The Response of Reflection
Reflective practice is important, because effective teaching defies any set of "rules for practice." There is no formula for success. Rather, we work in "indeterminate zones of practice" (Schon, 1987), where uncertainty, ambiguity, and uniqueness are key constants in the teacher's world. Indeed, if we accept the premise of the dignity of the individual, recognize the diversity that implies, and combine that with the need to honor the group as well as the individual, we have already entered an indeterminate zone.
From the film Apollo 13, two powerful moments endure. The first comes when astronauts far away from the earth signal back to ground command, "Houston, we have a problem." The second follows when the commander of operations in Houston pulls together a team of experts with varied specialties, outlines the critical nature of their role in trying to save the lives of the astronauts, and concludes with the statement, "Failure is not an option."
Given the nature of the classroom and its inhabitants, young lives are always at risk. There is always a problem. The teacher who believes deeply in the dignity and worth of the individual and the group hears the echo, "Failure is not an option."
The nature of schools is such that teachers must continually address critical problems, serving largely as an expert "team of one." Wise teachers expand their team in a variety of ways—forming partnerships with their students, establishing relationships with like-minded peers who serve as "critical friends," drawing on the expertise of specialists in the building, and actively pursuing advanced professional knowledge through universities, books, and high-quality staff development. Still, by and large teacher expertise develops in proportion to teacher reflection on practice.
Not only do teachers benefit from reflective practice, but students derive important messages from reflective teachers as well. To the student, a reflective teacher communicates the following:
- I watch you and listen to you carefully and systematically.
I make sure to use what I learn to help you learn better.
I try to see things through your eyes.
I continually ask, "How is this partnership working?"
I continually ask, "How can I make this better?"
The reflective teacher questions not only daily practice but also beliefs that should ground that practice. To what degree am I living my beliefs? In what ways does this place dignify or diminish each individual? To what degree am I an example of the kind of learner and person I ask my students to be? To what extent does this class commend the value of diversity in background, opinion, and talent? Am I aiming for a norm or for the best each child has to offer? What do I understand about the differences among people? What do I understand about the things all humans share in common? To what degree does this community we call a classroom help its inhabitants know how to live more effectively with other people? How well does this microworld equip young people for life in the greater world?
To answer these questions, of course, the teacher also reflects on the details of classroom practice. How well am I monitoring student readiness to learn and learning progress? How effectively am I using what I learn from assessment to guide lesson planning and teaching? What else do I need to know about my students' interests and modes of learning? How can I best build a three-dimensional portrait of each learner? At what points are classroom routines clear to everyone, and when do they help us work more effectively? When do they fail us in one way or another? What changes ought I to make in daily details that contribute to the greater goals of the classroom?
Teacher reflection inevitably attends directly to students' need for affirmation, contribution, power, purpose, and challenge. From continual reflection on these and countless other questions, the teacher's practice also becomes ever more intuitive and efficient in addressing student needs. Reflection also supports what Deborah Meier (1995) calls the power to care. It may well be that one of the factors that overwhelms our early visions of the possibilities in classrooms is encountering so many human needs at the very time we are so ill equipped to address them. Feeling such personal inadequacy may compel us to stop looking at the needs—to build a protective wall between the hurt of the young and our disappointment in ourselves.
There is a terrible and pointless pain in powerless caring, and it erodes the capacity for caring. … We needed time and again to discover ways to effectively care. Part of it depended on having sufficient power. We kept extensive notes and records of children's work, continuously experimenting with better ways to keep and use such information. We met to work out ways to sharpen our observational skill at understanding children's learning modes and preferences as individuals—what engaged them most deeply, how they responded best to criticism. … We worked together to better organize curriculum as well as increase our knowledge about the subjects that our students were studying. … We attended all manner of courses and institutes that suited our interests and needs. Being seen as intellectually curious people, modeling what a mathematician, historian, or scientist does, are rock-bottom necessities if kids are to catch on to what we're teaching about. Our desire to teach, after all, needs to be connected always to our enthusiasm and respect for what (and who) we are teaching about (Meier, 1995, pp. 133–134).
Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon.
Schon, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Source: Excerpted from Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching (pp. 33–35), by C. A. Tomlinson, 2003, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Copyright 2003 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.