2.2 : The Big Ideas

To start your journey around reflective writing, you'll begin by thinking about your thinking. This is the root of this practice: challenging your assumptions, and using your own thought process to move your teaching practice forward.

Reflection is moving past observation: it is using the things you see, and what you think about the things you see, to inform your future actions. You are very aware of children at a surface level: the materials they like to play with, their behavior during a read-aloud, the children they prefer to play with on the playground. This only scratches the surface, though: you probably know much more, or at least you have asked yourself some deeper questions about what you are thinking, or about what you see.

This is the start of reflection.

In this part of the course, we'll look at some of the big ideas in the arena of reflective thinking: we can't be reflective writers without an understanding of reflection itself.

John Dewey

Although people have probably been reflective thinkers for a very long time, John Dewey was the first to articulate the concept of "reflective thought".

Dewey defined reflective thinking as "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends" (1933). This sounds very serious, but it does not need to feel laborious or tedious to think or write reflectively.

Dewey differentiated between mere "thinking" and reflection - reflection being a deeper process, with one thought leading to the next, leading to the next, and so on. He said:

Now, reflective thought is like this random coursing of things through the mind in that it consists of a succession of things thought of; but it is unlike, in that the mere chance occurrence of any chance "something or other" in an irregular sequence does not suffice. Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence—a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley. Each phase is a step from something to something—technically speaking, it is a term of thought. Each term leaves a deposit which is utilized in the next term. The stream or flow becomes a train, chain, or thread.

An analogy for this kind of thinking might be those deep and wonderful conversations you have with a friend where you can hardly remember why you are talking about farming - didn't the conversation begin with trying to choose a movie to go see? The meandering of the mind, letting one idea step to the next, and to the next: Dewey saw this as productive and meaningful thinking. This is even truer when we are conscious of the process: knowing where we begin, and what we hope to achieve from the process. Dewey's belief was that we should question the origin of our beliefs, and also how they affect our actions.

This is incredibly important in a field like Early Childhood Education: we make choices for children when they are in the most neurologically active period of their growth during the lifespan. Is it good enough to Google "preschool activities" or "ABC Printables"? These things are not inherently negative, but we should think about what we offer to children: why do we make those choices?

This isn't to say that Dewey believed we should know everything: there is a spark that comes from uncertainty. I challenge you to see reflective thought like a scientist would: If a chemist is in the laboratory and has a failed experiment, she doesn't try the exact same thing over again: she looks at her notes and observations; converses with a colleague, perhaps writes the facts in a log. When she approaches the same problem again, she has reflected on the previous process, and is ready to try again, without placing blame on one factor and labelling the entire process as hopeless.


Think about your classroom for a moment. Think about something that irks you, that bothers you: it may be a certain child's inability to transition smoothly from one activity to the next; a lack of storage space; or anything else that you find yourself complaining about in your teaching environment.

Now, let’s reframe our thinking about that situation: you don't need to write, but you can if you would like to. How have you tried to solve the problem? How else?  What makes it a problem? Do other people see it as a problem?


Reflective Questions

Another big idea in reflection is the power of questions.

Reflection involves not only asking yourself questions, but asking your the right questions: the ones that will help move you forward in your thinking, leading to that flow that Dewey mentions. Think back to the scientist I mentioned above. She may begin by asking herself, "Why didn't that work?" - but that question is both too broad and too specific. Perhaps she can break it down even more: What was the same as the last time? What was different? What is one thing I might change?

One especially powerful idea is Appreciative Inquiry.  The theory of appreciative inquiry centers around the idea that we gravitate towards the questions that we ask.  

"If the questions...focus more on 'Who is to blame?', then [we] are more likely to end up with a culture of turf-guarding and finger pointing.  Conversely, if the questions asked tend to be more expansive and optimistic, then that will be reflected in the culture."

Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question

The main idea is that we live in the world that our questions create.  Reflective thinking and writing offers us the opportunity to live in the world of our questions - and the questions matter as much, if not more, than the answers that they offer.


Examples in Early Childhood

There is a wealth of information on reflective practice, specifically in Early Childhood Education, that we can draw on.

Curtis, Lebo, Cividanes, and Carter (2013) link reflective thinking to early childhood education:

“Reflective Early Childhood teachers are intentional and thoughtful about their beliefs and practices, and they continuously review and analyze their observations and experiences with young children.  They use their reflections in and out of the classroom to take actions that steadily improve their professional teaching practice.” (p. 2)  

Curtis et. al talk about “reflective teaching” -  an overarching characteristic of a teacher.  They suggest that, for the reflective teachers, “work is an ongoing process of closely observing and studying the significance of unfolding activities...Rather than just following pre-planned lessons and techniques, reflective teachers consider what they know about the particular children in their group.”

Finally, Curtis et al believe in a framework for reflective teaching, centered around four components:

  • Time for focused dialogue

  • Communities of practice

  • Facilitators and critical friends

  • Reflective protocols

The suggestions  look at reflection from the perspective of teaching teams and the individual teacher, deepening understanding through dialogue, interaction, and guided practices.

Reflective writing, which is our focus, is one way to begin on this journey as a reflective teacher, and you’ll be using writing prompts and protocol to stretch your reflective muscles and gain confidence in your writing.  Our reflections can be powerful informants for documentation, creating a cycle of deep understanding for ourselves and other stakeholders.