It’s a problem as old as teaching, and one that worried the great John Dewey back in 1904: interns are regularly ambushed on day one of their new jobs by disillusioned, battle-hardened veterans who admonish the young ‘uns to, "forget everything you learnt at university, this is how we actually do it". Indeed, in each of my trainee school visits, I have met teachers who told me words to this effect.
Understandably, many practical-minded teachers are dismissive of evidence-based, empirical research, when the findings of that research so often contradict their own lived experience. Why then, if these experienced teachers are to be believed, does the academy insist on designing courses which so inadequately prepare trainees for the reality of teachers' work?
The origin of this dialectic can be summarised as follows: since the Enlightenment, the Western academic tradition has focused on peer-reviewed, evidence-based research as being a vital, indeed the only, source of knowledge. Rarely will one find a faculty that will accept as "knowledge" the practice-based, road-tested habits, procedures and understanding of working teachers. Thus, too few working teachers see research emerging from the academy as having any relation to their own experience; or they find that the academy has no way to incorporate the hard-earned insights of classroom teachers into the literature.
However, there is hope for change if the academy can develop a practice-based epistemology for education. That is, a set of criteria by which they will accept the experiences of working teachers to be of equal value to the educator as the results of a double-blind, control experiment are to a doctor or scientist.
One possible bridge for the divide is to encourage more widely the use of reflective practice in teaching: a means for teachers to translate their lived experience into knowledge that can withstand rigorous scrutiny.
At first glance, the notion of contemplative reflection seems a world apart from the dynamic, fast-paced and highly interpersonal world of teaching. Though the idea of reflection might call to mind a journal-writer quietly documenting the day’s events, such “alone” time would seem like an impossible luxury to many a harried high-school teacher. Might not a reflective teacher be in danger of becoming an educational Narcissus, obsessing over their achievements and setbacks; while one’s colleagues are back in the classroom doing what they are paid to do?
Yet there is much in the literature to suggest that the practice of reflection provides teachers with access to a body of knowledge that is unavailable from other sources, and which they can draw upon to increase the effectiveness of their classrooms.
Furthermore, if we are to believe that students attain new knowledge by acquiring information and relating it to an existing body of knowledge, why should we not also accept that teachers will develop their knowledge of teaching in a similar fashion? There is a clear contradiction in those who demand a course to teach them, transmission-like, “101 Effective Ways to Teach”, while at the same time vowing to become reflective practitioners in the classroom.
Reflective practice has excited much discussion since the 1930s. David Smith, formerly of Sydney University, provides a useful taxonomy of ideas about reflection based on whether the goal is technical, interpretive, or critical in nature:
At the technical level, reflection is used to refine teaching practice and procedure, and is restricted to identifying and measuring the effects of various techniques, with the teacher assumed to be acting as a sole agent.
However interpretive reflection is more contemplative, intuitive and complex than technical reflection, and introduces a social dimension to reflective practice. Thus teachers are encouraged to share their reflections through collegiate discussion or with a “critical friend”, who is at once supportive and yet demanding of improvement through the insights that reflection brings.
Finally, “critical” reflection demands that the teacher examine all of their assumptions - about themselves, their students, the content of the lesson, and the very meaning and role of education in society. Reflection then becomes an ongoing activity in a wider dialogue with other teachers and the whole of society.