20 November 2014

...Reflective Journals

I often recommend that teachers keep a reflective journal, to support their ongoing professional development. This brief post describes the What? Why? & the How? of reflective journal writing, and includes an explanation of the value of this particular approach to learning.

What is a reflective journal?

A reflective journal is a personal document, and can be kept in any format. I have seen a variety of different style of notebook, including diaries, being used for reflective writing. I have also seen teachers keeping their journals in electronic formats - as a Word document or an online blog, for example. I have also seen teachers taking a more spontaneous, occasionally haphazard approach to documenting their professional experiences. At the end of the day, the appearance matters far less than the process.

That being said, the actual content can be recorded in a similarly individual way. You can include lists, bullet points, drawings (e.g. classroom plans), diagrams, photos, charts, mind-maps, references & citations, poems, newspaper cuttings (e.g. TES articles)... anything relevant to your practice or meaningful to your work. Of course, if you decide to keep your journal electronically then you also have the opportunity to include digital images, audio, video, and links to relevant online resources.

A reflective journal might begin with a record of experiences, or of professional development activity. For example, a description of a training event, or a list of the ideas you took away from it, would certainly serve as a good starting point. As it develops, however, a journal should serve as more than a chronicle of your professional growth. It should facilitate personal critical thinking, and allow you to question:

  • your understanding about education policies and practices;
  • assumptions about your own professional competence;
  • the strength and relevance of your knowledge and understanding.

Why keep a reflective journal?

It is essential that educators reflect on professional experiences, since we develop our expertise through deliberate, analytic reflection on practice (Eaude, 2012). It is a process which helps us to ensure that we stay on top of our game. But it demands more than just making mental notes about good or bad lessons, or having a chat with a colleague about pupils in your class. 

Reflection is a process of identification, questioning, analysis and planning which helps us to unpick the predicaments and complexities of teaching (Sellars, 2014). Writing reflectively can help us to develop our understanding about the highly complex world of the classroom. It enables us to justify our professional decisions, and demonstrate that we take responsibility for our professional development and the improvement of our practice. (See ...Reflective Practice for more thoughts on professional reflection, and ...Writing to Learn which considers the value of writing as a professional development tool.) 

Reflective journals have several functions, including:
  • to provide opportunities to make sense of situations, and turn experience into learning;
  • to enable the examination of taken-for-granted, habitual ways of thinking and acting;
  • to allow acknowledgement of strengths and successes, as well as weaknesses;
  • to initiate the search for alternative ways of working, in order to improve practices;
  • to provide a safe environment for the exploration of your own professional identity, including your characteristics, values & beliefs.

How do I keep a reflective journal?

There are countless books on this subject, which describe similarly countless approaches to reflective writing... Simply, start. Describe a recent event, including your thoughts and feelings about the experience. Notice details that emerge of which you may have been unaware at the time, as you re-experience the event. 

And, keep going. Return to your reflective journal regularly. Consider writing for 10 minutes a day, or try to add to your journal for half an hour twice a week. Avoid leaving too much time before reflecting on an event, since trying to recall incidents and responses makes for significantly less effective reflection.

As your journal develops you should be prepared to move beyond description, and ask questions about your practice. For simple, practical approaches to developing your reflective journal entries, see Reflective Writing Exercises also on this site.

Ethical Issues

A final, important note: When reflecting on your professional life you are engaging in practitioner research. As a consequence it is wise to be familiar with, and adhere to ethical procedures. For example, you must remember to remain professional when adding to your journal, especially when analysing the actions of other people. Avoid disclosing the names of pupils, members of staff, street names and addresses, or the names of schools, even if your journal is kept privately. Instead, use letters or initials to signify people and places. 

For comprehensive information on research ethics see, for example, the British Educational Research Association (BERA) guidelines, available at: www.bera.ac.uk.


References & Further Reading

BERA (2011) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. London. Available at: https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/BERA-Ethical-Guidelines-2011.pdf (Accessed: 18 Nov 2014).

Bolton, G. (2010) Reflective Practice: Writing & professional development (3rd ed.) London: Sage.

Eaude, T. (2012) How do expert primary classteachers really work? Critical Publishing.

Ewens, T. (2014) Reflective Primary Teaching. Northwich: Critical Publishing.

Sellars, M. (2014) Reflective Practice for Teachers. London: Sage.

Citing this post?

Ayres, D. (2014) Reflective Journals. Available at: http://danieljayres.blogspot.co.uk/ (Accessed: [Date]).

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Regards, DJA