Reflective Journals

What exactly is a reflective journal?

This is the same question I asked myself after leaving a stationary shop with a stylish leather-clad diary in hand. I opened it at the first page, wrote the date, some information on the class and the rest, as they say, is history. Having used various forms of a journal in the past 18 months, I have come to realise that the primary aim of it is to provide a space to articulate and download your thoughts. What’s more, using Dogme, I wanted to be sure that I had both a record of what I was teaching and how I was teaching it.

How was my journal conceived?

As I mentioned, about a year and a half ago I started keeping a teaching journal. The thinking behind it involved a desperate attempt to control a class of rowdy teenagers, all uninterested in English at 7pm on a Friday evening. The idea was developed from a black book of successful lesson ideas, tried and tested in the classroom, unpacked and recorded in this book for future use. The new-look journal documented changes in behaviour of the class during the course, including post-lesson reflections on the efficacy of my attempts to pacify the war zone. Three months of reflective experimentation with the class saw improvements in their behaviour, their motivation and my attitude towards the students. Success motivated me to reflect more, including my thoughts from other classes in the diary, including a Dogme class I included in my presentation at IATEFL 2010, but also classes with which I used course books, YLs classes and exam classes.

Dear diary, today…


Well, not quite, but some of my entries bear some resemblance to the classic dear-diary structure. Mostly, entries focused on capturing as best as I could remember what had happened in the classroom. With this information on paper, I re-read it and asked myself  for instance why I did things in X way or what would be the benefit of doing X before Y. The guiding question that emerged was:

Is this right because I do it, or do I do it because it’s right?

The bold to me represents ritualised practices and routines, which have a large part to play in a lesson, whether positive or negative. Once on recorded in the journal, I started to question these, asking for example why I used to elicit answers in full-class plenary or why I used pairwork instead of open-class discussion. The implication of this is that established classroom practices become those that are based on successful models, tried and tested in class.

Is a teacher’s intuition and existing belief set enough to act as a guide though? Of course, this relies upon a person being very observant and having a heightened sense of self-awareness regarding their practice.

But doesn’t this mean I will spend more time planning?

I will be the first to admit that it adds to your planning time, around 30-45 minutes per lesson. Consider it a start-up cost, an investment. Much like lesson planning immediately after qualifying, it reduces very quickly. After a few months the way in which I planned had turned completely on its head; reflecting on the lesson after it happened prepared me to teach the next, like retrospective lesson planning.

How do you know the right questions to ask?


Good point. I certainly did not have a highly developed reflective capacity at the start and there were times where I felt like I was reaching a dead end. From looking back on early diary entries, the focus was more on capturing the information and detecting patterns in my classroom routine. The addition of student feedback guided me towards what to ask and was included in journal reviews, where I put my practice under the microscope and extracted what to keep and what to throw.

You’ve mentioned ‘awareness’, what do you mean by this?


I guess it lies in the ability to look at your classroom as an outsider and pick up on what is happening, This is by no means easy, as the pen is in the teacher’s hand, which is influenced inextricably by existing beliefs on teaching and even the surrounding social and cultural context. Therefore, is subjectivity possible in a journal? Or should the aim be to reflect on, formulate and reinforce your practice?

That’s all very well, but what do you actually write?

From my experiences with a journal, I would recommend putting on paper what is on your mind at the moment of writing. This is already a step towards bringing things to the surface. A lot of the time an entry included my concerns over why learners had difficulties or why some did not seem engaged in the lesson. In fact, these thoughts still come up and often form the basis of a foray into the past, reviewing the lesson structure, materials, interaction, language/skills focus etc in order to make a few pedagogical tweaks to it ready for next time.

Might it not be beneficial to get a second opinion from a more experienced teacher?

I would be the first to say so. In fact, it might be beneficial for both parties, especially if there were some sort of mentor system set up to support this. I found exchanging ideas with a mentor very helpful for my growth as a teacher. In other cases, I found the dialogue-with-myself aspect of the journal very comforting, especially if I did not feel confident talking to colleagues about something, or if nobody was available.

So what are some of the benefits?

1.   Bad lessons are not thrown in the rubbish bin

Everyone has lesson they would rather forget. Instead of being forgotten about, they can serve as useful learning moments for a teacher. Placing yourself in the shoes of the students in an attempt to pinpoint what went wrong has its benefits. Not only does it make you consider your role, but also that you might not be to blame. Sometimes, however hard you try, things just do not go well.

2.     Strengths are identified

We all have them, but sometimes it is easy to forget what we actually do well. Especially in the face of some bad feedback or a lesson that went badly. Not only this, but also, there is an extra benefit of being aware of your strengths: they form the basis of your day-to-day teaching to make sure learners benefit from the best their teacher has to offer.

3.     Areas to work on become more apparent


When something appears consistently in the journal as less positive, it is time to make an action plan to improve it. In addition to this, looking out for what is missing (just like we do with our students) can uncover a springboard for a research project and structure a sort of self-directed development, based on what you need at that time.

I will wrap up with a few final thoughts, one from an article written by Scott Thornbury (1990)

“Might not the detection and analysis of teaching rituals… provide insights into a teacher’s image set?”

Now for a few questions…

  • Directors and managers, how can you create the right conditions in your staff rooms to encourage teachers to detect and analyse their teaching rituals?
  • Trainers, how much of your course is dedicated to guiding teachers towards becoming reflective individuals, able to ask questions about their practice in their formative years of teaching after qualifying?
  • New teachers/experienced teachers/senior or expert teachers/EFL gurus, have you tried keeping a journal? If so, what form did it take and would you recommend it?
Thornbury, S. (1990). Metaphors we work by: EFL and its metaphors. ELT Journal, 45/3

24 thoughts on “Reflective Journals

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Barry, thanks for the comment. Having your head in the right place to reflect I guess is the most important thing. If that takes the form of lined paper and pens, a blog, or just you and your thoughts over a nice glass of wine, or even a plate of kimchi in Korea ; ) is a matter of preference.


      • barryjameson says:

        Ah, kimchi is the answer to everything in life 🙂 I do like the idea of putting reflections down on paper. Less chance of observations being lost/forgotten over time. It would also be nice to go back and look at them later and even see how my attitude or conclusions change over time.

      • dalecoulter says:

        Mozzarella is my weapon of choice over here in Italy as the answer to everything, that or ice cream.

        It’s an interesting idea, tracking changes over time. I might make it the topic of my next post on the subject. Which reminds me, I really need to have my journal sent over. One of the problems with moving country: the 27kg luggage limit on the plane.

  1. DaveDodgson says:

    Over the last couple of years, my MA studies, growing online PLN and discovery of dogme have led me to firmly believe reflection is the most powerful tool a teacher has. One aspect of dogme that really resonates with me is the idea that post-lesson reflection is more important than pre-lesson planning and that is an important oint to make to those who view unplugged teaching as just ‘winging it’.

    Having said that, I have never kept a teaching journal for any significant amount of time. Part of that comes from my schedule – I usually meet each class I have once a day for a 40 minute period so having 6 different experiences to write up at the end of the day seems a bit daunting!

    Although it is not a daily record, I have come to see my blog as an important part of my self-development. The reflection may not be based on reflecting on whole lessons but my inspiraiton for posts often comes from critical incidents in class, which provoke some thoughts and ideas. I also see the interaction which arises via the comments section as a key part of that reflective process.

    Thanks for the great post – and for the reflections you’ve initiated 🙂

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks for the comment Dave,

      I completely agree, in fact, one reason I did not touch on as to why I started keeping a journal was to provide something concrete that demonstrated that I am not merely ‘winging it’ … I really hope it goes out of fashion soon with the non-Dogme camp, it is a bit outdated now. The growing presence of teachers sharing their experiences online is destroying ELT myths all over

      Even if it is not a daily record, I see my blog as a fulcrum for self development and a lot of the content comes from pages of my journal. The feedback received via the comments section is the icing on the cake for self development : )

      I can sympathise with the slightly daunting task of reflecting on the lessons of six different groups every day, it would be TOO time consuming if you were using a blow-by-blow account type of entry. On the other hand, a form of checklist with personalised headings and space for some comments at the end might reduce the workload, plus be short enough to fill in as soon as the lesson finishes (when everything is still fresh).


  2. phil says:

    Hi Dale,

    Very thoughtful post.

    One question:

    Would you suggest daily reflections on every class, weekly or just a general end-of-week reflection?

    Is it more useful to mull things over for a while and then come up with an idea/solution or is it better to write things down immeadiately and then come back to them later with new eyes?

    Looking forward to your November presentation.


    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Phil

      Good question. I know it is a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card but I would say it depends on what context you work in.

      If you find yourself with lots of one or two-hour classes, say more than three per day then I might suggest taking some field notes during the lesson and add some end-of-lesson thoughts to formulate your first impression, this would not take any more than 15-20 minutes (max). Like you said, you can then come back to these with a fresh pair of eyes and often the idea or solution comes immediately. As a matter of fact, I used this sort of system when I was teaching once or twice per week.

      In other cases, a teacher may teach intensive courses. In which case there is not so much time in between lessons to come back to your thoughts and it’s necessary to get your thoughts down on paper sooner. I often did this while teaching groups every day for three hours. Although in this case there is time to come back to your reflections later on in the day, or the next morning before you teach.

      In both cases, I would recommend a monthly or bi-monthly review.

      I really should start getting thinking about my presentation, and buy some plane tickets!!


  3. phil says:

    Cheers Dale.

    Since reading about your success I’ve been reflecting more and going over things that have been ‘bugging’ me. Eventually something clicks and I go ‘aha, that’s why Tommy ran out of the class when I asked him to speak’. Sadly, these ‘eureka moments’ are often after the chaos of the term and from teaching 3/4 different classes I day It’s hard to find time to reflect. I did start writing memos on my phone on the train home though. It’s fun going through them on the way to work as it gives me something to work on that day, such as MEMO 12=5pm BE class did not work well in groups. I do like having this daily TD task, especially when I’m teaching something I’ve taught many many times before.

    Keep posting and ask about free sofas/spare rooms in Paris.


    • dalecoulter says:

      I used to write on the train on the way home too, much more productive than falling asleep and nearly missing my stop! I hear what you are saying with ‘what’s bugging me’, I do have a tendency to use my journal as a place to vent about the things that go wrong. It’s important to give yourself some time to look at the great things you do too : )

  4. phil says:

    Yep. There’s nothing like figuring something out after a while of it annoying you. For example, I had one class that just didn’t speak and in the term I was so busy I couldn’t take a step back. Then in the holiday something clicked and I realized that i had to change the class layout our ever the room as it was clear that they were used to being lectured in those room.

    I’d love a Star Trek chair:

    “Captain’s log…Today, my class were reticent and unreceptive to my Dogme teaching”

    Another question is:

    How much do you involve student FB/Comments in your reflectionsµ?


    • dalecoulter says:

      Aha, maybe even one to add to Anthony’s list of ELT heroes, William Shatner-esque reflective teacher practice? I even thought about buying a voice recorder to keep a record of my thoughts. I find it so much easier to express an idea verbally than through writing. Maybe I’ll give it a try this year. When in Rome…

      As for feedback and student comments, they helped me pinpoint areas to think about, so I’d say it’s an essential. The only issue is how to gather subjective and honest feedback from students in a way that lets them express what they think, without the whole thing being a superficial praise the teacher session or turning into a bloodbath ; ) no doubt there’ll be a post about this in the coming weeks.

  5. phil says:

    Just for you Dale:

    “Without freedom of choice there is no creativity. The body dies. ”
    “Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on.”
    “Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. You can’t simply say, ‘Today I will be brilliant.'”
    “There’s another way to survive. Mutual trust…and help.”

    Captain Kirk

    He could be the next guest poster????

  6. brad5patterson says:

    I agree that

    1) bad lessons shouldn’t be tossed, but learned from and a diary is brilliant way of solidifiying learning in the short and long term.

    2) kimchi is the answer to everything in life

    3) captain kirk should beam aboard sometime soon and share wisdom from the stars above.

    • phil says:

      Captain’s log

      Stardate 13/9/11

      We have have circling the Orion nebula in search of anti-matter whilst escorting member of the Ferengi supreme alliance on a diplomatic mission. However, as all the translation equipment onboard has disappeared we had to begin offering English classes to the alien species.Chief medical officer Bones noticed in our last class that the aliens were rather unresponsive to our Star Fleet teaching methods. This led Spock to intervene with an ancient Vulcan method called ‘VulDogme’. After mentally bonding with all the students through an adapted neck pinch class morale increased and so did fluency. Also this is the first episode where no unknown crew members have died or I haven’t got it on with some alien woman. Things will probably go back to normal tomorrow when we need to return to the Headway Nebula.

  7. unpluggedreflections says:

    Hi Dale,
    As you may know, Anthony and I have been keeping journals during the current Celta course alongside our trainees. Not wanting to step on Anthony’s toes here, I just wanted to say that it’s been a great experience for me so far. I’ve found myself (just like when blogging) organising my thoughts, coming to conclusions and making decisions as I write. Lessons which haven’t gone so well at first suddenly appear to be better than I thought as I break down the details and realise what it was that actually happened and reflect upon the result on my students. By sharing how I am feeling in general, the trainees are able to read that we are all in the same boat in terms of weariness and that we know they feel it too.
    One problem I have had is that I want to write more than I really can if trainees are going to read it! Have found myself needing two journals, one for me and one for them! So that’s what I am going to do. I need to start doing more action research in my classroom, and I think a journal is a good place to start to decide which direction to take.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and getting more of us on the journal journey!

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Jem, sorry I took a while to respond.

      Now the idea of trainers keeping journals too is a fantastic one. I look forward to reading more about it in the future.

      That’s exactly it: the writing process, the putting of thoughts on paper brings you to conclusions and helps make decisions. I’m always thankful for the lessons I don’t throw in the bin and keep for reflection. By also putting the students at the centre of the reflection I’ve found that lesson reflections don’t always turn out negative but constructive.

      When you start action research, or when you have the time, would you be interested in a guest post?


  8. unpluggedreflections says:

    Hi Dale,

    Thanks for getting back to me, no worry about the delay – you’ve been pretty busy!

    Have to admit, this week my journalling has been less than up-to-date. We’re supposed to do it everyday and then make it available for the trainees to read. I’ve managed to do about three out of five days… whoops. (That might be because the things I’ve been thinking haven’t been suitable for the trainees eyes!)

    I would love to write you a guest post, definitely. I’ve been mulling over some concepts related to control a lot recently and am trying to figure out how to create something tangible to research. Watch this space.


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