Phil Wade Interviews: Thomas S C Farrell
You are known for your reflective practice work and this has been rather fashionable recently but as an expert, do you think most people do it correctly or has it just become a term to drop into conversations to sound knowledgeable?
Yes, reflective practice has gained more popularity recently and yes it has become fashionable. In fact, I will dare you to find an advertisement for a TESL Inservice, Cert, Diploma or MA program/course that does not have the word reflection somewhere. And as I mentioned above, within many of these courses, teachers in training have been told to reflect without any real guidelines about how to do it or why or what it really means. Of course we all reflect (hopefully) daily so this is obvious to many teachers and they lose a sense of the real meaning of reflection in these courses, because it has, for the most part been reduced to recipe-following checklists that teachers fill in to satisfy the needs of their trainers.
Over the years we have lost the meaning of reflective practice and confined it to retrospective reflections of what happened, why it happened and what next. These are good basic questions to help structure reflection, especially for novice teachers, but we face the danger here of reflection becoming ritualized in such a manner and becoming a mechanical mode of looking for problems in a ‘fix it’ type of problem solving approach. In fact, this defeats the original purpose of the resurgence of reflective practice in the early 80s against such technical rationality. We must move reflective practice beyond mere questions about whether my teaching is working or not, to a more broader definition that includes the person who is doing the reflections. Just as I believe we cannot separate the teacher from the act of teaching, (as many publishers would when trying to produce teacher proof materials), so also do I believe we cannot separate the person from the act of refection.
I believe TESOL teachers should define what they mean by reflection and reflective practice before engaging in it. They should look at different approaches and have a full understanding of that approach and its theoretical underpinning to make sure it aligns with what they think reflection and reflective practice is. If this is in a teacher training course, then it is important for language teacher educators to allow time for teachers in training and inservice to define and discuss their understanding of reflection rather than being just told to ‘reflect’.
Of course this also means that language teacher educators must themselves take time to consider their own understanding of reflection. We must consider TESOL teachers’ personal histories, beliefs, theories and expectations for practice and beyond practice which may differ from those of language teacher educators, otherwise reflection and reflective practice will become a mechanical and ritualistic tool to fulfill the needs of administrators and teacher educators rather than the needs of TESOL teachers.
This is my approach and I am not shy about pushing my agenda related to reflective practice in TESOL. The framework I use to encourage TESOL teachers (preservice and inservice) to reflect, encompasses a holistic approach that focuses not only on the intellectual, cognitive and meta-cognitive aspects of practice, but also the spiritual, moral and emotional non-cognitive aspects of reflection that acknowledges the inner life of teachers that are missing in other approaches (eg Dewey and Schön’s approaches). But rather than replace these wonderful approaches (after all I see myself standing on the shoulders of giants), I add to them and include the whole person as teacher as well as the issues that teachers want to reflect on. The approach I propose is hard work really, as teachers are encouraged to reflect on their philosophy, principles, theory, practice and beyond practice. Of course I have written a book on this framework so I will not go into detail here about it but it offers teachers not only a way to reflect on their work but also a way of showing others, including administrators who they are (philosophy/identity), what they believe about teaching and learning ESOL (principles), how they plan for this (theory), what they do (practice), where they fit into their profession (beyond practice/critical reflection).
There is no one size fits all when it comes to teaching or reflection.
So what do you suggest for new teachers who’ve never taught before or teachers who consider themselves as just deliverers of knowledge or simply follow a book page by page?
That is a great question. Novice teachers are in a difficult position because they have not yet built up a repertoire of teaching skills whereby they can reflect as they teach. Many are still trying to survive in the classroom rather than teaching their students, so teacher training programs (esp the 4 week ones) have a lot to answer for if they do not prepare their teachers for the real teaching world of real classrooms. It is all well and good to have a knowledge of phonetics but how is this useful really for a teacher in the front lines when faced with classroom management issues, or disruptive students and the like. We must prepare teachers to be able to cope with whatever issues may arise and the way forward here is to teach them the skills of reflection—how to reflect-IN-action while teaching, ON-action after teaching, and FOR-action planning future actions. We cannot prepare teachers for all eventualities that may occur but we can prepare them on how to anticipate and deal with these. When teachers just follow the book (and there are many so-called experienced teachers who gladly do this still!) they are teaching the book rather than teaching the students and this focus is somewhat encouraged by textbook writers and many others in our field. Individual teachers will have to decide for themselves what they want to be in a classroom; they can be transmitters/deliverers of knowledge or they can be facilitators of knowledge where they make strategic decisions based on their students’ needs rather than their own needs to survive or what the textbook manual tells them to do. They can decide to teach the textbook or exploit the textbook. I never tell a teacher what to do; I dance my dance and invite you to join me but it is up to you to decide who you want to be as a teacher.
Thomas S.C. Farrell is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Brock University, Canada. Professor Farrell’s professional interests include Reflective Practice, and Language Teacher Education & Development. Professor Farrell has published widely in academic journals and has presented at major conferences worldwide on these topics. His webpage is: www.reflectiveinquiry.ca