leaps of insight – clarifying a method, giving a better example, understanding why you do something…. It is hard work that is rewarded by a slow revealing, like carefully cleaning a very smudged painting, rather than a flash of insight that suddenly illuminates the entire picture.
Bruce Macfarlane & Lesley Gourlay (2009) The reflection game: enacting the penitent self, Teaching in Higher Education, 14:4, 455-459