Strategies for teaching early childhood students to connect reflective thinking to practice

Grossman, Sue

This is a follow-up article to a “Teach

ing Strategies” column that examined how to help college and university teacher educators think about and plan for linking course content and the learning process (Grossman & Williston, 1998/99). In this article we want to focus on ideas about connecting reflective inquiry to teaching practice. We continue to encourage readers to critically examine their conceptual frameworks, teaching methods, strategies, and techniques, and to initiate dialogues with colleagues about thoughtful teaching practices. -S.G. & J.W

Reflection (i.e., reflective teaching, reflective inquiry, reflection-onpractice) is one of the most popular concepts in education today. Through reflection, teachers gain the personal and professional knowledge (Lieberman & Miller, 2000) that is so important to being an effective teacher and to shaping children’s learning (Day, 2000; Galvez-Martin, Bowman, & Morrison, 1999; National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1996). We define reflection as the act of creating a mental space in which to contemplate a question or idea, such as, “What do I know now about teaching young children?” This moment allows a mental transformation to a time and a situation that leads to a deeper perspective. Helping Students

Learn To Reflect

Because of the vast amount of information to process today and the fast pace of the times in which our students live, reflection is not as natural as it might have been in earlier generations. To make this process more accessible to our students, we have designed specific strategies to help their minds “bend back.” We want to help them find the value of reflecting on critical issues, examining their thinking, and giving serious consideration to an idea or opinion, so that they can refine their practices and continually grow in understanding. Simply reflecting on a problem, possibly one of the most common uses of teacher reflection, is not our only, or even our primary, goal of reflection. Students must have content on which to focus their thinking. Han (1995) states that, “While the process element of reflection emphasizes how teachers make decisions, content stresses the substance that drives the thinking” (p. 228). While reflective inquiry may set the stage for learning how to be a good teacher, reflection cannot happen without content knowledge (Bowman, 1989).

Critical reflection has had ample visibility in the literature for more than a decade (Bowman, 1989; Boyd, Boll, Brawner, & Villaume, 1998; Cruickshank, 1985; Duff, Brown, & Van Scoy, 1995; Ghaye, 2000; Schon, 1983, 1987; Vukelich & Wrenn, 1999). Typically, students in introductory early childhood education courses are introduced to the role of the teacher, and to relevant teaching tasks (Bowman, 1989; Noordhoff & Kleinfeld, 1988). We believe they also should be introduced to reflection as a natural way of processing how each of us makes decisions, forms opinions, and examines the contexts and content of our lives. In intermediate courses, students need to learn how to use reflective thinking, not only as a way of assessing lessons and children’s learning outcomes, and evaluating one’s teaching efficacy, but also as a way of facilitating immediate and future actions.

How do we prepare undergraduate students to use reflection to guide their current and future responsibilities? In the introductory and intermediate courses we teach, reflection centers on discovering students’ personal identities; developing a professional disposition toward understanding children, parents, and colleagues; and building moral and ethical teaching practices. We have planned strategies, activities, and assignments that help students examine their ideas and perspectives. Reflective inquiry opportunities in other early childhood education classes continue to help our students define their personal and professional identities. Such opportunities include strategies such as writing autobiographies, case studies, and journal entries; simulating teaching situations; and analyzing curriculum. The class assignments and discussions center on the following themes: self, children, content learning, evaluation, preprofessional teaching, and popular opinion.

At Eastern Michigan University, students entering the early childhood program take The Developing Professional course, and students at the intermediate stage of their program take the Implementing the Curriculum in Early Childhood Education course. Each course has: a corequisite with another course (it cannot be taken out of sequence), and a weekly 1 1/2-hour recitation class, with additional time spent each week on guided experiences with children in the campus child care center and at the Children’s Institute. The courses share concepts and strategies in a developmental framework.

In the Developing Professional course, students learn and practice communication skills, learn how to interpret child and adult behaviors, and learn how to build relationships with children, peers, and teacher supervisors. Implementing the Curriculum teaches students how to implement and evaluate curriculum, plan safe and creative environments, and interact effectively with peers, teachers, and parents.

Initially, we set the stage for discussion by using many of the environmental conditions that encourage reflection: a safe and nurturing environment; the use of interpersonal skills that model reflection, such as active listening and speaking; and an atmosphere of trust that encourages students to take risks (Colton & Sparks, 1993; Pugach & Johnson, 1988). We start within the first two weeks of the semester with discussions on self, children, and teachers, and then proceed to other foci, such as content learning and popular opinion. The following are examples of our strategies for teaching reflection.

Areas of Student Reflection

Reflecting on Self. Knowledge of self is the foundation of professional competence. Teachers lacking selfknowledge are likely to externalize the locus of control (i.e., blame and criticize others for problems they themselves may have created). To stimulate students’ self-reflection, we ask them to respond to the questions or statements in Figure 2.

Reflecting on Children. Knowledge of child growth and development is at the heart of educating children of all ages. Reflecting on children’s development and behavior increases understanding of the learning process and improves teaching practices. In the introductory course, students are presented with “Moments in Time,” episodes that describe childrenin hypothetical situations (see Figure 3). In addition, students’ personal experiences from their practica are shared and used for group reflections, and to connect classroom content with practice.

Early in the intermediate course, students select one child in their practicum classroom for focused observation (see Figure 3). The culminating assignment is to translate, in the form of a letter to parents, observational data into appropriate language. This assignment allows the instructor to assess whether or not the student can effectively use observed information to inform parents about their child’s classroom behavior.

Reflecting on Content Learning. At the end of the semester, we ask students to reflect on the value of the content by filling out a content questionnaire. These questionnaires include all of the major components of each course (see Figure 4), and they provide us with information about the meaning students take from the course content. The value for the students is that they must reflect on what they have learned since the beginning of the semester.

Following this questionnaire activity, we also hold open classroom conversations with students about what they have learned, as well as what they need to learn. At this time, a student hears from her peers about what they have learned, which may be quite different from what she herself has learned. In this process, we observe students reconstructing their own knowledge gleaned from the course. This exercise in metacognition is another form of reflection.

Reflecting on Preprofessional Teaching Experiences. The introductory course provides students with their first supervised preprofessional experience with children; the intermediate course provides their second. Supervising teachers, all of whom have master’s degrees in early childhood education, use a Likert scale evaluation form on students twice each semester: once at the mid-point, when it is formative; and again at the semester’s end, when it is summative.

In addition to evaluating what students have learned in our classrooms, we ask them to assess what they learned in their practicum experience with young children. This assessment allows students to become aware of what they have learned and how they have grown. It encourages them to acknowledge areas in which they may yet need improvement, to bridge theory from education classes to practice, to connect their past and present experiences, and to make sense of their learning. We expect to see statements that are both philosophical and concrete. Figure 5 includes a selection of the focus statements to which we ask students to respond. Early in the semester, students receive copies of all the evaluation tools.

Reflecting on Popular Opinion. Some students have trouble coping with friends or family members who are antagonistic to their teaching aspirations. In the last decade, especially, media coverage has been critical of schools and teachers. We give students copies of opinion columns from local newspapers and national newsmagazines that mislead readers about education in the United States. We ask them to respond to such questions as: What do you think are the origins of this person’s opinion(s)? What are the writer’s qualifications? Whatareyour opinions and feelings about the colurn or article? How might you respond to the author of this column as an informed student of education? Summary

As instructors who are concerned about students’ ability to make sense of what they are doing and to be more than “technicians,” we have tried to design reflective strategies that will help them achieve a deeper level of understanding of children, teaching, and themselves. With our students’ help we have revised, eliminated, and added strategies as we have become more reflective about our guidance of students. We will continue to reflect on these strategies.


Bowman, B. (1989). Self-reflection as an element of professionalism. In F. Rust& L. Williams (Eds.), The care and education

of young children: Expanding contexts, sharpening focus (pp. 108-115). New York: Teachers College Press.

Boyd, P., Boll, M., Brawner, L., & Villaume, S. (1998). Becoming reflective professionals: An exploration of preservice teachers’ struggles as they translate language and literacy theory into practice. Action in Teacher Education, XIX(4), 61-75.

Colton, A., & Sparks, G. (1993). A conceptual framework to guide the development of teacher reflection and decision making. Journal of Teacher Education, 44(1), 45-54.

Cruickshank, D. (1985). Uses and benefits of reflective teaching. Kappan, 66(20), 704-706.

Day, C. (2000). Effective leadership and reflective practice. Reflective Practice, 1 (1), 113-127.

Duff, R., Brown, M., & Van Scoy, I. (1995). Reflection and self-evaluation: Keys to professional development. Young Children, 50(4), 81-88.

Galvez-Martin, M., Bowman, C., & Morrison, M. (1999). Reflection and the preservice teacher. ATE Newsletter, 32(6), 4.

Ghaye, T. (2000). Editorial. Reflective Practice, 1(1), 5-9.

Grossman, S., & Williston, J. (1998/1999). Constructing a framework for linking course content and the learning process for teacher education students. Childhood Education, 75, 102-105.

Han, E. P. (1995). Reflection is essential in teacher education. Childhood Education, 71, 228-230.

Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (2000). Teaching and teacher development: A new synthesis for a new century. In R. Brandt (Ed.), Education in a new era (pp. 47-66). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1996). Guidelines for preparation of early childhood professionals. Washington, DC: Author.

Noordhoff, K., & Kleinfeld, J. (1988) Rethinking the rhetoric of “reflective inquiry” in teacher education programs. In H. Waxman et al. (Eds.), Images of reflection in teacher education (pp. 27-29). Reston, VA: Association of Teacher Educators.

Pugach, M., & Johnson, L. (1988). Promoting teacher reflection through structured dialogue. In H. Waxman et al. (Eds.), Images of reflection in teacher education (pp. 30-33). Reston, VA: Association of Teacher Educators.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Schon, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Vukelich, C., & Wrenn, L. (1999). Quality professional development: What do we think we know? Childhood Education, 75, 153-160.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education Summer 2001

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