Is teacher professional reflection just a personal story of progress?: The Practice of Reflection

by Jonathan Tang


Is teacher professional reflection just a personal story of progress? What do educators mean when they say they engage in reflective practice (as opposed to when they say they reflect)? We all reflect, but are all reflections reflective in equal measure? Above all, what makes a quality reflection and how might we produce one? These are questions that become ever more important in our journey to becoming scholarly teachers in Higher Education. In this post I contemplate these questions through the lens of social practice theory, and show how such a theory has the potential to deepen educators’ reflections on their efforts to enhance teaching and learning.

A theory of social practice takes the view that social interactions can influence, and be influenced by, social reality in particular and significant ways. To view teaching as a practice means to recognize how it is interactionally sustained by the “recursiveness [of social action], socially sustained habits, the knowledge implicit in a dominion of action, the values that give social accountability to action, and the shared ways of accomplishing any practice” (Gherardi, 2009, p.116). According to Trowler (2005), such recursiveness may be studied in relation to “teaching and learning regimes” (p.23) concerned with the social dynamics, micropolitics and semiotics of the classroom, staff group, non-classroom-based learning, and so on.

Viewed through a practice lens, reflection is then more than simply looking back at what we have done to glean lessons about how we might do better in future. Reflection on (teaching) practice must therefore take cognizance of the intermediate agency of teaching and learning regimes in influencing the impact of our teaching, in our internal conversations as well as conversations with colleagues. Above all, quality reflections must recognize, engage and negotiate complexities because practice is “sophisticated, contingent, complex and unstable” (Ball, 1994, p.10). This will help avert the dangers of undertheorised, hyperrationalized and intellectualized reflections, as well as accounts that “apply theory in rather undeveloped and inelegant ways” (Trowler, 2005; Trowler, Saunders, & Bamber, 2009). In the rest of this post, I share the findings-in-development of a recent curricular innovation that I undertook with a colleague to show how an attention to teaching and learning regimes may help deepen and enhance scholarly teacher reflection.

The curricular innovation in question involved redesigning pedagogy in a science communication course to develop intellectual curiosity, rhetorical thinking and student-centred learning in undergraduates (Tang & Sawatdeenarunat, 2018). The redesign process involved rewriting course materials, class activities, assignments and assessment instruments to encourage asking questions, collaborative discovery and the co-creation of knowledge and meaning, as well as related tutor training. Student feedback on the course showed that students valued being more engaged in learning and the writing process and they also appreciated the transferability of their learning. However, they also reported tensions and challenges in relation to prescriptive teaching and assessment. The theme of prescriptivism was unanticipated to the course developers, and indeed antithetical to the student-centric ethos of the course redesign. It is this uneasy finding that I now turn to in the ensuing reflection.

The theme of a prescriptivist implementation of our curricular innovation may, from the perspective of social practices, speak to the messiness of educational change (Luke, 2015) and may attest importantly to how the reception and implementation locally of initiatives to enhance teaching and learning may be intercepted by variables that are quite difficult to predict. What begs explanation here, is then what these variables may be and how they localize change to produce suboptimal outcomes vis-à-vis the course developers’ “best” intentions.

Luke (2015) argues that “official curriculum and syllabus documents are translated, resisted and locally remediated… by teachers and students in their everyday exchanges in classrooms… The enacted curriculum of teaching and learning in fact reshapes and remediates official knowledge into forms of everyday experience and pedagogical exchange” (p.215). In enacting the enhanced curriculum, student-centred learning that is intended and structured by the course materials and activities may acquire a reinterpretation by instructors and students working collaboratively to realize teaching and learning regimes. Student-centred learning may be short-circuited by teacher-centred discourses that foreground teacher authority and prescription that work to close down dialogic space for exploring science communication, since it is possible that “strategies such as student empowerment and dialogue may give the illusion of equality while in fact leaving the authoritarian nature of the teacher/student relationship intact” (Ellsworth, 2013. p.194).

But teaching and learning regimes are not confined to the classroom learning environment. Teacher prescriptive practice may be interactionally sustained in out-of-class settings such as writing conferences on students’ draft assignments as well as through instructors’ written feedback on students’ drafts. Although documented evidence from teacher written feedback and teacher-student (including conferencing) discourses remains to be obtained to support the above claims, preliminary observations suggest a cause for concern — that course instructors tended to avoid building on plural and contingent rationalities in facilitating classroom learning; they may also tend to approach the rhetorical moves of popular science writing as a rigid and static list of content items to be accomplished in the process of filling a template during writing rather than a strategic configuration of rhetorical intentions to be negotiated in the developing text, which may account for the contraction of dialogic space in pedagogical exchanges that leads to learner perceptions of prescriptivism.

By locating an understanding of educational innovation and the enhancement of teaching in the context of social processes such as teaching and learning regimes that are both situationally specific and dynamic, I hope to have shown how pedagogical reflections may be illuminated by the critical power of the practice lens.



Ball, S. J. (1994). Education reform: a critical and post-structural approach. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Ellsworth, E. (2013). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? In B. J. Thayer-Bacon, L. Stone, & K. M. Sprecher (Eds.), Education feminism: Classic and contemporary readings. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Gherardi, S. (2009). Introduction: The critical power of the ‘practice lens’. Management Learning40(2), 115-128.

Luke, A. (2015). Cultural content matters: a critical sociology of language and literacy curriculum. In X. L. Curdt-Christiansen & C. Weninger (Eds.), Language, ideology and education: The politics of textbooks in language education. London: Routledge.

Tang, J., & Sawatdeenarunat, S. (2018). Moving to the groove: a learner-centred, rhetorical approach to writing science. Paper presented at the 53rd RELC International Conference on 50 Years of English Language Teaching and Assessment – Reflections, Insights and Possibilities, Singapore, 12-14 March 2018.

Trowler, P. (2005). A sociology of teaching, learning and enhancement: Improving practices in higher education. Revista de Sociologia76, 13-32.

Trowler, P., Saunders, M., & Bamber, V. (2009). Enhancement theories. In V. Bamber, P. Trowler, M. Saunders, & P. Knight (Eds.), Enhancing learning, teaching, assessment and curriculum in higher education: theory, cases, practices. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

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