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Embedding Reflection in a Teacher Education Programme for Adult Literacy Tutors

Shelley Tracey

School of Education, Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK

What a Difference a Pedagogy Makes: Researching Lifelong Learning and Teaching. 3rd International Conference, University of Stirling , 24-26 June 2006

This paper describes and reflects on the development and implementation of a model for guided reflection, the Perspectives Model, by the Essential Skills Project in the Institute of Lifelong Learning, Queen’s University Belfast. (1) The project was set up in September 2002 to develop qualifications for adult literacy and numeracy tutors. While the project offers a range of part-time certificate and diploma courses, the focus of this paper is on a group of sixteen adult literacy tutors, fifteen women and one man aged between 24 and 55, who are in their second year of study at Queen’s and are enrolled on the Diploma in the Teaching and Management of Literacy and Essential Skills. The course provides an in-service teaching qualification for these tutors, who have already met the requirements for the adult literacy subject specialism in their certificate year.

An International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), conducted from 1994-1998, revealed that more than twenty percent of adults in the UK and in Northern Ireland appear to need support with their literacy skills. Although the methodology and findings of IALS have been questioned (2), it raised adult literacy and numeracy on the agenda and brought recognition and resources to an area which had previously experienced little attention. The UK government responded to IALS with a Government paper, A Fresh Start (Moser, 1999). Moser’s recommendations included the development of national curricula for adult literacy and numeracy, a system of accreditation, and teacher qualifications. The Skills for Life Strategy was established in England and Wales to implement these recommendations.

In Northern Ireland, the Department for Employment and Learning developed the Essential Skills Strategy, based on Skills for Life (Department for Employment and Learning, 2002). The Essential Skills Project at Queen’s was set up to develop and deliver new tutor qualifications to support the strategy. One of the students currently enrolled on the Diploma in the Teaching and Management of Literacy and Essential Skills describes the significance of these strategies in her learning journal, one of the forms of assessment for this course:

The Skills for Life Strategy was the turning point on which the present practice in essential skills pivots today. For the tutor it has meant that the whole status of the profession has been raised and also it gives weight to the thinking that literacy teaching is a professional activity that does not differ in demand or expectation from teaching in any other subject area. For the student the recent advances in thinking have attempted to reach out to those most in need of essential skills tuition in terms of initiatives which bring literacy to community settings, work placements and family literacy projects. While I believe that much thought and careful planning has been brought to essential skills practice, I have a real problem with the importance placed on funding for this sector of students and also with the increasing pressure placed on students and tutors to abide within the given policies regarding attendance, retention and progression. Sometimes, I believe that the drive to fit into these rigid structures is not in the best interests of the learner. To this end, I hope that with a sound reflective practice framework in place for myself, I will be able to continue to think through and influence the way forward for continuing good practice in essential skills.

This excerpt reflects a belief in the significance of reflective practice as a factor for influencing policy and practice. The student’s words quoted above also illuminate some of the demands which the Essential Skills strategy has placed on students engaged in tutor education programmes. Within months of publication of the strategy, new, inexperienced and experienced tutors were expected to engage immediately in training in the use of the new core curricula, application of the curricula in their teaching and in the acquisition of the new tutor qualifications.

The speed with which the strategy was implemented also required the author and her colleagues in the Essential Skills Project team at Queen’s to develop and deliver the new qualifications with little lead-in time. As reflective practitioners, we had to create opportunities to evaluate and reflect, a sound theoretical basis for the courses and a framework for integrating theory and practice. The reflective practitioner model, based on the work of Schön (1983, 1987,1992) and used extensively in teacher education, seemed appropriate for the purpose in its advocacy of reflection as a challenge to technical rationality.

Moon (2000) notes the enthusiasm with which the notion of reflective practice has been adopted in the professions of teaching and nursing. Gale intimates that this may result in an uncritical adoption of the model:

Evidence suggests that many aspects of post-compulsory teacher education and training have become habitualized and naturalized. For example, in examining the use of the highly influential ‘reflective practitioner’ model in this context, Ball (1995), Bleakley (1999) and Ecclestone (1996) have suggested that the model can sometimes take on a ‘mantric’ quality – its often superficial application being seen as de rigueur on such programmes. (2000: 111)

While the Diploma in the Teaching and Management of Literacy and Essential Skills is a new course, delivered for the first time in September 2003, the teaching qualification which it offers students is long-standing. The FENTO Standards for Teaching and Supporting Learning in Further Education in England and Wales is a set of competency-based criteria which requires detailed evidence as to how teachers are addressing the areas of planning and preparation, delivery, assessment, evaluation, continuing professional development and working within a professional value base. (3) The danger of such an extensive set of standards is that they might predominate as the focus of the course at the expense of a coherent application of the principles of reflective practice. The Diploma course integrates theory and practice through creating opportunities for students to enhance their knowledge of and reflect on the application to their practice of adult learning theories, group dynamics, sociolinguistics, dyslexia and concepts and definitions and models of literacy. A further requirement is a piece of practitioner research, in the process of which students explore and reflect on an aspect of their practice.

While the usefulness of Schön’s model for the teacher education programme was recognised, thre limitations of this model needed to be acknowleged. These include Schön’s failure to clarify the distinction between "reflection-in-action" and "reflection-on action" and to address the question as to whether it is indeed possible to reflect during action. Another limitation for our purposes is that teacher education is not the focus of Schön’s writing; ideas about the nature of the reflective teacher have to be sought elsewhere.

A review of the literature on reflective practice revealed a range of approaches to this area, and highlight the complex nature of the relationship between reflection and practice as well as that of reflection itself. Themes and responses in the literature include a focus on the problem-solving function of reflective practice, (Pugach and Johnson, 1990; Copeland, Birmingham and Lewin, 1993), the moral and ethical responsibilities of the practitioner (LaBoskey, 1997), the development of models for the improvement of practice through reflection (Ghaye and Ghaye,1998), and factors impacting on the reflective process. Boud and Walker (1998) suggest that the nature of reflection is affected by the professional and cultural context in which the reflection takes place.

In the development of the Perspectives Model described in this paper, it was necessary to acknowledge the difficulty of defining reflection and of determining its effects. Because reflection is largely a private activity, it is not always possible to measure the process or its results. Moon points out (2000, 97) that an area of controversy in the literature on reflection is the time frame in which reflection and its results occur; as she also indicates, reflection does not always lead to change. Even though we may reflect on our problems, we will not necessarily learn from them.

The issue of defining and measuring reflection raises questions as to how its impact may be assessed in teacher education programmes. In a study on reflective practice in nurse education, Mallik (1998) notes that reflective discussion and journalling do not appear to lead to critical reflection or the improvement of practice. This seems to be true of the first occasion on which the Diploma in the Teaching and Management of Literacy and Essential Skills was delivered in the 2003-2004 academic year. As we had no guided refection model or framework for evaluating the extent to which students were being reflective, the students’ reflective learning journals provided the only evidence of their engagement in reflection. An analysis of the twenty-two journals revealed that while most students wrote about the dynamics and challenges of the contexts in which they were teaching, and an account of the new theories introduced in each session of the course, fewer than one third appeared to engage in an analysis of their assumptions, learning and practice. As a result of this lack of reflection, the learning journals seemed descriptive rather than reflective. This was evident in their language, which tended to be declarative and emphatic, with little tentative or speculative language which might suggest a process of reflection or engagement with theorising. At the same time, the journals revealed that the students were overwhelmed by the knowledge, skills and practical demands made on them by the course, the new policies and their institutions.

The review of these journals suggested that the process of reflection needed to be made more overt on the course and that a guided model for reflection might facilitate this. An investigation of the literature on reflective practice revealed few relevant models of guided refection. An exception is the work of Johns (2000, 2002) in the development of a comprehensive model for guided reflection in the field of nurse education. This model provides reflective cues for "prompting the practitioner to deconstruct her experiences in ways that hopefully will lead to understanding and insights that can be applied to new experiences." (Johns, 2002: 10)

John’s model is a holistic one which encompasses a range of domains, including the intellectual, moral, philosophical and spiritual. It provides practitioners with the tools to explore their relationships with their patients and their roles as health professionals. Johns describes guided reflection as a " co-developmental and collaborative research process" (2002) whereby the facilitator and the practitioner create and develop knowledge and understanding about their field of practice. It is these notions of dialogue and collaborative knowledge-creation which form the basis of the Perspectives Model for guided reflection.

Johns maintains that "Contradiction between beliefs, theory and actual practice is the essential learning opportunity of guided reflection; to be understood and worked towards resolution, thus enabling the practitioner to work towards realising desirable practice as a lived reality." (2002: 3) The Perspectives Model takes this further by suggesting that the learning from the process of reflection comes from the recognition and acknowledgement of the contradictions that occur in the diverse fields of reflection and practice. The purpose of the model is to foster students’ ability to contain these contradictions in a creative synthesis. This notion of synthesis is rooted in psychosynthesis, an approach to human development (Assagioli, 1999) which focuses on achieving a recognition and acceptance of various aspects of the self, even those which appear to be mutually contradictory. In the course of the synthesizing process, one learns to explore and then to disidentify from aspects which one previously found overwhelming or disempowering. This disidentification may be experienced as an ability to perceive an experience, thought, physical feeling or emotion from another perspective. (4) In the terms of psychosynthesis, the purpose of the Perspectives Model is to create opportunities for students to accept the challenge of the uncertainty created by the demands of practice and the tensions between reflection and practice and to embrace this uncertainty, or Derridean "undecidability", as an opportunity for learning and growth.

Schön acknowledges the central role which uncertainty plays in reflective practice: "The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on prior understandings, which have been implicit in his behaviour. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on prior understandings, which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation". (1983: 68)

It should not be taken for granted that the practitioner referred to by Schön would necessarily find new understanding and be able to alter his situation. The Perspectives Model acknowledges the danger in the propagation of the notion that reflection on practice leads inevitably to change. Another issue is that while reflection may enhance the ability of the practitioner to identify those aspects of practice which require transformation, the practitioner herself may not have the power to enact these changes. One of the Diploma students acknowledges these challenges in her learning journal:

Sometimes I do not want to question what is taking place because I do not want to ‘rock the boat’ or to be seen as questioning someone else’s authority. And yet if people do not question what takes place i.e. if they are not reflective practitioners then things will never change for the better. There is no point in wondering why things are done in a certain way and not asking about it. You may find there is a good reason for it. If this is the case, well and good. If not, you should feel free to make your suggestion.

Gale asserts that "a post-structural model of a creative approach to post-compulsory education needs to be developed. …the work of Ball (1995) provides a useful starting point when he argues that ‘there is a kind of theorizing that rests upon complexity, uncertainty and doubt and upon a reflexivity about its own production and its claims to knowledge about the social’ (p. 269). The kind of theorising that Ball refers to here will involve the teacher educator within the post-compulsory sector, who wishes to take a creative approach to practice, in the deconstruction or critical evaluation of the discourses that have been instrumental in the construction of their practices." (2001: 112)

The Perspectives Model recognizes that students need to be engaged in this process of deconstruction. Should they be excluded from this, they might experience the uncertainty as disempowering. The model advocates critical reflection as a tool for this deconstruction.

Brookfield’s work on critical reflection (1988, 1995) embodies the notion that this process involves the ability to shift perspectives on one’s beliefs and practice. This occurs through a range of mental activities:

  1. The analysis of practitioners’ assumptions, beliefs, values and practices

  2. Thinking processes which develop the practitioners’ contextual awareness

  3. Imaginative speculation whereby practitioners imagine alternative ways of thinking in order to facilitate change

  4. Reflective skepticism whereby practitioners question universal truth claims or unexamined patterns of interaction

The Perspectives Model develops this concept of critical reflection further as the ability to move freely between theory and practice and cognitive and affective responses to the learning process. The notion of reflection as the ability to shift perspectives was introduced to the Diploma students through Brookfield’s model (1995) of the four lenses through which critical reflection occurs, namely, our autobiographies as teachers and learners, our colleagues’ experiences, our students’ eyes, and our exploration of the theoretical literature. The students were asked to imagine that they had the resources and power to make a film about their own practice, using the four lenses described above as well as any others which seemed appropriate. This part of the session began with a form of reflective meditation on the students’ practice, adapted from psychosynthesis, in which they imagined that they were sitting on a mountain high above the district in which their literacy teaching occurred. In the course of the meditation they moved closer to the minutiae of the action, using close-up lenses and zooming in and out as they chose.

In the group reflection that followed this activity, students observed that they all tended to focus on their learners in the film, with particular reference to their past learning experiences, their aspirations and how they were responding to the literacy classes. This led to a discussion on the roles of the literacy tutor. Opportunities to explore these roles occur throughout the course through an examination of the nature of the support which tutors offer to their learners, their relationship with their learners and the mentoring role which they adopt at times. Myss’s work (2002) on the psychological and spiritual archetypes through which we express our values and sense of self has been introduced to enhance this exploration and the students’ awareness of the different and complementary aspects of the self which contribute to their identities as reflective practitioners.

An evaluation of the effectiveness of the Perspectives Model requires a number of questions to be addressed. What notion of reflection is embedded in the model? To what extent has the model enhanced student’s abilities to reflect? Has this reflection made an impact on their practice, and if so, how has it done so? Does the model have any relevance for teacher education beyond the field of adult literacy? These questions were shared and explored with the students at the beginning of the course. Reflection on these issues has resulted in the creation of an evolving set of criteria for identifying the qualities, values, knowledge, and skills of effective reflective practitioners in the field of adult literacy. Reflections on the development and final version of this set of criteria will be shared with subsequent Diploma students and practitioners at the end of the academic year.

The table below presents examples as to how guided reflection is embedded in the Diploma course through the implementation of the Perspectives Model.





1. Beginning of each session

Course tutor shares her reflections and/or learning journal entry on planning and structuring the session

For students to share tutor’s reflections and relate to own lesson planning; to experience the learning involved in the tutor’s uncertainty

2. Beginning of each session

Students identify personal goals for the session

To provide a framework for the learning and a vantage point from which to reflect

3. On at least one occasion in the course of each session.

Opportunities for private reflection: a short period of silence in which students may write or sit quietly

To provide a space in which students may shift their perspective from that of learner to observer of and reflector on learning; for students to gather together material for their learning journal entries

4. On at least one occasion in the course of each session.

Reflection circle. Students and tutor reflect on their learning by making a statement beginning with one of the following phrases: "I noticed …",

"I wonder …"

"I observed…"

"I felt …"

To share perspectives and make the learning and group processes conscious

5. Activities in various sessions; from 15 minutes to an hour

Opportunities for the creation of images related to teaching and learning, both two- and three- dimensional.

To raise awareness that modes of reflection extend beyond those based on language alone; to provide a different perspective from which theory and practice might be viewed; to enable students to access the power that can be released by the creative process

6. As issues arise from practice; occurs at least once every two sessions

Critical incident analysis: Students share examples of challenges from their practice. In the process of reflecting on the incidents, the situation is viewed from different perspectives and role-played when it seems appropriate so that the tutor may experience aspects of the incident to which she did not have access when it occurred. (5)

For members of the group to share in the creation of knowledge and the understanding of the relationship between theory and practice; to enhance problem solving skills; to provide difference perspectives on practice

Besides these reflection-based activities incorporated into the course structure, students also identify topics for reflection and appropriate processes for undertaking this reflection. The subject of learning styles, for example, engaged the students and in the reflection circle in this session, they identified some questions on which they might reflect throughout the course. These included:

1. Does the use of kinaesthetic material such as play dough enhance concentration and the learning of concepts?

(To address this question, most students take a piece of play dough from the tutor at the beginning of the session and comment on the way in which they use it during the session. Some students are exploring this question with their learning groups).

2. Is there are correlation between learners with strong reflector preferences, as identified by the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire (1995), and with those who appear to have a strong visual preference, according to the Barsch Learning Styles Inventory? (6)

Students’ reflections and observations on these questions will be collated at the end of the course. This process appears to have been a fruitful one; all students have revealed their willingness and ability to engage in reflection on this theme.

Another focus for reflection in the course sessions is the FENTO Standards, the set of teaching competences. This reflection takes the form of an exploration of the language, principles, theories and values on which the standards are based so that the students might apply them thoughtfully to their practice.

Given the focus of the course on literacy teaching, it seemed essential to include language as a subject for reflection. In their certificate year, the students were introduced to theories of language acquisition and aspects of sociolinguistics. As literacy tutors, it is important for them to integrate their awareness of language into their teaching. This awareness is developed in the Diploma year through an introduction to discourse analysis (Fairclough, 2003). In their reflections on the discourses of educational policies, the core curriculum, teaching and learning and learners’ literacy practices, the students identify themselves as mediators between these discourses for their learners. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to expand on this, it indicates another facet of the roles which literacy tutors assume.

One of the Diploma students comments in her learning journal that

I have learned that the process of reflection is very helpful. I have found the process of writing a reflective journal entry as very helpful aid to reflection as it forces me to think in a more concrete way. Often my thoughts tend to be quite vague and wishy-washy but the process of writing helps to clarify my thoughts. I need to develop the discipline of reflecting on ‘critical incidents’ so that I can learn from my mistakes and from my successes. In the words of Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

The quotation at the end of this excerpt is one of the many about teachers, teaching and learning given to students as part of the course materials. The purpose of these quotations is to provide a range of perspectives which may act as stimuli for reflection on one’s values and beliefs. It is noteworthy that all of the learning journals of the current Diploma students reveal an extensive use of quotations, as a starting point for reflection and to reinforce their arguments. Whether or not this constitutes reflectivity is debatable; what is apparent is that the students are willing to engage in a movement between different perspectives on teaching and learning.


1. Please note: the term "essential skills" is used in Northern Ireland to replace the older "basic skills" and embraces adult literacy and numeracy.

2. For example, NLA Discussion: misfits in testing  Accessed 30/3/2005

3. These standards are available on the FENTO website 

4. The nature of this uncertainty is perhaps similar to that of Keats’s concept of Negative Capability, which he defines in a letter to his brothers on 21st December 1817 as "that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason"

5. While critical incidents are discussed in class, students are also encouraged to write about them in their learning journals, bearing in mind Ghaye and Lillyman’s caution: "One limitation in relation to critical incidents, noted by Smith and Russell (1991) is that the retrospective evaluation of personal experience can be subject to subconscious editing. This may provide the espoused theory being identified rather than the theory-in-practice. For this reason we recommend the use of learning journals in which to record the critical incidents as they occur." (2000: 15)

6. Barsch Inventory, , accessed 03/04/05


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 03 January 2007