Voices Inside Schools: Seeing Student Learning: Teacher Change and the Role of Reflection

by Carol R. Rodgers

State University of New York at Albany

Harvard Educational Review Vol. 72 No.2 Summer 2002

In a recent issue of the Harvard Educational Review, Anne McCrary Sullivan (2000) explored the nature of attention, its development, and its critical role in learning , teaching , and research. As a poet, she suggested that art and artists can offer us a model of aesthetic sensibility—an ability to see—from which we as teachers, teacher educators, and researchers might learn. Such a sensibility, she argues, demands "a high level of consciousness about what one sees... a fine attention to detail and from: the perception of relations (tensions and harmonies); the perception of nuance (colors of meaning); and the perception of change (shifts and subtle motions)" ... this ability to "see" the world, to be present to it and all of its complexities, does not come naturally, but must be learned (230)

So begins this inspiring and illuminating article by Carol Rodgers in which she presents her approach to reflective practices, offering a "framework for reflection" through which teachers can become "present" to what is actually happening in their classrooms. Her work evolves out of John Dewey's differentiation between "routine action" and "intelligent action," where the former arises automatically without consideration and the latter results from thoughtful reflection, providing clear parallels to the principles of Mindfulness. Rodgers's framework involves three basic aspects: the slow, careful observation of selected situations in the classroom—"as an artist would," followed by a process to give meaning to what is observed, and ending with the development of a course of action. This cycle is designed to stimulate a fundamental shift: "to slow down teachers' thinking so that they can attend to what is rather than what they wish were so, and then to shift the weight of their thinking from their own teaching to their students' learning." Rodgers writes, "as teachers gain skill in this kind of extended reflection, they become more able to respond thoughtfully in the moment."

Between the lines of Rodgers' introductory paragraphs I hear the common Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind"—the habit of approaching everything we do as if we have no idea what we are doing. This mental stance prepares us to learn in ways we couldn't previously predict. In such a messy business as teaching, where one person is given the work of creating the conditions for 20 - 30 different students’ learning, outcomes are rarely black and white. Standing in front of 2o pairs of eyes creates a vulnerability in teachers that can make it very hard to separate what is actually happening from how we are experiencing it and feeling it. That is why reflective practices are crucial. The risk of vulnerability is so high that our egos will do whatever it takes to avoid perceiving flaws that might be obvious to others. In addition, we are often handed evidence every day that what we do isn't working—students act out, fall asleep, avert their eyes or worse. Developing a practice of objective observation is essential not only to gaining important insights into what students are actually learning, but to slowly relax the ego's defenses so that we can perceive what is happening in our classrooms moment to moment with more clarity and equanimity. Rodgers writes: “The first phase of the reflective cycle focuses on this ability to be present. The more a teacher is present, the more she perceives; the more she perceives, the greater the potential for an intelligent response (234).” With that clarity and equanimity we can respond in each moment with wisdom instead of defense, fear, judgement, etc. "As David Kolb (1984) notes, transformative growth comes through reflection on experience where such ideas and practices illuminate teachers' practice rather than usurp it." (232) Rodgers continues:

... I have found that a process of reflection that is rigorous and systematic and therefore distinct from ordinary thought (Dewey, 1933) slows down the teaching/learning process, revealing rich and complex details, allowing for appreciation., and paving the way for a considered response rather than a less thoughtful reaction (Johnson, 1998). As teachers gain skill in this kind of extended reflection, they become more able to respond thoughtfully in the moment. I have also found that they simply become more interested and curious about the work they do.

Given the profound vulnerability teachers experience and natural biases they hold, it follows that a non-judgmental, committed and compassionate community needs to surround the reflective practice in order for valuable, accurate observations and insights to arise instead of defense and/or self-judgement. "Reflection demands community and the diverse perspectives on practice that community brings (Dewey, 1938)(233)." In this way community becomes an essential part of the observation phase of Rodgers' reflective practice. Close attention is paid to community norms in order to better hold this inherently risky process. First, respect for each other's stories is emphasized alongside the "prohibition of giving advice." Rodgers speaks to how "solutions tend to present themselves," a process akin to the Eastern perspective of allowing wisdom to arise naturally.

Another barrier teachers may encounter in this process is a common perception that we know more about "learning" than students. Rodgers writes: "Once students begin to reveal the truth about their experience as learners, it is difficult for a teacher to pretend that learning is happening when it is not (233)." So even if a teacher does understand that students have valuable insights into their learning or lack of learning, it is a very scary step to open his or herself up to that "truth." Once it's revealed, the teacher cannot hide behind shiny lesson plans and the latest educational fad. And this is where it gets so tricky. Rodgers offers a directive: "Teachers' classroom practice must be seen as an integrated, focused response to student learning rather than as a checklist of teaching behaviors." Rodgers is asking teachers to step out onto the dance floor with a new partner every moment. Anyone who has been "led" in a dance by a skilled dancer can feel how s/he guides without forcing, responds to his/her partner's movements without a sense of correction but collaboration. What is most amazing is that a skilled leader makes a different dance out of his or her partner’s mistakes. This is what Rodgers asks us to do. She writes: “The question is less one of being satisfied with the appearance of learning (engagement) than it is of knowing, through a process of inquiry, what students are learning and how they are learning it (236).”

I think one of the most challenging directives Rodgers offers is this: "...in order to know what students know and how they know it, teacher have to create activities, a curriculum and a learning environment that reveal learning rather than just answers, which represent only the very end of the learning process (233)." If the goal is to "reveal learning" then a teacher must constantly face the places where students aren't learning. Essentially it requires developing an ease with failure—a real paradigm shift around how we view and respond to our own flaws. Tremmel’s article "Zen and the Art of Reflective Practice in Teacher Education" continues to come to mind since the reflective practice requires the development of equanimity as we sit with the learning and lack of learning that is happening in our classroom. Without equanimity teachers will lean on an instinctive and institutionally supported response to that lack of learning—more elaborate lesson plans, picking up the latest teaching fad, reading more research—when what is required at this juncture is compassionate curiosity and openness to the ambiguity. The teacher must pause here and ask the community, “Help me to see what I am not yet able to see.” Rodgers writes:

Reflection keeps at this tendency to interpret and react to events by first slowing down to see, then describing and analyzing what happened, and finally strategizing steps for intelligent action that, once carried out, become the next experience and fodder for the next round of reflection (234).

Rodgers continues with a description of the four phases of the Reflective Cycle: Presence in Experience, Description of Experience, Analysis of Experience, Experimentation.

At this point Rodgers attends thoroughly to her understanding of the word “presence” as being different from “being present.” She believes “being present” is a state of being that is one part of several “disparate acts” that make up “having a presence.” She writes:

I view presence as inclusive of several disparate acts that together comprise the whole process of reflection—seeing learning, differentiating its parts, giving it meaning, and responding intelligently—in the moment and from moment to moment. It also implies a particular stance or way of being (235).

This is a specific distinction and one that I think Tremmel would argue. I believe he would maintain “presence” and “being present” as separate from the acts of “differentiating its parts” and “giving it meaning” as a way to avoid overlaying a “technical rationality (Tremmel, 437)” onto a process that “reaches beyond what we can say we can know to what we know but cannot say (Tremmel, 435).” I think there is a valid case for this separation, primarily because there is such a deeply ingrained habit in our culture to rush to analysis. I agree that we should remain in what Donald A. Schon calls the “swampy lowlands where situations are confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technical solutions.” However, it is clear that regardless of any argument on this point, the spirit of Rodgers’ guidance around this phase of the reflective cycle honors its unknowable, unquantifiable aspects. Her language speaks to this alignment: “It is a way of encountering the world of the classroom, but it also includes a way of acting within it whereby the action that one takes comes out of one’s sensitivity to the flow of events (235).” She goes on to refer to Tremmel’s work specifically, likening presence to the state of mindfulness. In addition, I think her choice of including this John Dewey quote reveals Rodgers intimate understanding of the “swampy lowland” that Schon refers to:

The teacher must be alive to all forms of bodily expression of mental condition -- to puzzlement, boredom, mastery, the dawn of an idea, feigned attention, tendency to show off, to dominate discussion because of egotism, etc. -- as well as sensitive to the meaning of all expression in words. He must be aware not only of their meaning, but of their meaning as indicative of the state of mind of the pupil, his degree of observation and comprehension. (1933, p.275, italics in original)

If any doubts remain as to where Rodger’s heart lies relative to the issues of “technical rationality” versus “presence” they will surely be assuaged by how much space she dedicates to the topic in her article and by her inclusion of two very non-academic topics: passion and love.

As I have tried to grasp and articulate the essential nature of presence, I have come to feel that it includes two qualities that are not generally associated with attention or awareness, which I see more detached and less personal than presence. These two qualities are generally taboo in academic circles, namely love and passion. By love I do not mean romantic or sexual love, but a kind of wide-open acceptance of the other that is free of judgement and filled with honor for their capacities as learners. For me, passion means not only a passion for my subject matter but for the human endeavor of learning. There is energy and curiosity associated with passion that, in my experience, keeps one alert to and engaged with a particular situation or person (236).

She then artfully pulls the conversation back to the work of teaching and learning by speaking to the importance of the teacher’s mastery of the subject. Echoing Parker Palmer’s thoughts on “subject-centered teaching” in his book The Courage to Teach, Rodgers highlights how important it is for the teacher to be free to attend to what is happening in the moment. She quotes Dewey from How We Think:

Unless the teacher’s mind has mastered the subject matter in advance unless it is thoroughly at home in iit, using it unconsciously without need of express thought, he will not be free to give full time and attention to observations and interpretations of the pupils’ intellectual reactions.

This brings to mind the job of the elite athlete, musician, artist, which is to practice the mechanics of their pursuit so much that they can let go of thinking about it in order to bring artistry to it. I can feel that when I teach certain aspects of English, like writing, that I know so well. Other areas are so mechanical that all I seem to be able to do is move through the agenda until the bell rings.

Rodgers moves on to the next phase of the Descriptive Cycle she calls “Description. She writes, “The point of this phase of the cycle is, through collaboration, to dig up as many details as possible, from as many different angles as possible, so that one is not limited to the sum of one's own perceptions (238).” She talks about the “discipline of description,” which forces teachers to “slow down, to look, and to see the variety and nuance present in such moments before leaping to action (238).” This discipline reminds me very much of the Zen practice of staying in the moment. It takes a strict discipline versus the more gentle approach of many western mindfulness techniques. In this practice Rodgers describe we don’t simply allow the mind to wander, create stories, rest in assumptions, or judge, we bring it back over and over again to the focus space, which in this case is the classroom action right in front of the teacher.

Rodgers then provides some helpful ways to develop this discipline. She thoroughly explores the very human factors that makes such a practice difficult: the tendency to interpret versus describe; the habitual reliance on unexamined assumptions; the limitation of the biased lens through which we view the world; the fear of finding out what students really are or aren’t learning. She writes: “I have found that exploring the source of those interpretations often leads students to confront their unexamined assumptions about teaching, learning, their students, subject matter, school, and ultimately fundamental values that they hold (239).” Again, Rodgers points out, it is the community of educators who participate in the Reflective Cycle together that neutralizes the power of these factors. Rodgers focuses on the last factor as the kingpin in the process. She writes:

As reflective practitioners, it is essential that teachers not only learn to see but that they learn to see through their students’ eyes. In effect, teachers and students become partner in inquiry. It has been my experience that the use of structured feedback often represents the turning point in teachers’ awareness of the centrality of students’ learning. … [Teachers] become at once more aware of and more curious about it (244)”

In this way, the Descriptive phase of the process, with the support of the community, becomes a positive feedback loop.

From Description she moves on to “Analysis of Experience: Learning to Think Critically and Create Theory,” describing it as “the phase where meaning-making happens (244).” She points out that this phase might call for a return to the descriptive phase to seek more data, which in turn might lead to a different analysis. Her first point about analysis is that all...

..theory generated about teaching and learning must be grounded in the text of the teachers’ experience—that is, in the evidence that arises from the description of practice. In turn, this evidence needs to be looked at from various perspectives and rigorously questioned so that explanations and theories are not allowed to stand on selective data (245)

The second point Rodgers makes about analysis is “the need for the group of teachers to generate a common language (246), which “can be forged by the group or borrowed from existing frameworks drawn from research, philosophy (247).” Within this point is the need to “give careful attention to theories from outside the immediates community of inquiry.” So just as Rodgers requires a community to broaden the perspective of the individual she also calls for the community to reach out to “paradigms and frameworks from research on teaching … to expand ways of naming and understanding experience (248). ” I think this is a very important point that is sometimes lost on teachers who have understandably pushed back against the tide of research, new approaches, and educational fads and have hunkered down in their own personal, organic process of teaching. The frameworks offered by theorists and philosophers provide a very helpful structure within which to explore a very complex and messy process.

Out of the analysis phase comes Experimentation: Learning to Take Intelligent Action, “the last as well as the initial phases of the reflective cycle because it doubles as the next experience (249).” After spending a long time in the description and analysis, the community offers different strategies to the teacher. This leads to experimentation by the teacher and the cycle begin again. The cycle is not complete without experimentation and reflection. The result of the cycle though is not just a well developed strategy but as Rodgers writes, teachers “become more sensitive to the fact that good teaching is a response to students’ learning rather than the cause of students’ learning, becoming more curious about and aware of learning as they do (250).”

I was not exposed to the concept of Reflective Practices when I was in college, so Rodger’s article was on one hand a new and fascinating approach and on the other hand, because of my mindfulness training, something I do instinctively. Still, it took reading Rodgers’ article three times before I began to appreciate the immensity of the work she is inviting us to do. Concurrently, my appreciation for the ambition of this process grew alongside it’s possible benefits. Therefore, it makes sense that I would feel intimidated by the process.

I can identify two factors that will challenge me in my own process with the Descriptive Cycle. First, I do not have access to a structured community that meets regularly to engage in this process. Second, I do not feel I have adequate mastery of my subject matter, English, to attend to the classroom in the way that Dewey describes. I do have, however, strong mindful awareness skills that make me naturally curious moment to moment and full of love, or what I call unconditional positive regard. Just this Friday, I engaged in a difficult conversation about learning with a very challenging class of kids who don’t value school or learning, therefore they don’t value what I offer and would rather have worksheets every day. Thanks to my mindfulness practice and training at the therapeutic school where I worked, I was able to use the framework of understanding, awareness and intention to look at some of the issues outside of the class that inform their perspective. And then I was able to enlist the practice of unconditional positive regard to stay open to their words, propose a strategy and come in on Monday with a new experiment. While this process I just described is something I do often and comes under the umbrella of reflective practices, it is missing the community element and therefore the real power of the process.

I plan to enlist a colleague with whom I regularly share stories and discuss ideas, to work with me once a week during this practice. I am hopeful she will read the Rodgers article and become an active part of this process.