Critical Reflection in Practice
by Kate Hodgekiss on June 2
Driving Critical Reflection
The term ‘critical reflection’ is a term which scares many educators, and for which there is a general lack of understanding.
Critical reflection is a term many in the sector find intimidating, but it shouldn’t be scary; it should be exciting and evoke feelings of passion, not fear. Philosopher and psychologist John Dewey, believed we do not simply learn from an experience, but through the art of reflecting on that experience, after the fact (Beard & Wilson, 2013). An idea which seemed to influence, not only critical reflection as a practice, but also the Reggio Emilia concept of the ‘teacher as a researcher’ — something which we will be discussing in greater detail in article five of this series. For the purpose of this piece we will be exploring what the term ‘critical reflection’ actually means, and how it can be used to drive quality educational provision and practice.
Defining Critical Reflection
As mentioned above, the term ‘critical reflection’ can evoke feelings of fear and discomfort in some educators due to the connotations of the word critical as meaning disparaging or judgemental. It has no such meaning when combined with other words, in terms such as ‘critical thinking’. Thus it is useful to first define critical reflection within the context of the early childhood profession. ‘Reflection’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary (2019) as “your written or spoken thoughts about a particular subject or topic” which in the context of early childhood could mean your thoughts about children’s learning, or educator practice. ‘Critical’ is defined by Oxford Dictionary (2019) as “Expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art” and ‘critical thinking’ (2019) as “the process of analysing information in an objective way, in order to make a judgement about it”. In early childhood the most common forms of information we would be analysing against would be the EYFS or theories prevalent to early childhood practice, learning and development — such as the theories of Bronfenbrenner, Vygotsky and Piaget (to name a few). Thus critical reflection, in early childhood, could be defined as the art of analysing and reflecting on our own thoughts about children’s learning and educator practice, against the information from the EYFS, theories of education and educational research.
Reflection can come in many shapes and forms. Three of the most common forms of reflection we see in early childhood services are the daily (or sometimes weekly/monthly) reflections of children’s learning, traditional self reflection journals, and platforms for discussion and debate. These are the areas we will be covering for the purpose of this article, but it is important to recognise that critical reflection can be much more than this in early childhood services, and the more high order techniques such as research and mentorship will be discussed in the final two articles of this series.
A Daily Reflection on Children’s Learning
Many early years settings complete a ‘daily diary’ to inform parents of the day, and frequent evaluations of the curriculum and environment. One of the wonderful ideas that have come about recently is to combine these concepts of journaling and evaluating, into regular critical reflections of learning. This allows for an analysis of learning which can also be informative to families, not only about their child’s day, but about the importance of early childhood education. Our reflections of learning which we share with families are one of our best opportunities to engage in regular advocacy. The more regularly we critically reflect on children’s learning, the more we ourselves will learn how to teach. Just as importantly, consistent critical reflection encourages meaningful, in-the-moment extensions of children’s engagement in planned experiences.
Most settings appear fairly comfortable with analysing children’s learning against the outcomes of the EYLF; however to truly critically reflect we should be looking deeper than just how children progress against the outcomes (although this is important and not to be forgotten). A critical reflection instead requires us to focus, not only on what learning is taking place (outcomes), but how that learning is occurring, and how we contribute to that as educators (principles and practices). Furthermore, to critically reflect at a professional and high quality level, we should be analysing these aforementioned factors against early childhood theory and current research in to child development.
Using the Principles and Practices of the EYFS to Guide Reflection
Understanding the principles and practices of the EYFS, including the characteristics of effective learning, is paramount to quality educational programs. Before educators can reflect against these, they will need to have a good understanding of what each area covers, and how the principles underpin the practices. Once, as educators, we have a good working knowledge of these guides, we can then use them to reflect against. As we describe children’s engagement in an experience it is helpful to think about and document how this experience (and the educators and children’s interactions within the experience) demonstrates the principles or practices. For example, is the experience holistic? Does it display intentionality? How were the educators responsive to the children in the moment? And then we must think about (and document) how this impacted the children’s engagement and learning throughout.
Using Theory to Guide Reflection
It is unfortunate that theory is not something which is covered more thoroughly in early childhood training, because the usefulness of a good working knowledge of theory is priceless. Theory is something which can assist us in really understanding the way in which children learn, and how important our role is, as a supporter of that learning. Furthermore, it reminds us of just how much we should also value the ‘care’ factor in early childhood. Take attachment theory, for example. A deep understanding of attachment theory assists us in valuing the bonds children make in the first few years of life and how significant this is to their future relationships, and thus learning. And anyone who knows Erikson will know how his first stage of psychosocial crisis (Trust VS Mistrust) supports attachment theory also.
Educators who have a good understanding of how theory underpins the principles and practices of the EYFS, will also be able to use theory to guide their critical reflections of learning. Using the above example of attachment theory, an educator who links to the principle of “Secure, respectful, reciprocal relationships” (EYLF, 2009, p. 13) will then be able to describe that same experience against the theories of John Bowlby and Erik Erikson.
Professional Reflection Journals
While the above approach involves some reflection on the educator themselves, it is important that they still have a private space to also critically reflect on their own practice. In most services, this seems to come in the form of a self-reflection journal, or a reflection section of an online system such as Tapestry. The beauty of this technique is that there is no right or wrong way to engage in this sort of reflection. Some educators, who enjoy writing and journaling naturally, will take to this practice straight away. Others may prefer to mind-map their ideas or use lists and bullet points. There really is no way you can go wrong, as long as you are analysing your own practice against a theory, idea, article, or the EYFS. This should be a personal process and is something which allows us to continue to grow, question and challenge ourselves.
Providing a Platform for Debate and Discussion
Educators should be allowed opportunities to discuss and debate current events and trends in the sector and best practice. This is something a lot of settings struggle to provide, primarily due to ratios and budgets. It can be difficult to get educators together for discussion during opening hours when they are busy with their primary role of caring for and educating the children. This can lead to educators having to participate in a lot of out-of-hours work, for which they receive no renumeration. It is a sad fact, because this type of discussion is a wonderful tool for keeping educators motivated and passionate.
One of the ways in which some settings overcome the issue of time is to utilise Tapestry. One of the traditional aspects to communication is the back and forth, or ‘serve and return’. For true collaboration there must be a two-way (at least) discussion, in which educators can engage in active listening, as well as the sharing of their ideas and opinions. Tapestry promotes this well, in its Reflections feature, where practitioners are able to discuss articles they have been reading, areas for improvement in the service, practices being explored in the UK and throughout the world, case studies, and pedagogical investigations. Reflections in Tapestry are used as a way of promoting professional and critical reflection of your practice within the context of theories, ideas and trends in the sector. Not only does this provide the platform for discussion and debate which is so necessary for quality improvement and promoting best practice, but it serves as a constant reminder to the educators that they are valued colleagues, engaged in lifelong learning and professional development.
Beard, C., & Wilson, J. P. (2013). Experiential Learning: A Handbook for Education, Training and Coaching (Third Edition edition)
‘Critical’ (2019) in Oxford Dictionary Online Retrieved September 1st, 2019 from https://www.lexico.com/en/
‘Critical Thinking’ (2019) in Oxford Dictionary Online Retrieved September 1st, 2019 from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition
‘Reflection’ (2019) in Oxford Dictionary Online Retrieved September 1st, 2019 from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition