Why do teachers reflect?

Last Updated on 12/11/2021 by James Barron

Mankind has actively reflected on past experience throughout its existence in order to manage risk, this was fundamental learning required for staying alive. “It is only in the last few hundred years that we have been conscious that we could influence the future by learning lessons from the past”, (Broadleaf, 2012) and consciously reflecting and evaluating on events. We perform “self-evaluating sessions in an attempt to learn from what has taken place in order to make future practice more effective”. (Gould & Roffey-Barentsen, 2014, pp. 254-255) There are many theories and models of reflection and evaluation; I have focused on Schön, Kolb, Gibbs, Brookfield’s lenses and CIPP.


The Schön theory of reflection is a very common method, utilised often without realising that a theory is being made use of. The Schön theory was produced in 1983 by Donald Schön. Schön focuses on the 3 types of reflection deployed following the Schön theory; these are ‘Knowledge in action’, ‘Reflection in action’ and ‘Reflection on action’. Knowledge in action “does not involve any conscious process, we cannot describe how we did it, and hence it is described as ‘unspoken’ and ‘tacit’”. (Gould & Roffey-Barentsen, 2014, p. 254) This is when a change is implemented in the moment and on the fly, likely instinctively; as a result it is often without any reflection, potentially meaning better alternatives may have been available. An example of this is when I can instinctively tell that students do not understand and, as a result, provide a different example of the subject. I can only do this when I know the students well and can subconsciously detect subtle cues, of course it’s not always possible to do this instinctively and a check of learning reveals that students have not understood, as a result Schön’s Reflection in action method comes into effect, whereby a trigger has revealed that a change is required and in the moment you process the required change and implement it. This change may require a different method of providing the information or another different task. “Thinking on your feet, keeping your wits about you … suggest not only that we can think about doing, but we can think about something while doing it” (Schön, 1983). The final method is Reflection on action, in which you reflect after the event. This may be due to a particular event or trigger occurring during the lesson that couldn’t be handled on the fly, or just a routine reflection of how the lesson went, this is particularly useful when reflecting on how a lesson went and on one’s own teaching methods. Schön doesn’t “give clear guidelines about how to put the process into action … he is rather vague on the mechanics of reflection”, (Gould & Roffey-Barentsen, 2014, p. 255) allowing flexibility when implementing the process, also allowing for another theory to be utilised as the practical side of the reflection.


Kolb’s theory was created in 1984 by David Kolb as a learning style model; however, it has a major element of reflection as part of the learning system model. The Kolb model breaks the reflection process down into 4 sections, the first element of the cycle being Concrete Experience, in which there is a particular experience, this could be of an activity, a behaviour or a whole lesson. The next stage of the cycle is Reflecting, whereby you consider the features and issues of the event or session. The next stage is Abstract Conceptualisation, in which “you formulate ideas more fully so that you can have a different type of experience than you did at the start of this process”. (Machin, Hindmarch, Murray, & Richardson, 2016, p. 24) The goal of this section is produce an idea or plan that can be implemented which will not suffer from the issues experienced in the Concrete Experience stage, once this has been obtained you can move on to Active Experimentation. During the Active Experimentation stage you experiment with the idea / plan that was produced during the Abstract Conceptualisation stage. The goal of the cycle is to learn from experience and continuously improve on practices. “Experience alone is insufficient to lead to the development of practice, as it suggests by the phrase ‘thirty years’ experience can be one year’s experience repeated twenty-nine more times”. (Gould & Roffey-Barentsen, 2014, p. 255) It is very effective when reflecting on lessons, particular activities and poor behaviour. I have used the Kolb method when reflecting on why a group of students performed poorly during an exam and have decided that a more thorough mock exam should be implemented which will prepare students for the exam in greater depth and provide an excellent learning check so that I can provide extremely tailored revision material.


Graham Gibbs built on Kolb’s theory and in 1988 produced the reflective cycle, designed to be a more holistic approach while remaining clear and concise. “The process requires that one look beneath the surface of events and experiences to achieve deeper levels of understanding and learning”. (Rumson, 2016) The reflective cycle takes into account that “neither teachers nor learners are emotionally detached from the experiences they share and so the ‘feelings’ perspective is an important consideration.” (Gould & Roffey-Barentsen, 2014, p. 257) There are 6 stages to the reflective cycle, first is the description stage, in which the event that has occurred is described or documented. The second stage is the feelings stage, in which the feelings involved are documented, including both the student and teacher’s feelings during the event. The feelings and emotions are essential and should be accounted for when conducting any analysis of an event. The third stage is the evaluation, in which you assess what was good or bad about the event, making a judgement of what had occurred during the event. This stage links closely to the next stage, analysis, in which you analyse what caused the event and what influenced the outcome. Once you have a good understanding of what caused the event you are able to decide what you would have done differently, how the situation could have been avoided and overall what you have learnt from the event. With this knowledge you are able to produce an action plan so that should the event ever occur again you are able to address the situation more effectively, or hopefully prevent the negative event occurring in the first place.

The reflective cycle does have some negatives, several inherited from the Kolb theory, which should be taken into account while using the Gibbs method. A negative that Gibbs specifically suffers from is that the one conducting the reflection must feel empathy; this may not be the case in all teachers.

I have used this method when reflecting on how I felt after I accepted a student onto a level 3 course with an additional Maths class. This option was later removed as insufficient places were available on the Maths class. The student was then forced to drop from a level 3 class to a level 1 class as places were available at a different campus. Many of the other theories of reflection would have been unsuitable due to their lack of attention to both how the student and I were feeling at the time and the importance of feelings during and moving forward from the event.

Brookfield’s lenses

Created in 1998 by Stephen Brookfield, Brookfield’s lenses focuses on challenging assumptions by viewing an event from four different perspectives. The 4 perspectives are: own viewpoint, student viewpoint, colleague viewpoint and theory and literature. This is likely to occur after you have experienced a particular event and start considering your own viewpoint about the event, another approach could be that a colleague has questioned your practice and as a result you are likely to hear the colleague’s viewpoint before you have had time to fully process your own.

When reflecting on an event, “self-reflection is a crucial component of self-development and improvement of practice. Focusing on your own experiences as a teacher can reveal features of your teaching that may require further development”. (Machin, Hindmarch, Murray, & Richardson, 2016, p. 20) It is important during this stage to be as unbiased as possible, while being completely unbiased is impossible as it is your viewpoint, being overly negative will have negative effects on your practice, whereas being overly positive will not highlight the areas for improvement. This is why obtaining alternative viewpoints is important, a colleague can provide a different perspective that can be beneficial, however, “discussions need to be purposeful and held within trusted relationships so that honesty and confidentiality are assured.” (Machin, Hindmarch, Murray, & Richardson, 2016, p. 21) The selection of colleague with whom you discuss an event with can have a large impact on the advice you receive due to them being biased. Another viewpoint to consider is the students, this could be in the form of obtaining feedback from students, however, it is possible that the student may not want to say what the issue is or what the cause is, as a result you may need to imagine their perspective. “Looking at your practice through your learners’ eyes can help you see more clearly the learning encounters that you have prepared for them through their eyes” (Machin, Hindmarch, Murray, & Richardson, 2016, p. 23). Another viewpoint to consider is theory and literature; this can be extremely helpful when handling specific events. “Applying some theories that you read about to your own practice can help you to become a better teacher through increasing your knowledge, which can also help you to improve your decision making.” (Machin, Hindmarch, Murray, & Richardson, 2016, p. 24) An example of when to apply literature could be referring to institution guidance on factors like behaviour.

I have used the Brookfield’s lenses approach when handling poor behaviour in my class, in which I had to remove the student from the class. I considered my own viewpoint that the student was being deliberately disruptive and, when questioned, challenged my authority within the class. I then discussed the event with a colleague to ensure I had handled the situation correctly and was consoled by the knowledge that it wasn’t just my class he behaved like this in. I then consulted disciplinary procedures to ensure I had handled the situation correctly and the next steps I had to take to ensure the event was fully documented. I then fully considered the student’s perspective during the event, what had he thought leading up to the event and what had caused the reaction that had occurred.


The CIPP (Context, Input, Process, Product) evaluation model was created by Daniel Stufflebeam in 1983. The goal is to “systematically guide the conception, design, implementation and assessment of service-learning projects, and provide feedback and judgment of the project’s effectiveness for continuous improvement.” (Zhang, et al., 2011, p. 57) The CIPP model is broken down into 4 sections, context, input, process and product. The context section of the model focuses on what needs to be achieved, along with any specific requirements for the project. The input section looks at how what needs to be achieved can be realised. This section looks at the resources required and the steps that need to be completed for the project to be successful. The third section is process, which is comprised of monitoring the project to ensure progress is being made in line with the plans produced in the input section. The final section measures if the project was a success by looking at the anticipated outcome derived during the context section and comparing them with the actual outcomes at the end of the project. The process section and the product section have large parallels with the process and product curriculum models.

This method can be used for producing and evaluating qualification, modules, units, curriculum, etc. I use this method for creating and assessing schemes of work. I conduct the context with the unit specification, course handbook and with the curriculum in mind; this provides all the requirements for the scheme of work. I then complete the input section of the model by creating steps required for the requirements in the context section. After each session is taught I complete the reflection section of the scheme of work, this forms the process element of the model; this ensures the students are maintaining progress in line with the planned schedule in order to meet the unit requirements. The final unit evaluation is completed after the unit is finished, which forms the product section of the model, reviewing the final work the students have completed and how it compares with the original requirements of the unit.

Broadleaf. (2012, June 1). A simple guide to risk and its management. Retrieved from broadleaf.com.au: http://broadleaf.com.au/resource-material/a-simple-guide-to-risk-and-its-management/

Gould, J., & Roffey-Barentsen, J. (2014). Achieving your diploma in education and training (1st ed.). London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Machin, L., Hindmarch, D., Murray, S., & Richardson, T. (2016). A Complete Guide to the Level 5 Diploma in Education & Training (Second Edition ed.). St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Rumson, R. (2016, Dec 7). GIBBS – REFLECTIVE CYCLE MODEL (1988). Retrieved 11 25, 2018, from The e-learning Network: https://resources.eln.io/gibbs-reflective-cycle-model-1988/

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Zhang, G., Zeller, N., Griffith , R., Metcalf, D., Williams, J., Shea, C., & Misulis, K. (2011). Using the Context, Input, Process, and Product Evaluation Model (CIPP) as a Comprehensive Framework to Guide the Planning, Implementation, and Assessment of Service-learning Programs. Georgia: University of Georgia.

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Author Profile

James Barron
My first experience of teaching was in 2016, when I was asked to
deliver a talk to a group of 16-year-olds on what it was like to start
your own business. I immediately knew I wanted to become more
involved in teaching but I didn’t know where to start as I had not
previously considered a career in education. A few weeks later I
agreed to teach a class of Chinese students from the Shanghai
Technical Institute of Electronics and Information, who had travelled
to the UK to learn English and Software Engineering, after that I was
hooked. Within the next few years, I taught hundreds of students of
many different nationalities, aged from 16 to 60, and from
levels 2 to 6. I focused my time teaching with Bath University and
Bath College for several more years until I felt a change was in order.
For the last few years, I have taught remotely with several private
training organisations, provided dedicated one to one coaching
sessions, provided consultancy on teaching and assessment practices
and written about my experiences as a teacher. I plan to continue
with my current activities for the foreseeable future but I’m always
open to new teaching experiences.

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