REA conference, part three

For the Saturday morning breakout sessions at the Religious Education Association annual conference, I went to Ryan Gardner’s presentation titled “Improving Teacher Reflection in the Religious Education Classroom.” Gardner is doing his Ph.D. research on how paid religious education teachers at the Latter Day Saints Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (S&I).

Gardner introduced his work on teacher reflection with a quote from Joseph Smith, who once wrote about “serious reflection and great uneasiness.” Gardner suggested that often serious reflection by religious education teachers can often lead to great uneasiness. Certainly, this has been my experience supervising volunteer teachers, and I found it very interesting to talk about how serious reflection may often lead to greater uneasiness for teachers, at least in the short term.

His doctoral dissertation aims to come up with a practical, useable model for teacher reflection. He has recently concluded a research phase, where he did intensive qualitative field research of six S&I teachers, trying to determine what kinds of reflection they engaged in as teachers. He led us through his theoretical approach, and wound up presenting us with an instrument for teacher reflection.

Gardner asked us to reflect on a recent “teaching event” in which we had been the teacher. Then he asked us to use his instrument to reflect on our teaching, guiding us through it step by step. I am more accustomed to using narrative accounts (e.g., these excerpts from my teaching diary) to reflect on my own teaching, so I was interested to work through a different approach to teacher self-reflection.

Gardner’s model, based on his qualitative research, is a paper-and-pencil instrument (a worksheet, if you will) that guides you through a series of reflection questions. The first column, labeled “Teaching event,” asks questions like these: “Who was the teacher?”; “Who were the students?”; “What was the context of this event?” The next four columns take you through four different types of reflection, as follows:

1. Technical reflection, i.e., the kinds of things you did as a teacher, what the students did, and other technical matters.

2. Descriptive reflection, i.e., reflecting on why I chose the teaching methods I used, on how the students’ actions affected their learning, etc.

3. Dialogic reflection, i.e., comparing what I do as a teacher with the way other teachers work, comparing what I did with what I have read about teaching practices, etc.

4. Critical reflection, i.e., reflecting on how what I did aligns (or doesn’t align) with my sense of mission as a religious educator, etc.

Gardner said that in his model, all four types of reflection are important. In his model, technical reflection overlaps with descriptive reflection, and descriptive reflection overlaps with critical reflection, while dialogic reflection can serve to tie the other three types together. Gardner pointed out that at times, teachers may tend to get bogged down in one type of reflection; but his research shows that it’s important to move through all four types of reflection.

Gardner is still refining this instrument for his dissertation, but as it stands I found it a helpful way to structure my reflection on teaching; and I’m thinking about presenting it to some of my volunteer teachers, to see fi they find it useful.

At the end of the workshop, we participants were talking with Gardner about how teachers shy away from using teacher reflection instruments and tools. He said that in his research, teacher often report that they don’t have enough time to do much (or any) teacher reflection. While it is true that teacher are often very pressed for time, I suggested that perhaps the lack of time is only the presenting issue, and that the underlying issue is that engaging in teacher reflection means facing up to one’s weaknesses and failures as a teacher, which can mean confronting feeling of shame and humiliation; we so rarely live up to our ideals as teachers, and it’s not fun knowing how much we fall short of those ideals. We all agreed, though, that instruments like this one might help teachers break down their self-reflection into smaller chunks that are easier to take.

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