Practical Ideas for Retrospective Planning in a Reflective Journal

I want to offer my thanks again to the audience in my talk on Reflective Teacher Practice at TESOL France, who came up with a number of very practical ideas to create a retrospective plan to use in a reflective journal. Their wealth of experience they had to offer helped me come up with a number of ideas. I owe you all a big thankyou, and maybe a drink next time we see each other, you can hold me to that! I have synthesised the ideas into a few frameworks that could be of use to someone thinking of starting a reflective journal:

Circular snapshots

Hard-data stored in your brain is more easily accessed through emotions and visuals, in my humble opinion. This model encourages the teacher to first go back into the lesson and take a visual snapshot of it, then, give it an adjective. Having entered the lesson in this way, you’re ready to look at the focus, needs, opinions and feedback.

Questions about the teacher/questions about the learner

Reflecting and writing a journal has a number of benefits which I would espouse. However, at times, alone with your thoughts, it’s possible that reflection becomes inflection. By this I mean the teacher is the centre of everything. We are professionals and we take our practice seriously. Basically, we flagellate ourselves. This framework rebalances the situation by addressing the learners first and then the teacher. The questions in the first box focus the reflection on the learner, then expanded and refocused on the teacher; it’s beneficial not only to learners but also to the teacher to bear them in mind when retrospectively planning/evaluating.

Reflection into research

An area I touched upon in my talk was action research. This is the area in which I feel I short-changed my audience slightly. There was a missing link between how to synthesize the journal content into a well-focused and fruitful action research project. The idea below goes some way to bridging the gap; it takes you step-by-step through the lesson running order. The first part elicits your thoughts on the lesson. Unpacked, the most salient points are then questioned and re-packaged in the form of a focus or action research (by this point the number of point should reduce). By the time you arrive at the action research box, you’ll have a few ideas in mind. At this point it’s a good idea to get the opinion of other teachers. This could be done by asking them to read your journal or through an informal staff-room chat. Finally, you’re ready to start picking out literature to help research.

The two classroom pillars

I used this framework to analyse a Dogme lesson I did last week. I found it useful to start with the learner pillar. They focus on interactions: firstly communicative interaction, then the interaction between learners and the content of the class, difficult and easy.

Answering the three questions on the teacher-pillar accesses the teacher’s decisions through the lesson in relation to learner interactions. What I find helpful about this framework is that you can draw conclusions on your decisions in the classroom and link them directly to the learner.

It could be beneficial to revisit the lesson or start an action research project in the case of an imbalance between these questions e.g. Learners found it difficult to produce X language/I found it difficult to help them with X language, learners found it difficult to understand what was required of them in the lesson/I found it hard to give instructions.

Surprises and moments

It doesn’t always go according to plan, does it? Emerging interactions can come as some surprise. It’s how we deal with them that makes them learning opportunities. In reflecting on them, consider the cause: internal or external. E.g. students had a bad day, it’s 5.30 p.m. on a Friday and my teenager group wasn’t exactly thrilled to check into grammar 101, the material was pitched too high, etc etc. If these were surprises the next step is to reconsider your plan or classroom behaviour.

At the end of the process, give yourself a mark out of ten. It’s better at the end than at the start – again, reflection is better than inflection.

Moving from one lesson to the next

This idea focuses on how to move from lesson to lesson. As I mentioned in my talk, I often find the focus for the next lesson in the leftovers of the previous. Reactivating could be to address any one of the questions presented. This doesn’t necessarily have to something identified as a negative; one might want to reactivate to revise, add continuity or to introduce a new focus in the context created in the previous lesson.


Here’s my challenge. To anyone out there: teachers: newly qualified or expert, trainers: teaching or training. Directors/ADOSs: running development sessions or teaching, try it out with a class. Maybe two if you have the time.

1. Which of these structures best fits your teaching style/beliefs about teaching/context? 

2. Do you find it helpful to reflect in this way?

3. Have you noticed and areas for improvement in your teaching? Would you like to improve these?

4. Have you identified any strengths? If so, how could you ensure your planning/preparation/teaching exploits your strengths?

24 thoughts on “Practical Ideas for Retrospective Planning in a Reflective Journal

  1. unpluggedreflections says:

    Dale, this is an amazing post. Thank you.

    You have got some great ideas here that I really want to share with my trainees. Would it be ok to do so? Not sure they would find the time during Celta to read the whole thing, but I think it would benefit them greatly to see some of your models and apply them to what they are doing in class.

    And not only them, of course, I could really do with going through these thought processes too.
    Keep up the good work!

    • dalecoulter says:

      Jem I would recommend that you or anyone else interested share these ideas with trainees. They are on the blog for anyone to give to trainees, use themsevles or adapt accordingly for their own context. All I’d ask is that I get referenced in some way : )


  2. bealer81 says:

    Fantastic post Dale. You have really pulled out the stops on this one. I can’t believe there aren’t more comments. I would like to take up your challenge. I have been neglecting my diary of late. Although my reflection continues in my head, in fact it seems to take up most of my thoughts, I’m just too lazy to write them down. I think I will make a copy of your diagrams and post them in the staff room to see if anyone else is interested.
    A few more posts like this and you will have enough to write a book.;-)


    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Adam. It’s nice to see so many teachers out there have a reflective mindset like yours. There’s a lot of this is going on already on your blog, which I greatly enjoy reading. I connect a lot with your entries, they remind me a lot of thoughts I have had and still have. Keep going, you’re building quite a following, and rightly so. There’s very little in the way of documented and well-conducted research into Dogme like yours.

      I wouldn’t say I always right them down. Most of the time, I do, otherwise knowing my mind, I’ll forget them as a million and one thoughts come into my head. Feel free to make a copy and give them to anyone who might be interested.

      You know, writing a book wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Who knows… for now, I’m happy to publish everything that comes into my head on the topic.


  3. dingtonia says:

    Cracking as usual, Dale. You are truly an inspiration, not only to new teachers and those struggling through the CELTA, but to us old people too. Seeing and feeling your passion is just such a breath of pure oxygen.

    Thank you.


    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks ever so much Candy. One thing I’ve realised through this whole experience is that I’m not just speaking to the newbies, also the more experienced and expert teachers, which is humbling to say the least. That and I’ve probably done some good for some artisan diary/journal shops throughout the world.


  4. Adam says:

    There was an #ELTChat on twitter recently and I got roundly laughed out of the arena for suggesting the idea of retrospective planning: how on Earth could I be planning if I was writing down what had happened after the lesson? I wish you’d written this earlier as it would have saved me the trouble of trying to articulate what I meant in 140 bloody characters. A truly excellent post, Dale.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thank you Adam. Maybe we could rally for an #ELTChat on reflective practice and retrospective planning, then we’d have 140 characters X the PLN + a few posts = not being laughed off the forum. I’m surprised the idea was received in this way. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to add 140 characters of support.


  5. Candy says:

    Adam and Dale
    The fact that either of you has ever been laughed out of a forum because of your ideas is reprehensible. My only advice – as a so-called “experienced” (read “older”) teacher – is to take it from whence it comes. For some reason teachers of all persuasions are petrified of change or having someone tinkering with what have been “establoshed practices”. The thought hat they may have to change the habits of a lifetime send them scurrying into their laagers where they throw up barricades to defend themselves. Sod ’em – NEVER let them stop you from expressing your ideas and never allow them to undermine your dedication and passion.
    I will thump the table for you!

    • dalecoulter says:

      Exactly. That’s what has struck me the most about the PLN: how open the established and practised teachers are to the ideas and innovations of the break-through novices. Sometimes a bit of table thumping is needed though.

      Let them scurry. The open and reflective older teachers will always be here, encouraging the courageous and innovative because that’s what they once were.

  6. phil says:

    I’m running out of positive adjectives Dale so please fill one in:
    This post is ______!!!!!!!

    One question though that sounds like it came from my dissertation tutor and is linked to Scott’s new ‘Dogme research’ idea and it is ‘is it biased?’ Of course, assessing yourself is biased even with the most honest of people but what can we do about it? It seems that most of the reflections could and perhaps should be done by ourselves but if we were talking academic research level what more reliable methods could be employed and how useful would they be? Some form of Triangulation would be good and make the findings stronger. Having peer, student assessment and a mixture of qual and quant research would be EXTREMELY revealing and bolster the findings.

    So, what would you advise for people like me who fear being too biased in my own reflections or assessment of my classes? Quick student chats, focus groups, tutorials, anoymous questionnaires, video’d classes, peer observation.

    All ideas welcome.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Phil thanks for the blog gap-fill, or blogfill (termed).

      Is self-assessment subject? The pen is in your hand, so will espouse your views, inextricably linked to your training, language learning experiences etc etc. In the end there will undoubtably be a certain slant on your reflections, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s waffle. My view is there’s no harm in some subjective evaluation as long as it’s not taken as objective information. This is where I have a doubt about reflective practice, its value is subject to scrutiny at an academic level in order to prove X theory or Y idea. In terms of the development of a teacher’s ability however, the results are more tangible.

      I touched upon your next point a little in my talk and it draws on what Emi contributed below. One idea I’ve been thinking would be beneficial is sharing a journal with a colleague. Let’s say they were willing to give up a small part of their day to offer some questions and advice regarding a teacher’s journal. I’d be interested to see the results. One thing to be aware of, as Emi said, is the fear of putting one’s practices under the microscope at risking the disagreement of colleagues.

      Phil you always manage to find a way to get me to rethink or expand a post, cheers again.


      • phil says:

        Great ideas, Daled, Jem and all, as always. ‘Journal sharing time’ or just having a Friday ‘open session’ for anyone to go to and discuss anything would be good with no DOS, ADOS or even STs.Ahhh.

        They’re the main underlying themes from these blogs: Space + Options. Forcing students or teachers to discuss X, Y isn’t what we’re after. Applying the same Dogme ideas of freedom and emerging lessons is perfect for teacher training too. What would be better than sitting in the staff room with cups of tea (earl grey?assam?) and biscuits and just talking about how things are going, sharing then developing ideas. We all sort of do this but saying “hey, this really helps and is actually better than 1 hour talks” would justify it to the powers that be.

      • dalecoulter says:

        Journal sharing could provide the content for Friday development sessions. It’s open and the only requirement is you take you journal and discuss however much you want from it. The group decide on a focus for the session and more experienced colleagues scaffold the conversation, suggest improvements, answer teacher’s questions then provide some practice in classroom techniques or dedicate time to supported lesson planning. Space + options.

        Of course, there would be a choice between Earl Grey, Assam, Breakfast or coffee. Maybe even some biscuits too. Got to please the masses after all.

  7. Emi Slater says:

    Yes indeed as Candy says us oldies out here need your blog as much as anyone. great stuff Dale. mmm ,yes peer assessment is so difficult in so many schools where there is competition and insecurity around. i do write a reflective journal – did loads when I started teaching, then got lazy and now this blog has made me do it again. I love the idea of having mentors or trainers reading the journal – so much more is said on paper – hopefully soon I will be brave enough to ask my peers.

    Just one thing which I have recently found very engaging and useful for students in relation to your last diagram – How do I reactivate what was learned ? – is if I write a summary of any speaking activity we have done, including the names of the students – e.g. A said this and B said this and make it into a little text (funny perhaps and mentioning all the students) including all the key language that emerged and that students had trouble with or that you want to focus on. Then dictating this in another lesson with gaps where all key language is. Evidence that I have listened to them and a good reminder for them! Then learners have to discuss gaps, fill in gaps etc. which of course leads to more language emerging. I am teaching quite low levels at the moment so having all the students spell out their own names for their peers as I dictate is a nice way to have them involved in the dictation and practice alphabet etc. I am sure everyone reading this will have done this a million times but I just wanted to mention how useful I have found it for reactivating what was learned and enforcing students to focus on key language which emerged from last lesson. It’s probably a tried and tested Dogme thing which I have only just worked out for myself ! Sorry if so.

    • dalecoulter says:

      I hear what you say Emi. I would feel slightly uncomfortable with the open sharing of sensitive information with colleagues. There’d have to be a rapport or trust between us. Why didn’t we start doing this on DELTA?

      Re-activating! Yes! Do we take it for granted too often that a good lesson, not followed up on, could be forgotten?

  8. Luke Meddings says:

    I like the circular snapshots Dale – I like them very much. Non-linear outputs for non-linear teaching.

    And I like Phil’s point about conversational sharing between teachers. I like it very much. Dialogic PD for dialogic teachers.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Thanks for the comment Luke,

      Was it you who drew the circles that were the inspiration for circular snapshots? I find the idea of non-linear development for teacher intriguing, based on the situations they have to confront in their classrooms. In fact, I would like to focus more on this aspect – I really like your map metaphor: when you take a map, you don’t start from the edge and work your way to the other edge, you look at what’s around you and figure out the way from there.

      All this talk of non-linear teaching as I write a lesson plan using my coursebook for today’s lesson. Trying to include space for the learners to choose the focus, choose what they do with the text and focusing on their lives before using the content to extend and expand it and involve them in language analysis.

      Have you come across many good examples of dialogic PD development for teachers?


  9. phil says:

    I like this gentleman. It reflects the changing relationship with coursebooks and the whole focus of planning and students. Thanks to you all the centre of my world is no longer a book but students. In fact, when I got on the plane I only had 2 books in my case and they were Teaching Unplugged and grammar/vocab book.Knowing the latter is quite handy though just for quick grammar examples, explanations or the odd exercise, especially as I’m terrible at remembering grammar rules. Actually, I’ve admitted this and developed this way of dealing with it. I think I’m stronger at using language and developing conversation-based things. Each of us is different which is great.

    Re:Lessons and maps

    I’ve found doing IELTS speaking tests very useful for Dogme teaching as to do Part 3 well takes a long time. It’s difficult because you have a vague topic and depending on your candidate’s answers you need to progressively challenge them. All my Dogme classes are like this as I help push and nudge but never redirect. I love Luke’s idea of ‘dropping down a gear’ to do some linguistic business and then kicking it back upto speed.

    On another note, I did today’s 121 starting off with a drink of tea and some biscuits which then led to some great cultural topics, work environment/relationships work and actually really made a great open environment where my student was completely open about some areas of confusion. Tea tomorrow I think too.

    • dalecoulter says:

      Yes gents, here here. I like this idea of a development session focused on teacher needs and dialogue and practice emerging on a need-to-know basis. I wonder how easy it would be to put into practice: what challenges would one experience using this with the majority of teachers not used to this? How much pressure would it put on those leading the session?

      Phil, I’m teaching IELTS at the moment and completely agree with your view. Some of the topics are very dry and inspire students very little. No interest = very little meaning to convey = less language. I’ve tried the idea with FCE writing and speaking practice and it”s shocking how much more learners have to say on the topic if it’s more stimulating or if they are encouraged to lie. it challenges them to be creative while at the same time focuses them on the sorts of skills they’ll need in the exam – nudge them to be creative and do it in a way with which they can connect.

      Look forward to publishing a post on one-to-one teacher later this week!


      • phil says:

        IELTS is fantastic an nd is perfect Dogme country. Some schools offer 90 min speaking and also 90 min writing classes which are also brilliant if you take a Dogme approcah and work upto the tasks not starting with them. This is a real key to the exam as higher levels are often associated with higher order thinking or at least the ability to produce it. Getting those ideas and abilities and then showing how they can be applied to writing an essay or discussion give students real skills and not just ‘English for IELTS’ which they’ll forget next week.

        Do I sense an IELTS article coming soon?

        Dry topics? Yes but it’s our job to make the interesting. If you take Pollution for example there could be a reading on the effects with lots of specific lexis, a lecture listening, an essay For/against on ways to deal with it and even a speaking question 3 related to the environment.

        The key I think is your ‘connect’ idea. Most candidates are young and studying at uni so often unaware or not bothered about world issues so if you can show that connection it make sit relevant and lets them express their new opinions at their level. Examiners don’t want to read ‘pollution is bad for the environment’ because it’s dull. How about ‘water pollution has affected my village…’? It gets my vote and gets the student passionate and creative.

        Make the most out of it before everyone does online exams.

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