High quality Early Years provision requires practitioners to constantly review their practice, the learning, behaviours and interactions in their setting. This requires a wide range of expertise, from understanding formal requirements such as the curriculum, to the more tacit or unspoken expertise of care.
Some of the knowledge required to maintain this expertise undoubtedly changes over time, for example knowledge of the curriculum, and as such must be continually reviewed. Other aspects of practice are more stable and may form part of what we believe the purpose of early years practice and provision to be. Whether that be to provide childcare for working parents, provide opportunities for children to play, learn and develop, prepare children for statutory schooling, or a combination of these. Nonetheless, although more stable than the ever-changing legal and professional requirements, consideration of all aspects of practice is necessary if we seek to continually improve.
Over the course of the working day, whilst managing a variety of situations and conversations, we must consider the everyday business of the setting alongside the legal requirements, statutory educational standards, personal values and wider educational and learning concerns. The job of integrating these may at times seem to be overwhelming. This can lead us to feel conflicted about the ‘best’ course of action. Indeed, the day-to-day ‘business’ may often take all the time and resource we have, which can lead to anxiety and stress if we feel that some of the broader issues we wish to address are being overlooked.
The process of Reflection offers a systematic, clear way in which we can identify dilemmas, consider our actions, understand and provide justification for our choices and identify possible new courses of action. Where taken on as a part of our tools for practice, Reflection offers a way in which the continual review of practice required for high-quality provision can be achieved.
Theory: What is Reflection?
Understanding the origins of a theory can support our understanding of a programme of work or practice. There are many ideas and programmes of work being promoted – why would we choose to give this one our time and resource?
The work of Dewey provides the basis for the theory of Reflective Practice. He identified two types of action: ‘routine action’ and ‘reflective action’. Routine Action is guided by issues including tradition, habit and clear requirements such as laws. These actions are stable and less likely to change in relation to current circumstances. Reflective Action, however, differs in that it requires constant questioning and self‑appraisal: Why do we do it like that? Is it because we have always done it that way or is it because that is the way we get the best out of the opportunity, the children, or ourselves? In this way Reflective Action demonstrates a willingness to be flexible, to analyse and to have social awareness.
In practice, this means that those practitioners whose practice is guided by Routine Action tend to accept the status quo in their settings and simply follow the plan for the day, solving problems efficiently as they arise. Whilst practitioners who take Reflective Action are much more concerned with understanding the reasons for issues arising, for challenging the ‘way we have always done things’, and to make changes to prevent recurring unintentional behaviours and outcomes.
A simple example of how Reflective Action helped practice comes from a team in a preschool reflecting upon why there were recurrences at lunchtime of children playing with water in the toilets, generally getting wet and making a mess. The team asked why this was happening. They reflected that for many of the children the time allocated for eating was too long, leading them to look for interest elsewhere. The team asked why was that time allocated for lunch? It was an historic arrangement which was created to match the time needed for staff lunch breaks. Realising this was an arrangement which could easily be altered, they organised for lunch time to be shortened for those children who ate more quickly. They were taken back to one of the main rooms for free play sessions. Those who needed more time remained in the dining room with a small number of staff. The concern was removed, the opportunities for play were increased and there was less mess to be cleaned up!
Donald Schön’s work builds upon the work of Dewey and the notion of Reflective Action. He reviewed the behaviours of many different professionals including doctors, lawyers and engineers. Through this review Schön identified what he termed ‘professional artistry’. He used this term to describe the skills and expertise that all professionals have that inform their actions. In relation to Reflection, he identified that this professional artistry can be used in two distinct ways which help us to further break down the idea of Reflective Practice.
- To reflect-on-action: to look back at what has happened and consider why things happened (as described in the example).
- To reflect-in-action: to reflect and adapt as a situation unfolds.
Both can prove useful when seeking to improve practice, with the second perhaps taking more time to become skilled at and comfortable with.
So, what does Reflective Practice involve?
Simply, reflection involves us thinking about why we do what we do, the impact of what we do and what we could do differently. There are, however, aspects of this which require us to look at ourselves, our beliefs and motivations, to perhaps move out of our comfort zones and for us to seek new information to inform our decision making. In Reflective Teaching in Early Education, Colwell et al, (2015) help us to understand in greater detail what reflective practice involves, what it looks like, and therefore help us to start to think about how we might go about it. A summary of these points is provided below.
1. Reflective practice requires us to be concerned with both the aims and consequences of our actions. We must be aware of what we are doing and why. What are the external influences – political, social or otherwise?
2. Reflective practice is a cyclical or spiralling process, which requires us to monitor, evaluate and revise practice continuously. Reflective practitioners monitor, observe and collect data on their own, and the children’s, intentions, actions and feelings. This evidence is then reviewed, critically analysed and evaluated so that it can be shared, judgements made and decisions taken. Finally, this may lead to changes in policies, plans and/or provision before beginning the process again. It is never complete; it is a way in which we approach the day. It is possible the focus of our reflections may change, but the process itself will be ongoing.
3. Reflective practice requires us to become researchers. We seek evidence. We must not assume or rely solely on our own experience. This requires us to learn as much as possible from others. We must access training opportunities, read published research by both practitioners and professional researchers. We must also gather new evidence. We can record what is going on in the setting with care and accuracy. This must then be reviewed and critically analysed, keeping in mind what has been learned about the topic. This information can then support us to make decisions about what can be done next.
Once any changes are implemented the gathering of evidence can continue. Allowing us to review whether any changes we have made are having the desired results or whether further change is required.
4. Reflective practice requires attitudes of open‑mindedness, responsibility and wholeheartedness. These terms are identified by Dewey.
- Open‑mindedness: an active desire to listen to more sides than one, to give heed to facts from whatever source, to give full attention to alternative possibilities, to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs which are dearest to us (1933: 29).
- Responsibility: refers to the need for us to take responsibility for our actions and the impact they have on children, families, colleagues and society more broadly.
- Wholeheartedness: refers to the consideration and energy we give to the process of reflection. If done half-heartedly the benefits of the practice are unlikely to be realised. It is not a tick-box exercise. It is a process of deep thought and willingness to embrace change.
5. Reflective practice is based on practitioner judgement, informed by evidence and insights from other research. Whilst reflection requires us to question our actions, it is also important to remember our expertise! We can learn from others whilst acknowledging our own strengths and experience. Reflection is not about changing everything or dismissing current practice. It is the process of seeking to provide the very best we can for the children in our care.
6. Reflective practice, professional learning and personal fulfilment can be increased through collaboration and dialogue with colleagues.
- Through discussion with colleagues you can share your knowledge, your experiences, and expertise. You can inform them of what you have learned through research and reading.
- Through discussion you can help each other to shed light on unexpected behaviours or unintended outcomes.
- Talking things through can in itself help us to clarify our thoughts and develop new ideas.
Reflection can help us to ensure Early Years practice does not become one which is to deliver set pieces set by others.
7. Reflective practice enables practitioners to creatively develop the imposed frameworks for learning and teaching. By this Colwell et al. mean that it is possible to meet statutory requirements in creative ways which you enjoy and align with your beliefs and the needs of those babies and children in your care.
Reflective Practice, a practice rooted in theory and supported by research, can support us to achieve the high-quality provision we seek to provide. It can help us achieve this by supporting us to deeply consider all aspects of ourselves and our practice. To review what we do, why we do it that way and to seek further information to identify possible new practices that could help us achieve our endeavours.
Whilst the potential benefits are great, there is, to varying degrees, work that we must be willing to undertake: we must be willing to question ourselves, give our energy to identifying and implementing change, and be willing to embrace change. Working in teams requires us to be supportive and respectful of each other (further information on this is covered in article 5 of this series).
In the next article in this series we consider the practical ways in which Reflective Practice can be put into action.
Next in this series
The Process of Reflective Practice
Colwell, J. with Beaumont, H., Bradford, H., Canavan, J., Cook, E., Kingston, D., Linklater, H., Lynch, S., McDonald, C., Nutkins, S., Ottewell, S., Randall, C. and Waller, T. (2015). Reflective Teaching in the Early Years. Bloomsbury: London
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. D.C. Heath and Company: New York
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.
Edited by Jules