Reflecting on Practice
Recognizing the importance of "learning by doing" has a long tradition in education. In our work at TERC, we don't just talk about science, we set up activities in which students "do" hands-on, preferably inquiry-based, science activities. Implementing this science in the classroom often requires a change in the way teachers teach. Therefore, understanding how to promote teacher change and how to provide appropriate support for teachers as they change their teaching practice should be part of implementing inquiry-based, hands-on science.
Changing one's behavior requires a self-conscious focus. Our habitual ways, by the very nature of being habits, can go on without our thinking about what we are doing. This tendency frees us to concentrate on other issues and questions, which is a real benefit. However, to break habitual patterns we need to spend time thinking about what we actually do. Typically, this is hard for teachers who have little time and few opportunities to think about or discuss their concerns. Any number of teachers could acknowledge the following comment that one teacher made during an interview.
When I talk with you, I think about things. This is great for me, because I don't get a chance to think about what I am doing and how it influences my students and how I feel, because no one asks me.... I've been teaching for 18 years and no one has wanted to listen.
In workshops at TERC we ask teachers to become learners and to experience for themselves the "doing" of science activities. Still, only doing is not enough. Customarily, we help facilitate teacher reflection after hands-on activities by using discussion groups and journal writing (see "Reflective Practice," Hands On! Fall 1992). Recently, however, we have come to supplement journal writing with another, more systematic process that has as its objective the "doing of reflection." Such an exercise can be thought of as a cognitive tool that is inwardly directed to help our thinking.
We have developed an exercise called Reflecting on Practice to support and catalyze teachers' efforts to change the ways in which they teach. Reflecting on Practice serves three specific functions: It is a way to facilitate more systematic teacher reflection, a way to deepen teachers' understanding of inquiry-based science, and a model for teachers to use in structuring the reflection of their students. The exercise consists of 4 a four-step process. (See also An Exercise for Reflecting on Practice, later in this article.)
In our teacher workshop we introduce Reflecting on Practice by using a set of descriptions written by five teachers to describe how they do inquiry-based science (see Figure 1)
The dialogue with colleagues has been for me most exciting and really an "ah ha" experience. I never would have predicted that I would learn so much from another group's perspective. I loved discussing ideas and challenging mine and other perspectives on the work done. I did not feel competitive (which I bet is a problem in the real world) but felt like a real scientist searching for answers and open to new insights . . . I have loved this so much it makes me sick to think I never thought of myself as "scientific" because of a lack of exposure in grade school to any science. I believe I would have devoted my life to something different perhaps if I had been encouraged to ask why [and] then given the opportunity to find out.
At a local school in Cambridge, we have used Reflecting on Practice with the hands-on activity Watching the Drops (see Figure 4). After completing Steps 1 and 2 of the process, participants observed a desktop novelty, which is a small cylinder with opaque caps at each end. The drops cylinder is filled with a clear liquid, and when it is turned over, colored drops (blue or green, for instance) fall from the top cap, move along a spiral ramp inside the cylinder, and disappear into the bottom cap, only to drop again when the cylinder is turned over.
In this science activity, the participants worked in groups of four to six, each group having its own cylinder. The groups focused on generating questions about the activity as they watched the behavior of the drops.
The whole group talked about adding more continua and questions to the three listed in the introductory activity with the teacher descriptions. Five more questions were agreed upon (see Figure 5), and then the groups used Reflecting on Practice to help them think about the Watching the Drops activity.
Placements along the eight continua were typically very scattered, sometimes covering the whole spectrum from left to right. The groups explained their rationales for the ratings they made. Their explanations revealed their very different interpretations of the continua. After much discussion, the participants eliminated some of the differences and came to a more common understanding--at least they moved their placements to the same general region of the continua.
In those cases for which the differences were not reconciled, the groups retained their widely varying interpretations of the activity they had just completed. As is characteristic of newcomers to inquiry-based science, the groups needed to understand that continua are not scales for ranking bad to good. Unanimity is not the goal; provoking thought and further discussion is. For these participants, this goal was achieved.
As teachers sense the power of Reflecting on Practice, they apply it as a tool to gain insight to their own learning during the workshops and afterward. In fact, we as developers have experienced an interesting effect as we further refine the process for use at workshops--our own understanding of inquiry-based science continues to deepens.
As well as doing, we can think about what we are doing. As well as perceiving, we can reflect upon our experience. Piaget called this "reflective abstraction." Conscious self-reflection is slow to develop, and we mature as individuals to the extent that we can look at our own functioning.
Figure 4. Drops cylinder
Figure 5. Five continua added by workshop participants
An Exercise for Reflecting on Practice
For the workshop leader: Use the Reflecting on Practice process as a tool for teachers to examine their learning as they engage in inquiry based activities related to the content of the workshop. Focus on having participants exercise science process skills such as asking questions, making observations, and interpreting data. Schedule at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours for this exercise.
Break into small groups of three to five each. Introduce Reflecting on Practice and explain the representation using the three continua, pointing out that these are not meant to be value graded from bad to good. In the small groups, each participant should make placements for the five teacher descriptions on each of the continua before comparing placements and reaching consensus as a small group. This small group process is then repeated later for the whole group.
Have the small groups discuss their placements, especially the differences in their placements. Then repeat this step for the whole group. The following questions can be raised if they have not already been addressed by the participants.
Emphasize that Reflecting on Practice is a tool, not an end in itself. As the workshop continues, have participants use this tool to reflect on their learning in carrying out activities. Suggested activities include Watching the Drops, microcomputer-based explorations, or any other investigations that employ science process skills.
Have participants record their thinking on and learning from the science activities. Encourage the participants to discuss their experiences with colleagues and to find ways to continue their reflecting on practice.
Simon, S.A., & Jones, A.T. (1992). Open work in science: A review of existing practice. OPENS Project, Centre of Educational Studies, King's College, University of London.
Weir, S. (1987). Cultivating minds. New York: Harper & Row.
Dr. Sylvia Weir worked as a developer and trainer on Hands-On Elementary Science. She is currently project director of Literacy in a Science Context.
Tim Barclay worked as a curriculum developer and workshop leader on HandsOn Elementary Science. He is currently project director of Hands-On Universe.
Reflecting on Practice was used in Hands-On Elementary Science workshops.