Reflection: The Vehicle for Continuous Improvement

Reflection can help deal with ambiguity, stress and change. In our work, we often have to cope with new, unique problems we have not met before. The ability to reflect is essential to recognising and confronting the uncertainly we feel as we try to deal with these problems.

All this means that reflection is not a bland or innocuous process—it is central to becoming a powerful, critical professional who is prepared to challenge the way things are done.

Quality Improvement Agency for Lifelong Learning

This past week was mind-bending in a multitude of ways. Our district was fortunate to have Bill Ferriter from North Carolina present as part of our Engaging the Digital Learner Series: Going Deeper. Bill encouraged teachers to be innovative with their practice and to ask students to do work that truly matters. Bill challenged us to create highly engaged learning spaces to meet the needs of the iGeneration. The impact of his message on the audience of 280educators was electrifying. Even our district’s twitter feed was working overtime as educators responded to the session, sharing their learning in the room.

For me, there was an ironic juxtaposition between encouraging educators to push the boundaries of their practice, connecting students to others around the world to solve real and meaningful problems while simultaneously pausing to examine our practice in the light of Internet safety and privacy issues.  The timing was coincidental but we (Dan Turner, Director of IMS and myself) had invited Alec Couros to come to our district to examine our practices and give us advice on the work we are doing. Alec is a well-regarded Professor of Education Technology at the University of Saskatchewan, a sought-after presenter, and a thought leader on navigating the digital highway (see here). Together, we are looking at important questions, such as:

  • What does governing a progressive, innovative, digital, 24/7, 21st century learning environment look like?
  • How can we create safe, collaborative environments for student and staff to personalize their learning while maximizing the use of Web 2.0 tools?
  • How can we navigate the risks successfully?
  • What are the checks and balances we need moving forward as a district?
  • What safeguards need to be in place to ensure the “walled garden” provides safe opportunities for students to become responsible digital citizens?
  • Conversely, outside of the “walled garden,” what safeguards need to be in place to ensure students become responsible digital citizens?

If the world is indeed our classroom–we can now see and almost touch it through technology–we need to ensure we are preparing students to navigate the digital landscape both safely and successfully.  We also want to make sure that we are using technology for meaningful work and not for mere digital entertainment.

Alec Couros was collecting data on this visit. We were approaching the questions and our dilemma through a case study analysis. We arranged for him to visit some lead schools and teachers (George Vanier Elementary, Johnston Heights Secondary and Bonaccord Elementary) to find out how their students were engaging in the digital space and what safeguards were in place. We want to find a way to put systems into place to ensure ALL of our schools are engaging in best practices navigating the new digital frontier.  We did not want to select schools where we knew they were doing it “right” but schools where they were stretching the boundaries of their practice. We also had Alec interview selected individuals (Helping Teachers, IMS staff and Senior leaders) that could provide him with a snapshot of the burning issues or concerns that arise when you release students and teachers to learn using 21st century ideals.

I was fortunate enough to attend many of these interviews. Teachers and administrators described what the students in their classes and schools were doing. Teachers are providing amazing learning experiences for students. The dialogue was rich. The conversations frank. Dilemmas were discussed and potential solutions explored.  Not all of the questions were comfortable for us. Sometimes we need to be a little uncomfortable. It provides us with the motivation to change. When you invite an expert in, there is a large measure of vulnerability that goes along with that. The learning for all of us at the table was valuable and thought provoking.

For me personally, having someone examine our work in the district was a reflective exercise on my leadership. I had the “should have” experience. I should have communicated more. I should have provided more guidance. I should have demonstrated more leadership when I knew things needed to be done. I should have spent more time doing XX. I should have delegated other duties and made these ones a priority. I should have spoken up at critical meetings. Why didn’t I insist that some of these matters were important and we needed to find agreement and resolution as a district?  If principals and teachers do not know or have the information they need to ensure students are educated appropriately, we in district positions bear that responsibility. Clearly, I should have carved out time to stop and think about the work on a larger scale rather than rush from meeting to meeting to attend the urgent as opposed to that which is truly important. “For many practitioners, doing swallows up learning” (see Joy Amulya, italics mine). I needed more of a reflective pause to determine what really mattered.

Of course, I have excuses. I could make lists of them. At the end of the day, however, the responsibility for guiding the educators in our district rests on my shoulders as a Director of Instructor with Technology in my portfolio. I share that responsibly with other Senior Leaders but, for the most part, the buck stops at my doorstep. Having had the opportunity for some sleep, some family distraction, some unrelated reading, a longish run in the fresh air, a late afternoon nap—I can now step back and see it more objectively. Dissonance and a “should have” experience is not such a bad thing; it will motivate me to ensure we come out at the other end in the best possible position we can be in. Even the Wikipedia entry on Reflective Practice notes, “In particular, people in leadership positions have a tremendous development opportunity if they engage in reflective practice” (italics mine).

At the end of Alec’s time with us, he will prepare a white paper (of sorts) and we will have recommendations to help move us forward. I look forward to benefiting from his expertise (and of those he interviewed). We hope it is a document that other districts might find valuable as well. Our goal is to continue to be innovative, providing rich learning opportunities for students and teachers that make sense for our generation of learners. We do this is the context of continuous improvement. As we engage in “deeper forms of reflection, it becomes possible to identify learning edges, those questions or issues that an individual or group is seeking to understand in order to advance their work” (see Amulya).  I want to be on the learning edge to push the boundaries of what we can do in education. We engage in reflective practice as a form of purposeful learning (see Amulya). It drives us to action and is the vehicle for continuous improvement. I look forward to the journey.

6 responses to “Reflection: The Vehicle for Continuous Improvement

  1. Elisa – is it refreshing to know that School District leaders such as yourself and Dan Turner are taking a serious look at the privacy vs openness question. Too often education systems are on an extreme end of that continuum. I see it as a thoughtful (and legal) balance and more of us need to publicly find the right balance. I look forward to learning from your work in Surrey on this front!


    • innovativelearningdesigns

      Thanks, Brian. The conversations with Alec are fascinating. He is really quite brilliant. It is a wonderful learning opportunity for all of us.

  2. In medicine we talk about Deliberately Practicing the art and skill of medicine. This involves 3 steps that could be refocused to other types of learning:
    1. Address problems at the upper level of their ability
    • Take an educational history
    • Plan appropriate challenges at least once a week
    • Suggest an independent learning project of interest to the student

    2. Develop a livelong habit of self monitoring (seek out blind spots)
    Assist students to identify their strengths
    Provide students with opportunities to identify and correct mistakes in a safe environment
    Reflective Learning
    Reflection and reflective practice

    3. Repeat tasks to improve performance
    • Guide through multiple cases
    • Skills and knowledge increase with repetition to the point where you are unconsciously competent (automatic)
    • Key is timely feedback to prevent mistakes that might result in becoming unconsciously incompetent.

    • innovativelearningdesigns

      Thank you for the comment and the thoughtful steps on deliberately practicing medicine. These could certainly be adapted for us in education and for me as a learner.

  3. There are many successful techniques for investing teaching practice with reflection. Some of these have been mentioned above, including action research. Action research conducted in teacher education programs can be designed to engage the reflective participation of both pre-service and in-service teachers. Rearick (1997) describes the benefits of this activity for both groups, as well as for the teacher educator, as used in a professional development project at the University of Hartford. In this project, experienced teachers identified knowledge, thinking, and problem-solving techniques and decision-making processes they used in designing instruction for language arts curricula. Based on these discussions, a pre-service course agenda for teaching reading and writing was developed. Students taking the course developed portfolios, conducting their own action research in the process. These students also formed a critical learning community, developed modes of inquiry, and shared their diverse ways of valuing, knowing, and experiencing.

    • innovativelearningdesigns

      Hi Janice. Thanks for your comments. Our district’s priority practices include collaborative inquiry. We have many action research initiatives together with inquiry based projects that are focused on teacher’s reflecting on that practice. Our research department just started a new blog, you may find it of interest: We also use the The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Fichtman-Dana and Yendol-Hoppey as one of key sources. You may be familiar with that work. Thanks for your thoughts!

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