Reflection and Narratives – Teacher Professional Development

I would like to talk a bit about reflective practice. To be honest, many times I raise my eyebrows in a wary look when I hear the word. Mainly, I guess, because I don’t think we can really tell someone to reflect and expect them to do so (because we told them to). Neither, to show them an experiential learning cycle (you know that diagram?) and expect them to follow it. What bothers me slightly is this ‘having something to show’ the other when it comes to teacher development. But I do like when someone tells me a story about a lesson they taught, about how a learner progressed (or regressed), and about an insight they had while teaching (or afterwards).

Another idea I associate with reflective practice is that of carrying Action Research. But this can be daunting to the teacher who already has a number of lesson to teach, papers to mark, reports to fill, lesson planning, and hey, a social life!

Although I support the principles of Action Research, I know that for me the ‘research’ part of it would be impossible to execute at the moment amidst all I’m doing. Impossible because of the rigor, methodology, and extension of what a research involves. So, what can I do in a smaller scale but with similar developmental significance?

A journal, a blog, a diary, a videolog (?). In essence, something that involves a narrative.

For now, I’m more comfortable engaging with the written possibilities, even though the videolog thing has crossed my mind quite frequently (I actually made two videos once).

The rationale is that the process of writing down one’s thoughts serves as a ‘thinking device’, helping the teacher find his way in retelling a story and in examining his perceptions and, if done very well, its multiple perspectives. Writing as a ‘thinking device’  is generated from oneself to oneself. A bit like a film director who also acts in the same film.

The act of externalizing reflections through writing makes a teacher’s ideas more ready for re-conceptualization. Writing is, perhaps in the loneliest form, engaging in dialogue. This is attuned to Vygotskyan perspectives of development which proposes that verbalization is a vehicle to changes in behavior, process of which language (and languaging) is the main mediation tool.

One of the many advantages of this process it that the personal practical knowledge derived from narratives takes into account and prioritizes the context from which the teacher generates her knowledge; which is ultimately where she will then re-apply her knowledge and expand its scope, sort of creating a feedback loop.

“It is a kind of knowledge carved out of, and shaped by, situations; knowledge that is constructed and reconstructed as we live out our stories and retell and relive them through process of reflection” (Clandinin, 1992: 125).

Among the many ways in which teachers can develop (conferences, workshops, twitter chats, reading, etc), I think narratives in form of writing are very empowering and change-conducive activities.

I’ll leave you with a short video I made of Dale Coulter speaking about his experience using journals. Dale has developed an admirable way of advancing his understanding of teaching and learning, and if you don’t yet read his blog, you’re missing the opportunity of being inspired.

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12 Responses to Reflection and Narratives – Teacher Professional Development

  1. Fiona says:

    Nice one, Willy. Yes. Definitely.

  2. Hi Willy

    Great post and with this topic I couldn’t resist responding.

    I totally agree with you regards ‘narrative’. But I think we have to be careful when we think of ‘writing narrative as a thinking device’. Where does this thought leave people who are unable to read and write because they never had the opportunity to go to school. Do they think differently??

    The worry here is the focus on ‘writing’ – yes narrative may well act as some kind of thought organiser but in what way is ‘writing’ it down significant?

    Besides this thought as you point the role of narrative is fascinating with regards to teacher education whether formal or informal. Some people well worth reading on this topic are Aneta Pavlenko and Gergana Vitanove – if you google

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Best wishes

    • Willy says:

      Hi Richard

      You raise good questions, but let me clarify some things.
      Firstly, I’m talking about narratives by teachers; maybe I didn’t emphasize that well enough. In any case, I admit I didn’t examine the fact that some teachers are illiterate; I took for granted that I’m my head all teachers should be able to write, which is not true; but in practice, and for me at least, it is – every teacher I ever met could write a reflective journal entry; so I wrote from this stand point. And I suppose I also wrote this for anyone who could read a blogpost, hence I suppose they’re literate.
      In sum, I strongly believe it is a “thinking device”, and I can emphasize “a” device, not the only one…

      And, yes, I think people who can’t read or write think differently, why should it not be like that? Everyone thinks differently. I’m not sure I get the point of this question you make.

      Writing it down is significant as a way to document one’s narrative, making it easier to revisit one’s thoughts at a later time and reflect on one’s development. But as I said it can also be recorded on audio or video.

      I’m not familiar with the work of Vitanova, I’ll google it.. thanks for mentioning the name! And thanks for commenting!

      • Hi Willy

        Just to clarify a little, yes I realise that you are talking about teachers. My point is that I’m trying to draw out differences between spoken narrative and written narrative in relation to thought. You are making connections between literacy and thought so I’m just throwing in questions about what that means for people who are unable to read and write.

        I’m really interested in this area as I teach many adult students who never had the chance to school. So they are in ESOL classes where they have to do written exams – they often don’t pass and then get excluded. That’s also why I’m intersted in things like video as other modes of communication in the classroom while accepting the significance of writing.

        So my fault for not being clear, just writing off the top of my head.

        Best wishes

  3. ed says:

    nice post. My tuppence is action research doesn’t have to be daunting, and writing a journal, or blog, for example, could be part of that research process depending on what you want to investigate. your reflections on this blog also might raise a question that you want to investigate further and AR provides a framework for you to follow (that cycle, you know = ))

  4. Dale Coulter says:

    Does writing really matter? Well, I don’t take photos very often because I have memories…. but will I see those places differently when I come to remember them three years later? Will colours be brighter, changed through the rose-tinted lens? Is writing the same thing? A narrative takes a kind of picture of your state of mind in that time which is handy to look back on as your brain processes experiences and you change as a result of the process.

    Thanks Willy for the mention too. It’s nice to see the idea of journal writing is reaching people. I’d be nice to read the accounts of people that try this idea and see what sort of changes take place.

    I’ve been pondering the idea of keeping a video journal or a video blog entry. The flow of though through speaking kind of appeals to me.


    • Fiona says:

      There was a time in my life, some eight to ten years ago, when circumstances in my life went from difficult to mind numbing, so I spoke to a wise friend of mine who’s a sort of therapist. It ended up being one of those life-changing conversations. Normally therapists listen, but I’m not at all into sharing my deeply personal stuff and this guy didn’t push it. Instead, he gave me two very good pieces of advice, one of which was ‘If you can’t talk about it, write it down EVERY day, then every day when you pick up your journal to write, read the previous few days’ entries and think about them before you write. Keep writing and reading back over what you’ve written and you’ll see the progression. Sometimes in our lives we have to live from day to day, and it feels like nothing changes – but seeing our progress helps us to make that progress, to see things in perspective as time moves on’.
      I’d kept a diary since I was 13, but never reread stuff, so I changed my approach to my diary and have never looked back. Reflective living is effective, let alone reflective teaching – and it is an on-going narrative, yes, coloured by the mood when writing, but tempered by rereading and time.

      As for people who can’t write, Richard, well, you’re unlikely to respond to a technique that isn’t part of your personal culture. But there are other ways to reflect eg talking about things to people. Surely you’ve had that experience of talking something through and suddenly things become clear in your mind? We all have our own techniques for reflection, whether it’s thinking things through while looking at the stars, writing narratives, reading tealeaves, talking to an ‘analyst’ or priest … the important thing is to do it, otherwise stagnation and possibly frustration are imminent. No?

      • Willy says:

        Thanks for your comment, Fiona!

        I thought a lot about it, but to be honest I don’t have much to say. But here’s a thought:

        You said the technique for reflection can be any because doing it is the most important thing, no matter how. I agree, in fact, I agree so much that I also think that reflection that propels development can be caused (very powerfully) by looking at one’s paycheck.

        This happened with me in my third or fourth year of teaching. It was when I reduced some hours with the one-size-fits-all EFL outlet I was with, and started to dedicate myself to customized one-to-one courses. This turned out to become a specialization of mine, which was achieved initially because I needed to make ends meet, and not clearly at the time because I wanted to become a better teacher (being 21 I naively thought I was already good enough).

        So I wonder how money can be a tool for reflection and incidental development. On the other hand, I also know some teachers who were offered financial incentives to engage in PD and declined it. Go figure, teachers are unpredictable creatures.

  5. phil3wade says:

    Hi Willy,

    Another good post.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of reflective doodles or drawings. Why? Well after a lesson or a day’s teaching I’m pretty tired and not often in the mood to start reflecting/analysing but drawing something is different. It would help me relax and probably tap more into my unconsciousness that lists. Or I could do both and create a 1 page doodle with words, phrases and pictures form the class. The more creative the better I think. I may give it a shot this week as I have some gaps for a drink/snack between schools.

    In theory, students could also do this as revision. I remember a history teacher did something similar with us in high school and we really got immersed in the lessons and got good grades then when we changed teacher and just read books our grades fell.

    Have you tried this?


  6. Willy says:

    Hi Phil,

    The only time I tried something similar was in a teacher development workshop. We were asked to draw our metaphor for teaching, or for language classroom. I drew a walk in the park and the guy sitting next to me drew a chemical lab. The conversation we had about why we saw our practice that way was indeed very nice and till now I think about when I’m “walking in the park” or “experimenting with test tubes”.

    (NB. tubes are not the learners 🙂 )

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