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?