The Pre-school Learning Alliance’s Melanie Pilcher considers the everyday opportunities for reflection that early years practitioners should be taking advantage of…
In my first article on this topic I defined reflection in its most basic terms, suggesting that reflective practice is simply a matter of thinking about what you have done, what you are doing now and what you will do in the future. The reflective practitioner can therefore be described as somebody who is open-minded and willing to learn from their current or past experiences. By being aware of the opportunities that present themselves in their everyday work the reflective practitioner is best placed to understand the benefits that reflection brings as they strive to support the individual needs of young children and their families. The practitioner who reflects on their work is actually utilising the same elements of the Characteristics of Effective Learning for children that are referred to in the Early Years Foundation Stage as ‘engagement, motivation and thinking’. These characteristics in turn, support what Kolb (1984) describes as active or experience-based learning – a continuous cycle, as illustrated here.
What this diagram demonstrates is that reflection does not take place as a separate activity but is instead part of a whole process of ‘active learning’ that is only possible if there is genuine involvement – just as the Characteristics of Effective Learning are not activities that in themselves have to be planned, but are instead the process of learning that takes place if the environment is consistently ‘rich’ with opportunity. The skill of the practitioner is in recognising that opportunity and utilising it, rather than conducting a singular activity in the hope that a ‘characteristic’ will be the end result. Likewise, the reflective practitioner does not have to contrive opportunities for reflection to happen but should instead be informed enough to be able to tune in to the possibilities that present themselves in their everyday work.
1. Learning conversations
One of the most important and readily available routes to reflection in our workplaces is the ‘learning conversation’. A learning conversation is a conversation with colleagues, parents or other professionals about elements of our practice or provision. The learning conversation is hugely important but often undervalued when it happens informally. Of course, there are formal learning conversations that happen during focused meetings such as staff supervisions or parent’s evenings, but there are also learning conversations that happen many times during the course of a day as practitioners think about situations as they occur, or after the event. These thoughts are then shared with colleagues as they arise, for example, “I wonder why Jack always separates the red cars from the rest when he plays with them; have you noticed that too?” A casual observation such as this can lead to a more prolonged discussion taking place, resulting in a better understanding of Jack’s interests and needs.
Taking part in and encouraging others to join in positive discussions or learning conversations will help to create an ethos of reflection in a setting so that practitioners get into the habit of thinking more carefully about what is happening around them and know that others will be interested to hear their thoughts
2. Continuing professional development
Applying new knowledge and ideas to existing practice will inevitably lead to improvement and change that benefits everyone. Opportunities for CPD can sometimes be constrained by limitations such as time, finance and availability, making it a precious (but still essential) commodity for some. However, it should not just be dependant on the quantity of CPD that is made available. The focus should instead be on individuals recording key elements of learning that have taken place when they have attended training and bringing it back to share with colleagues so that ‘learning conversations’ can take place. In this way, everyone gets to bring something to the process and together can ‘unpick’ ideas and add new possibilities to their practice.
3. Peer observation and self-evaluation
Peer observation is already used in many settings. Self-evaluation is also encouraged, with Ofsted looking for evidence of how a setting’s team evaluates their practice and is able to plan for improvement. Some practitioners will find the idea of being observed by a colleague a daunting prospect that they will avoid if they possibly can, whilst others will be uncomfortable with the idea of observing a colleague and giving feedback, assuming that it will focus on what they are not doing well and need to improve upon. The opposite is in fact true: peer observation and self-evaluation should instead be focused on what people do well and how they can further develop in other areas too.
An understanding of peer observation and self-evaluation will be essential for those practitioners who opt to take part in the joint observation alongside the Ofsted inspector during inspection. The Inspector should be able to gain a sense of how well established self-evaluation is by the participation of the observer and the usefulness of the feedback given to colleagues after the observation has taken place. The inspector will also be alert to the ‘awareness’ of the observer as to what is actually happening around them and how this in turn translates itself to feedback that improves practice.
Whether they come about through specially arranged events or through informal contact with other settings and professionals, a network is a supportive system for sharing information and ideas that will facilitate reflection. With increased emphasis on partnership working and linking families to the services they need when extra support is required, networking can really support the development of professional skills and rapport as practitioners in related areas of work begin to see clear links between what they provide and seek ways to work together, rather than citing confidentiality or professional boundaries as a reason for working in isolation.
There are of course many, many more opportunities to reflect on practice that will lead to active learning, which in turn will result in action planning for change and improvement. Above all else, reflective practice is always going to enable effective practice, and effective practice is the very least that the children and families we are providing for deserve.
Melanie Pilcher is policy and standards manager at the Pre-school Learning Alliance, which has a range of publications, resources and training opportunities covering reflective practice in early years settings.
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