Asian Journal of English Language Teaching Vol. 7, 1997, pp. 1-19
© 1997 CUHK English Lanuage Teaching Unit

Reflective Teaching:
Situating Our Stories

Kathleen M. Bailey
The Chinese University of Hong Kong and
Monterey Institute of Language Education

This paper combines the research tradition of the literature review and the literary device of flashbacks, in the form of vignettes, to examine the notion of reflective teaching. The paper answers four questions: (1) What is reflective teaching? (2) How is reflective teaching different from what we've always done? (3) How is reflective teaching different from action research? and (4) Why is reflective teaching worth doing? Examples from the author's professional history are used to illustrate three conceptions of teaching (Freeman, 1996): teaching as doing (the behavioral view), teaching as thinking and doing (the cognitive view), and teaching as knowing what to do (the interpretivist view). A case is made for the value of reflective teaching as a practice, an attitude, a way of being professional, and as a source of potentially insightful solutions to problems.

In late August, 1996, the South China Morning Post ran a story about Piers Gray, a recently deceased playwright and professor of English who had taught for many years at a prestigious university in Hong Kong. The story reported that Gray had died an untimely death, his failing health allegedly exacerbated by alcohol abuse. The author examined Gray's teaching career and his work as a playwright, and then speculated about what had led such an intelligent and apparently successful man to be so disappointed with life that he would let it go so quickly. The story quotes Gray's brother, Simon, as having said, "I don't think his colleagues appreciated him very much. And besides, the drudgery of teaching English as a second language day after day must have been crushing." (In point of fact, Piers Gray did not teach ESL, but I did not know this at the time.)

I was stunned. I stopped and reread the paragraph, thinking maybe my eyes had skipped a line, and I had missed some key information -- perhaps a clause about teaching ESL being the one bright spot in Gray's life. But no. The quote was there, as I had first read it: "the drudgery of teaching English as a second language day after day must have been crushing." Could Simon Gray have been talking about my profession? I stopped reading to ponder why a career that is for me so rewarding might seem to someone else to be a form of spirit-crushing drudgery.

The inaccuracies in this newspaper report, the attitude behind Simon Gray's opinion of ESL teaching, and the factors which led up to his brother's death are not open to my scrutiny. But I can look at my own career as a language teacher and ask the part of that question which is accessible to me: "Why do I find teaching English as a second or foreign language so engrossing, so challenging, and so energizing? Why has my experience in the ESL/EFL profession been so rewarding to me?" These questions led me to reflect upon the profession and upon scenes from the past, presented here as vignettes. I will use these flashbacks as a literary device to illustrate my ideas on teaching and particularly on reflective teaching.

Freeman (1996) has written about the evolution of three perspectives that are widely held in research on teaching. The first is the behavioral view, which focuses on what teachers actually do, and attempts to connect their actions to student learning. The second is the cognitive view, which sees skilled teaching as a combination of thinking and doing. Kwo provides a good summary: "Recent research on teaching and teacher education has brought a shift of emphasis to teachers' thought processes. With descriptions of the mental activities of teachers, appreciation of the visible behaviors of teachers has been broadened" (1994, p.113).

The third perspective is the interpretivist view, which sees skilled teaching as knowing what to do. Research in this vein has revealed that experienced and effective teachers interpret the available information in their own particular settings, make decisions, and act on them. It is within this context, the interpretivist view of teaching, that I wish to address the topic of reflective teaching. I hope the brief vignettes, or stories, printed here will partially illustrate a process of teacher development. In fact, Freeman has also written about "teachers' knowledge as stories" (1996, pp.100-101). He explains,

Teachers and learners know the story of the classroom well, but they usually do not know how to tell it, because they are not often called upon to do so, nor do they usually have opportunities. Researchers, curriculum developers, and policy makers, on the other hand, are very skilled at telling certain things about classrooms; however, they often miss the central stories that are there... (p.90).
Freeman continues, "To refer to what teachers know in order to teach as "stories" is not to trivialize it. In fact, much recent work in education has focused on...narrative ways of knowing...." He adds an important point about the author's voice: "If the teller of the story of teaching is the teacher, we can be permitted access to valuable insights. Although we need to acknowledge the strengths and the shortcomings that such access provides us, we must also recognize its basic legitimacy" (p.90).

I will argue in this paper that the practice of reflective teaching helps us, as professional teachers, to examine our work. Active participation in reflective teaching provides us with data and with procedures which bring coherence out of complex cognitive processing and give shape to massive amounts of activity. In effect, reflective teaching allows us to situate our stories. To illustrate, in the sections that follow, I will pose and answer four questions, which are listed as main headings in the text.

What is Reflective Teaching?

First let us ask, what is meant by reflection? The Oxford English Dictionary (1994, p.1541) offers several definitions which are pertinent here:

  1. Reflexive influence on the mind.
  2. The action, on the part of surfaces, of throwing back light or heat...
  3. The action of a mirror or other polished surface in exhibiting or reproducing the image of an object...
  4. The action of bending, turning or folding back.
  5. The action of throwing back, or fact of being thrown or driven back...
  6. Reference, relation, connection.
  7. The action of turning back or fixing the thoughts on some subject; meditation, deep or serious consideration.
  8. A thought or idea occurring to or occupying the mind...

Throughout this paper I will use various elements of these definitions in telling some of my stories, to turn back and to fix our thoughts upon the subject of teaching.

The First Vignette:

It is the autumn of 1972. I am teaching courses in developmental and remedial reading to thirteen- and fourteen-year-old junior high school students in the southwestern desert of California. Temperatures reach 40 degrees Celsius in the shade, and the fields of carrots, melons, and cotton are immersed in fertilizer. The stench of manure from the cattle feedlots saturates the baking air. The district superintendent tells me when he hires me, "That's the smell of money, darlin'. You'll get used to it." Even though I have my secondary teaching credential, no part of my teacher training or my degree in English literature (not even Beowulf) has prepared me for the conflicts I face in this school. A few students are the children of wealthy landowners, but most are the children of those who work the land. The vast majority are Hispanic, but they are not allowed to speak Spanish at school (even though the new arrivals speak no English). The library has no books in Spanish (even though it is the mother tongue of 70% of the student body). Geraldo, who has been in the country for less than a week, watches me in numb confusion as I try to explain an assignment to him. I give up, distracted by a rubber band fight across the room, and ask Carlos to explain the task to Geraldo in Spanish. Carlos is dumb-founded at my suggestion that he should speak Spanish in school.

My senior colleague, Phyllis Corn, fights a never-ending battle in the "pull-out ESL program," trying to explain to administrators, teachers, and parents what ESL is and why it is important. Phyllis is always patient and pleasant, but I, with no ESL training or experience, am often miserable. I struggle for control and the students' attention in my classroom, grateful to my brother-in-law, a biology teacher, who taught me how to recognize and handle snakes. This skill is especially important the day I return from lunch to find a "red racer" on my desk. My willingness to hold the writhing reptile and my ability to describe its habits seem to impress the students who put it there for me to discover.

My nights are spent in a desperate scramble to find something of educational value that would interest these young people. A bulletin board reading lesson based on motorcycle advertising brochures is my only success. Seven weeks into the school year, I am involved in a serious car accident which sends me to the hospital for two months and brings an unexpected (though not entirely unwelcomed) end to my career as a junior high school reading teacher.

As a novice teacher faced with large numbers of second language learners but having no training in linguistics or ESL/EFL pedagogy, I was completely without resources. I had no intellectual or professional strategies for coping with the students' problems or improving my own teaching. The solution, I thought, lay in keeping the students busy, finding the right materials, and maintaining tight discipline in the classroom, so that the students would listen to me as I taught them. Faculty meetings and conversations in the teachers' lounge confirmed this behavioral view of "teaching as doing" (Freeman, 1996, p.91). The basketball coach, who also taught world history classes, told me, "Show a film every Friday -- they love movies, it keeps 'em quiet, and you don't have to do a thing!"

So what is meant by reflective teaching? There are many models which are influential in general education (see, for example, Tremmel, 1993; Schon, 1983, 1987; Zeichner & Liston, 1987). Writing in the area of language education, Pennington states that "the term reflective teaching has come to signify a movement in teacher education, in which student teachers or working teachers analyze their own practice and its underlying basis, and then consider alternative means for achieving their ends..." (1992, p.48). She continues, "The use of the term reflection in the context of instruction can be interpreted in the sense of (1) thoughtful consideration, as well as in the sense of (2) mirroring, symbolizing or representing" (p.48).

Another definition which has informed my thinking comes from Richards & Lockhart (1994, p.1). They state that a reflective approach to teaching is "one in which teachers and student teachers collect data about teaching, examine their attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and teaching practices, and use the information obtained as a basis for critical reflection about teaching." Because such reflection involves a critical component, reflective teaching can serve as a means of contributing to one's professional development. Richards & Lockhart go on to articulate five assumptions about teacher development (pp. 3-4):

  1. An informed teacher has an extensive knowledge base about teaching.
  2. Much can be learned about teaching through self-inquiry.
  3. Much of what happens in teaching is unknown to the teacher.
  4. Experience is insufficient as a basis for development.
  5. Critical reflection can trigger a deeper understanding of teaching.

One reason why experience is insufficient as a basis for development is that often "we teach as we have been taught" (Bailey, et al., 1996, p.11). This truism holds because of the "power exerted by the implicit models in a future teacher's own lifelong education" (p.11).

In the field of general education in the US, Lortie (1975) has called this phenomenon the "13,000-hour 'apprenticeship of observation.'" This phrase refers to the fact that, in the North American context, most teachers-in-training will have observed about 13,000 hours of teaching (in their lives as school students) before they begin their professional training as teachers. Writing in the same context, Kennedy has pointed out that the "seemingly indelible imprints" teachers gain from their own experiences as learners are "tremendously difficult to shake" (1990, p.17). Based on research conducted with language teachers, Freeman notes that "the memories of instruction gained through their 'apprenticeship of observation' function as de facto guides for teachers as they approach what they do in the classroom" (1992, p.3). Critically reflecting on our own practice, then, is one way to bring to the level of awareness what it is that we do, and why. As Larsen-Freeman has noted (1983), awareness is the first step toward being able to change our teaching practice.

Writing on a similar theme, Nunan and Lamb (1996, p.120) state that "reflecting on one's teaching, and, in the process, developing knowledge and theories of teaching, is an essential component" in the lifelong process of professional growth. They add that reflective teachers "are capable of monitoring, critiquing and defending their actions in planning, implementing and evaluating language programs" (p.120).

Wallace (1991, p.49) offers a visual model of reflective teaching. A key component of this model is the reflective cycle, a term which Wallace explains (p.56) as being "a shorthand way of referring to the continuing process of reflection on received knowledge and experiential knowledge in the context of professional action (practice)." Received knowledge is that body of information and skills which the profession recognizes and promotes as valuable, whereas experiential knowledge is the often-tacit understanding of teaching and learning which teachers develop through their own experiences.

The Second Vignette:

It is August, 1973. I am trying to teach a remedial reading lesson, but the students are exhausted. They have been on night maneuvers, and we are all drowsy, oppressed by the soporific heat of the Korean summer in the small, windowless church where our classes are held. We keep the door closed, in spite of the heat, so no one will see that half of my students are asleep, stretched out on the pews.

These students are soldiers in the Second Infantry Division of the US Army, stationed near Uijongbu, South Korea. They are "cannon fodder," they tell me, there as a buffer to slow the approach of North Korea forces, when the invasion begins. Some are Black Americans, while others are uneducated Anglo youths, many from the rural South. "Poor white trash," they call themselves. Still others are Puerto Rican soldiers or Koreans attached to the US Army -- literate and even well-educated in their own languages, but not proficient readers of English. The army, in all its infinite wisdom, has put them in my remedial reading class because, as the sergeant tells me, "These boys can't read English for a hill of beans."

The remedial reading class has been initiated because, with the end of the American military draft, the average reading grade score of the typical soldier who does not have a secondary education has dropped to the fourth-grade level (that of the average ten-year-old in the US). My students are not able to read well enough to participate in the on-duty education program instituted by the Army to help soldiers attain a high school diploma. The not-so-hidden agenda of this program, of course, is to provide them with something to do, other than digging and refilling ditches, to combat the racial tensions, alcohol abuse, and venereal disease that are rampant in the Second Infantry Division at the time.

Nothing in my training or my own educational experience has adequately prepared me to help these young men. I struggle to find relevant teaching materials. I even consider writing violent and pornographic adventure stories at the fourth-grade level, in order to get their attention and motivate them to read.

I am fascinated by the Korean soldiers, who work extremely hard. The Korean language is very different from English, and yet in some regards, these men read English better than their native-speaking counterparts. Unschooled as I am in linguistics or ESL/EFL pedagogy, I am not able to help them very much, and I know enough to know I don't know how. Filled with regret, I leave Korea on a chilly day in March, 1974, to return to the United States and enroll in graduate school to learn to be an ESL teacher.

During that year in Korea, my first extended experience of living in a culture that was not my own, I began to understand some of the situational factors that influenced my students and constrained our potential to work together. At the same time, I struggled with learning survival Korean and began to experience linguistic and professional challenges I had never even imagined before. My horizons had expanded but my skills and professional resources had not.

When I left Korea, I was eager and ready to learn to be a better teacher, and to this day I marvel at my good fortune in finding teacher educators who were eager and ready to help. They treated my experiences as stepping stones to new understanding, and introduced me to the culture of research. In Wallace's terms (1991, p.49), they built upon my "experiential knowledge" while they offered me the "received knowledge" of the field, and helped me to connect the two.

How Is Reflective Teaching Different From What We've Always Done?

In the past few years, the phrase reflective teaching has become a "buzz word" of sorts in our profession. But are the practice and philosophy of reflective teaching any different from what well-prepared, effective, caring teachers have always done? Surely skilled teachers who are concerned about their work have always examined "their attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and teaching practices" (Richards & Lockhart, 1994, p.1) and used the resulting insights to improve their teaching.

The Third Vignette

It is 1988. I am co-leading a multi-level learning strategies class in an intensive ESL program in California. One of the students is a young Asian woman named "Paa," who often seems to have trouble following directions. Paa was orphaned as a child and her schooling was interrupted for several years while she had to work to support herself. Today she is confused about a grid-based task. The students are to complete the grid individually and then work in groups to compare their results.

Paa calls me to her desk and asks me what she is supposed to do. I explain the task again, using structures and vocabulary that I know are within her lower-intermediate range of English proficiency. She listens and nods throughout this explanation, and when I finish I ask her if she understands. She says, "Yes. But what should I do?"

I am very puzzled. I ask Paa to tell me what I have just said, so I can see where the communication has broken down. She repeats my verbal instructions to me very clearly -- almost word for word. I tell her she's correct and congratulate her for listening so carefully. Paa says, "Thank you. But what should I do?"

I am stunned. Paa seems to have understood everything I said. What is the source of this confusion? I see my team-teacher has the class well in hand, so I decide to work with Paa individually. We look at the grid on her worksheet, and I suddenly realize that Paa does not understand how to use a grid. In the received knowledge of our field, she lacks the formal schemata needed to complete this task. I turn the paper over and draw a grid with her watching. I show her that the vertical columns represent one concept and the horizontal rows another. I place her hands, one on top of the other, over the grid, to see how the overlapping rows and columns make a lattice, the holes between her fingers replicating the cells in the grid. On the worksheet I have her trace her index fingers down one column and across another row until her fingers meet at a cell, where we fill in the answer together. Soon she grasps the concept of a grid. She is able to complete the task independently and joins her classmates for the group discussion.

This example illustrates the cognitive view of teaching as thinking and doing (Freeman, 1996, p.94). In this case, if I had not realized that Paa didn't understand how grids work, I might have just thought her listening comprehension was weak, or that she lacked concentration, or even that she was demanding unnecessary attention. The experience with Paa exemplifies for me the important intersection between our teaching decisions and the theoretical frameworks we study as we acquire the received knowledge of the profession. Well educated, informed teachers are able to use abstract knowledge (such as the construct of formal schemata) in making classroom decisions to improve their teaching.

I would argue, however, that reflective teaching is different from what effective teachers have always done. In particular, two key components of Richards and Lockhart's definition do indeed constitute a step forward in the field. These are the practices of collecting data about teaching, and using "the information obtained as a basis for critical reflection about teaching" (1994, p.1). Notice that the phrase "information obtained" can refer both to the primary data and to the insights gleaned from reflecting on those data. So, for example, a teacher might keep a journal of his teaching practice and his concerns about it, and periodically reread the journal entries as a means of making informed decisions about how to improve his practice. Another teacher might tape record her lessons and then listen to the tapes to examine her effectiveness. Reflective teaching may thus be viewed as the practical, personal side, or perhaps one possible outcome, of the teacher-as-researcher movement (Edge & Richards, 1993; Kincheloe, 1991).

How is Reflective Teaching Different From Action Research?

I believe the reflective teaching concept does, in fact, represent a development in professional language teaching. The increasingly widespread practice of teacher's collecting data and using those data to investigate and develop their own teaching skills is most publicly evidenced at this time in the action research movement. Action research is defined as "a systematic approach to investigating one's own situation" which "uses the iterative steps of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and replanning to develop local understanding and bring about improvement" (Bailey & Nunan, 1996, p.120; see also Chamot, 1995; Kemmis & McTaggart, 1982, 1989; Nixon, 1981; Nunan, 1990, 1993; and van Lier, 1994, 1996). Action research, as the term has been applied in our field, is one of three major approaches to conducting empirical research on language learning and teaching (the others being experimental research and the various forms of naturalistic inquiry; see Allwright & Bailey, 1991, pp. 40-45).

The question of how reflective teaching differs from action research can best be answered with an illustration. A clear example of language teachers' using the action research model to improve their own teaching is found in Tsui's report on action research conducted by thirty-eight secondary school EFL teachers in Hong Kong, who wished to address the perceived problem of their students' reticence to participate orally in class. These teachers first collected information (by recording their own classes) in order to obtain "baseline data." If they had stopped at this point and pondered their data, thereby potentially gaining insight into their teaching, we would have had an example of reflective teaching. However, Tsui goes on to describe the steps these teachers then took in conducting their action research projects (1996, pp. 147-148): She writes,

[The teachers] designed a list of strategies to overcome the problem and carried out these plans for four weeks. While they were trying out the strategies, they kept a diary of what went on in the lessons and their own reflections. At the end of the try-out period, they videotaped or audio-recorded another lesson and evaluated the effectiveness of their strategies. Then they wrote a report which described the problems identified, the implementation of the strategies, and an evaluation of the strategies. The report also included transcripts of lesson segments which illustrate the success or failure of the strategies.

When the teachers examined these data, they found some predictable results, but also some that were surprising. For example, they determined, as one might expect, that the students' low English proficiency and fear of mistakes and derision seemed to influence their reluctance to speak. However, intuitively less obvious to the teachers themselves were the findings that their own intolerance of silence, their uneven allocation of turns, and the sometimes-incomprehensible input they provided the learners also seemed to influence the students' willingness to speak up in class.

Tsui's report illustrates one of the main benefits of either practicing reflective teaching or conducting action research: The process of reflecting on the data involved in both enterprises can enable us to uncover what is not intuitively obvious. The data can nudge us out of our comfortable impressions of our own teaching by making us look with fresh eyes at the records of the events that occur in our classrooms. This assertion is related to Richards and Lockhart's points that "much can be learned about teaching through self-inquiry" and "much of what happens in teaching is unknown to the teacher" (1994, p.3).

What action research contributes that is different from reflective teaching is the systematic implementation of planned actions as a result of observation and reflection on the data (so, for example, in Tsui's report, the EFL teachers' strategies for overcoming students' reticence). In addition, most models of action research depict an iterative, spiraling sequence of planning, acting, observing, reflecting, and replanning, which necessarily involves a certain longitudinality. In contrast, a reflective teacher can contemplate, at one point in time, the difference between two lessons enacted from the same lesson plan, for instance, without necessarily systematically implementing and investigating a potentially lengthy series of interventions, which would be required in order to label such efforts as action research.

Nunan has asserted that for action research to constitute research, it must be made available to public scrutiny. Whether such availability takes the shape of a formal publication, a poster presentation at a conference, or an informal report to one's colleagues at a staff meeting is largely irrelevant, according to Nunan, so long as the process and the results are made public. (See also van Lier, 1994.) Freeman (1996, p.103), in discussing teacher research, links this "making public" to the appropriacy of one's method: "More important than the orthodoxy of the basic fact of making public how an inquiry has been conducted. Is the way of looking appropriate to what one is trying to find out? Does the means of research suit the intended ends?" In contrast to such public outcomes of research, then, reflective teaching may be a highly productive but intensely private means of conducting one's ongoing professional life.

The Fourth Vignette:

It is September, 1996. I have taken a year-long post at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. I am curiously nervous, after all these years, about beginning my new EFL classes. I find the anxiety surprising, in particular, because I have taught this type of course (speaking and listening with an emphasis on language learning strategy training) in the past. Why am I worried?

Perhaps because it is a new school for me and a new culture, which uses a language I don't know. Because it is EFL instead of ESL. Because I am accustomed to relying on the linguistic heterogeneity of my ESL students in California to create the need to use English in the classroom. Or perhaps because for the past several years I've been doing more teacher training than language teaching. Perhaps because I am going into this situation as a complete unknown, and would very much like to make a good first impression on my new students and colleagues.

Faced with this puzzle, I begin to investigate how teachers start classes. In Hong Kong I religiously make entries in my teaching journal every day after class. I talk to my colleagues about how they begin new courses. They share materials and ideas with me, based on their years of working with Cantonese-speaking learners of English.

Immediately I am faced with the students' reluctance to speak English in front of their peers. They appear to be confused and perhaps unnerved by my unwavering expectation that they will speak English in class. I call on them by name, each instance of "How about you, Agatha?" or "Wing, what do you think?" evoking startled nonverbal reactions (spines straightened with a jerk, eyebrows raised, wide-eyed glances at classmates) for the first five or six weeks of the term.

Eventually the students begin to go along with this ongoing, smiling insistence that they talk. They are cautious but willing to try my crazy activities. One day I come to class with thirty opaque plastic shopping bags hiding objects garnered from my flat (a stapler, a corkscrew, nail clippers, hotplates, coasters, clothes pins, and so on). The students gasp and laugh as I toss the bags onto the floor and invite them to choose one. Each student must describe his object without revealing or naming it, using the communication strategies we have studied in order to "buy" the item in "Kathi Bailey's Store" (the name of the activity, which I have written on the board). They speak more English in these two hours than they have in all the preceding weeks of the semester.

Every day after class I write in my journal. I try to be aware of my strategies for setting the tone, communicating my expectations, establishing my expertise, winning the students' trust, and getting them to talk. I decide there is the potential for practical and theoretical insights from my investigation and find I have accidentally begun a research project, which might at some point be useful to other teachers, as well as might help me to understand my own teaching.

As this vignette illustrates, after twenty years as an ESL teacher, I have developed some skills and strategies for dealing with confusion or befuddlement (both my own and my students'). Faced with a puzzle ("How should I begin my new EFL classes?"), I turn to my colleagues for help and systematically examine my own practice.

I now see my teaching as part of a bigger pattern, a reflection of a wider world. I understand that years of intensely form-focused, exam-driven language lessons have almost taught my students in Hong Kong not to speak English at all. But I also know that with sustained positive expectations and consistent action on my part as I structure the tasks and manage the interaction, they will speak English in our class. I gradually learn to work within the cultural context, to make good decisions in my planning, and to carry out (or revise) those decisions in my classroom. This stance represents what Freeman has called "teaching as knowing what to do: the interpretivist view" (1996, p.98). For me, whether or not I engage in action research, the practice of systematically collecting data and reflecting upon it provides a basis for interpreting what needs to be done.

We should note that the term action research also carries with it connotations of a social context. This idea is emphasized by Freeman and Richards (1993, pp. 203-204), who state,

In its early forms, action research aimed at developing participants' views of, and solutions for, shared problems in their work environments. Through such research by those who experienced the problems of the workplace a social agenda of empowerment was advanced.

In contrast, reflective teaching can be quite personally focused. Action research would, by definition, necessarily encompass a somewhat wider perspective -- whether in terms of the number of people involved, or in terms of its public nature, or both.

Why Is Reflective Teaching Worth Doing?

Nunan has pointed out that "it is certainly not the case that everything is rosy in the [action research] garden" (1993, p.44). He lists the following problems identified by teachers with regard to conducting action research: lack of time, lack of expertise, lack of ongoing support, fear of being revealed as incompetent teachers, and fear of producing a public account of their research for a wider (unknown) audience (p.44). We cannot disregard these factors. For teachers who share these worries, reflective teaching can provide a potentially more private, more manageable professional development alternative to action research.

I am not suggesting that reflective teaching is only valuable insofar as it is a default position for those who do not wish to conduct action research. On the contrary, reflective teaching is extremely valuable as a stance, a state of mind, a healthy, questioning attitude toward the practice of our profession. (It could also be the starting place for many research projects, and these are not limited to the action research tradition. Numerous issues will arise which could be approached through naturalistic inquiry or the experimental approach, but the choice to pursue these avenues rests with the individual teacher.)

Reflecting on our practice also provides us with the substance of our stories, and it could lead us to share those stories with our colleagues. Writing in the field of teacher development in general education, Elbaz says,

Initially a story seems to be a very personal matter: There is concern for the individual narrative of a teacher and what the teacher herself, and what [others] as privileged eavesdroppers, might learn from it. In the course of engaging with stories, however, we are beginning to discover that the process is a social one: The story may be told for personal reasons but it has an impact on its audience which reverberates out in many directions at once. (1992, p.423)
Thus one reason why reflective teaching is worth doing is that it creates a context which promotes professional dialogue. It provides a way of situating our stories.

Whether or not we talk with other teachers about our discoveries, the main value of reflective teaching lies in its potential to clarify our thinking. Kincheloe's book, Teachers as Researchers: Qualitative Inquiry as a Path to Empowerment, begins with a gripping statement (1991, p.vii): "I am a teacher. I want to do good work. Having attended, worked in, and visited many schools in North America, I believe that at the end of the twentieth century, teaching is not good work." (And pursuing a career that is "not good work" over a period of many years can become spirit-crushing drudgery, to paraphrase Simon Gray.) Kincheloe continues, "As I listen to teachers talk about their jobs, or watch hierarchical interactions between administrators and teachers, I sense a crisis in the teaching profession" (p.vii). This crisis "seems to have something to do with a general lack of consciousness -- a garbled sense of purpose, of direction" (p.vii).

By quoting these comments I am not suggesting that the malaise Kincheloe has observed in North America is necessarily widespread elsewhere (though it may be). Nor am I suggesting that it was this "garbled sense of purpose" which led to Piers Gray's demise. His is a different story. But what I am suggesting is that establishing a philosophy and a practice of reflective teaching can enable us as individual teachers to investigate, probe, and potentially change the nature of our own work. It can ungarble our sense of purpose. Part of that ungarbling is achieved through collecting data, examining our assumptions and beliefs, and using the information obtained (Richards & Lockhart, 1994, p.1) as the basis of improvement. By telling our teaching stories, we articulate the puzzles and necessarily seek coherence in what we do.

Such a practice may lead to the sort of systematic action research carried out by Tsui's colleagues in Hong Kong, or it may not. That choice rests with a teacher's personal preference, developmental needs, and -- frankly -- constraints on time and resources. However, systematically collecting data about our teaching, examining our beliefs, attitudes, assumptions and teaching practice, and using that information as the basis of critical reflection (Richards & Lockhart, 1994, p.1), can, it appears to me, provide us with the awareness to break free of the "seemingly indelible imprints" (Kennedy, 1990, p.17) of our own histories, if we so choose. The results can be engrossing, challenging, and energizing. Reflective teaching actually makes the work more rewarding.

I want to close by quoting extensively from Freeman (1996):

Knowing the story of teaching involves more than is usually considered. Knowing how to teach does not simply entail behavioral knowledge of how to do particular things in the classroom; it involves a cognitive dimension that links thought with activity, centering on the context-embedded, interpretive process of knowing what to do....This contextual know-how is learned over time; its interpretations shape truly effective classroom practice. Knowing the story of teaching includes all of these elements. For this reason, telling the story is more complicated than simply reporting on how things are done in classrooms, or even providing the reasoning -- theoretical, personal, or otherwise -- for those ways of acting. If teaching involves the continual interplay of interpretation and the environment, then its story is complex and subtle, and it is quite complicated to tell. (p.99)

The Last Vignette

It is the end of February, 1997. This week I have begun to emphasize speaking more in my classes at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. I know from my teaching journal and from the feedback I obtained from last semester's students that I need to do more with speaking. The students want more practice and I want to focus more on the importance of sociolinguistic variables, such as familiarity and formality. I try to create activities which are related to their lives and will provide them with appropriate guidance and practice opportunities for speaking English. I use the twin values of cooperation and competition, the undercurrents of my students' lives, as the basis for structuring activities.

I write my weekly dialogue journal entry to my students about my own inventory of speaking responsibilities this week: conducting classes, participating in staff meetings, attending a workshop, giving a speech Thursday night, being a guest on a radio talk show Friday morning. For our lesson on Wednesday I plan a groupwork exercise in which they must take the roles of a radio talk-show host, the co-host, and the guest -- this week the "Outstanding Student of CUHK."

First in teams of three they brainstorm the questions they will ask the student guest. They know by now that we will do a role-play, so they expect that they will answer these questions. But I surprise them and they laugh as I switch the groups around so the "student guest" will be faced with questions other than those which he helped to generate. The cycle is repeated three times, with each student taking each role once, in three different groups. The students are absorbed. They get so involved in the role play and become so loud that I fear we will disturb the neighboring classes. Phil holds his gray pencil case like a microphone, in front of his face and his two classmates', depending on who is speaking at the time. All the talk that I can hear is in English.

Finally, in the last ten minutes of class, we have a competition among the groups: They must give me advice, based on their experience, about how to prepare to be a guest on the radio. But each group will only receive a point for good advice which is not a repetition of what another group has said, so they must listen carefully to their classmates' ideas. The advice ranges from reasonable ideas about discourse processing (for example, the suggestion that I try to anticipate the radio hosts' questions in advance and prepare my answers) to very practical suggestions for coping with anxiety ("Get a drink of water so your throat won't be too dry" and also "Go to the toilet before the program begins").

Time is up. The students leave the room laughing about who will become a radio talk-show host in the future. I am tired but pleased. They have spoken English for the last forty-five minutes, almost without hesitation. I am learning to work with my Cantonese-speaking students, to meet their needs and to promote their language learning. I turn off the lights, close the door, and spend an hour writing in my journal.


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Kathleen M. Bailey is a professor of applied linguistics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. During 1996-1997, she worked in the English Language Teaching Unit at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include teacher development, second language acquisition, language assessment, and classroom research.