Tag Archives: reflection

A blast from the past or back to the future?

Some time ago, my past caught up with me and it was both a pleasure and a shock.

In 1968, at the ripe young age of 22, I was a chemistry teacher to a group of Secondary IV students. Teaching was how I paid my university fees.

It turned out to be a very special group, mainly because these young people were interesting, curious, and antsy yet mature for their age. There was also a very special dynamic in the class that year because the students were assigned to groups which meant they shared all the same classes. This helped create cohesion and a wonderful sense of community that we don’t see as much in today’s teaching environment.

They had, among other things, decided that they needed representation and so, proceeded to elect a very competent president and vice-president. They then took the initiative to publish a class newsletter called “D’un bureau à l’autre” which I printed for them on a good old copy machine. I think that only baby boomers remember this machine which always left your fingers blue with ink and smelling of alcohol!

This part of the story is particularly important because what was printed in one of these newsletters with that machine came back to haunt me after all these years.

Recently, one of my students decided to plan a 50th anniversary reunion in September 2018. He was intelligent, resourceful and hyperactive fifty years ago; he hasn’t lost anything with age. Together with a few of his friends, he managed to retrace all their classmates: thirty, young, 65 year-olds!


But there is more. He had kept a copy of ALL their class newsletters, including the very last issue published after a long weekend spent at a camp in Mont-Rolland, an outing which these very resourceful students had organized for themselves and by themselves. At the time, they needed an adult presence, and so, as their home room teacher, I accompanied them. I admit that I don’t really remember much about it, but I do remember that I was more a willing participant than a chaperone. You can imagine the pleasure I had when I re-read that newsletter and rediscovered all that we had done together! But I had forgotten that I had contributed a text, an op-ed of sorts, to that issue, and it’s what I wrote 50 years ago which surprised me the most.

At age 22, I was an inexperienced teacher but I was already feeling a discomfort with teaching as I saw it then practiced. This is what I wrote:


Trying to describe and report on the experience that some of you have been fortunate enough to live would reduce to its simplest expression a complex set of facts, relationships, and friendships. Such a simplification could never account for the richness of this extraordinary weekend. So I prefer to let each one enjoy his or her personal experience. What I can only try to do here is put on paper some of the thoughts which it inspired.

For me, the most unforgettable result of this weekend is the collapse of two images reflecting a very specific type of relationship, that of “the pupil” and that of the “teacher”.

D'un bureau à l'autre
D’un bureau à l’autre

The free, cheerful yet serious relationship that developed during this long weekend contrasts strangely with the distance that characterized our school year. One may ask “Why the change?” Why had the questions that you asked about life, its meaning, and its purpose, not been discussed before? Why did your organizational skills and your varied interests not manifest themselves in the classroom as they were manifest this weekend?
(ED. Today I would nuance this by saying “manifest themselves as much”)

Will you tell me that in class “it’s different”, that it’s about “school subjects”, that there are exams, and that you have to “pass your year”? On this point, I couldn’t contradict you but, on the other hand, I have to ask whether “school subjects” and exams have meaning in and of themselves? What is a “school subject”? Should not all science and philosophy that we study be, above all things, the science and philosophy of life without which they are just sets of meaningless concepts?

I have bitterly felt that we all put our lives on hold while we are in school not because learning, knowing and understanding are of no interest to us but, to the contrary, because this interest, this curiosity is starved by what awaits us at the end of the semester or the year: the exam that must be passed.

The teacher then becomes the purveyor of what is required to pass the exam and not the one who, through his experience and knowledge, satisfies your desire to know and understand the world in which you live. All that remains is the “stereotyped” teacher standing before a mass of students no less anonymous, without singular personalities, whose only purpose is to pass the exams. This may seem exaggerated to one who has not lived what has been for me a genuine relationship between equal and autonomous individuals. But if that person should take the time to think about it, he will certainly be able to see, as I do, that all else is, by force of circumstance, fake and artificial.

-Christiane Dufour at age 22

So, I leave you with this question: is our teaching still driven by exams or have things fundamentally changed since then?

P.S. In contradiction to my statements above, their Latin teacher (yes, in 1968 they were taught Latin) was an exception to this rather dark vision. He did not so much teach them Latin, as discuss with them, through the great classics, important issues of our humanity. They remember it and him still.

Christiane Dufour at age 72

A Reminder That Life is Good: the QEP, Professional Autonomy and Paulo Freire

7075566659_b2d828bbeb_oIt was the spring of 1999.  Heading out the door of the inner city elementary school where both my husband and I were working, I bombarded him (as I always did) with a series of mini episodes of what had gone on in my grade 5/6 classroom that day; snippets of exchanges with the students, jokes and fun mixed with a smattering of “a-ha!” moments that were always to be celebrated.   He smiled, half listening; clearly deep in thoughts of his own. Earlier that year, Christopher had developed curriculum that integrated, among other subject areas, literacy, technology and sports in a way that was not only improving the students’ reading and writing abilities but was so engaging that it inspired a targeted group of at-risk kids; it built their self esteem and commitment to continue along the path of learning.

News of this dynamic teaching and learning curriculum had reached the ears of the ministry and he was now going to be the focus of a documentary that would clearly demonstrate for the rest of the province the QEP (our new Quebec Education Program) in action, lived out with an at-risk population. Our principal was delighted.  I was thrilled and Christopher was overwhelmed to be recognized in this way. I continued bubbling with what all this meant.  He was going to be the face of the QEP.  How wonderful!!

As we buckled up our seat belts, Christopher turned to me and spoke for the first time since we had walked out the school door, “Mel.  What the hell is the QEP?”

I remember laughing out loud.  As we had just recently returned from living in the Cree community of Mistissini for over a year and a half, we had missed all the commotion and build up of the soon to be implemented Quebec Education Program.  This didn’t seem to matter though because as it turned out, the philosophy and ideology behind this “Reform” was based on what was occurring in our classrooms already.  It emphasized the importance of knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, inquiry-based learning, collaboration, cross-curricular learning, and democratic living.

As I read more deeply the numerous documents produced by The Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS), it quickly became obvious to me, that there were many elements of the QEP being implemented that would profoundly alter the teaching and learning in Québec schools in my opinion for the better.  For one thing, it accorded greater recognition to the professional, teaching methods, and choice of methods of evaluation of students’ learning (MELS, 2005, p. 8).  As well, it allowed teachers to choose their pedagogical approaches according to the situation, the nature of the learning to be accomplished or the students’ characteristics.  This could be managed by lecturing, explicit instruction, project-based teaching, inductive teaching, strategic instruction, cooperative learning or any other method the teacher deemed appropriate. (MELS, 2005).

For the first time in my career, this progressive ideological shift was putting the teachers in control of their own classrooms.  It was affording them the opportunity to be autonomous professionals.  Who knew better than the teacher him/herself what was best for their students?

The role of teachers became one of supporting students in their learning process, helping them structure and build on their knowledge, rather than being the expert who transmits information.  Students were encouraged to participate in constructing their knowledge. “Instead of mostly listening, they are actively engaged in processing the information so as to transform it into knowledge and competencies.” They may even act as experts in cases where they have specific knowledge. (MELS, 2001, p. 2)  In this “innovative” way of looking at teaching and learning, of primary concern is that students transform information into viable and transferable knowledge “The elements of knowledge students develop are tools that should help them understand and take action in the world,”(MELS, 2001, p.1).  Learning does not simply take place in the classroom.  It does not begin and end with the ringing of the bells, “…the reform aims for learning that takes place in school to be transferable, i.e. to serve a purpose other than just school.” (MELS, 2001, p. 2).

It goes without saying that having teachers take into consideration a program that implies a major adaptation on the pedagogic level has been anything but easy. We must be patient and keep in mind that changes of such magnitude cannot be implemented into a machine as vast as the educational network over a short period of time or without experiencing some difficulties.  Many have questioned whether or not the disruption and disorder brought about by this shift has been worth it.  I am reminded of Margaret Meek, who in referring to Freire writes “and He wants us to consider the worth of an idea by asking what difference it would make” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. xxvii). When looking at the pedagogic basis and the potential outcomes for students being educated in this way, I think it will make an enormous difference in the way that teachers and students come together to share in the learning process, to dialogue and to empower each other and themselves.  So my answer to the question “Is it worth it?” rings out loud and clear “Yes, it is most definitely worth it!”

Fast forward almost ten years.

In the fall of 2008, I had the privilege of taking a graduate course with a critical pedagogue who had come to McGill.  It was a time in my life that I will never forget.  He would sit at the head of the semi-circle, clad in black jeans and a black t-shirt and he would talk to us…no, tell us stories is probably more accurate.  One thing was clear, he was not impressed with the manner in which schools operated and the overtly discriminatory practices that occurred throughout our North American system.  He spoke of the issues of a standardized curriculum where so many students were simply left out of the equation due to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation or social status and of teachers who were forced by the government to push a curriculum that they knew would fail so many of their students. 

One evening, half way through the semester, a number of my peers, who were not from Québec, joined in on the conversation, angrily claiming that they understood exactly what this critical pedagogue was talking about.  They ranted openly about the problems we had here in Québec as our curriculum was without question as standardized as others throughout the rest of Canada and the United States.  I was shocked by their statements.  How could anyone who had read this document claim that it was standardized when the very underlying philosophy promoted teacher professionalism and autonomy by advocating self-selection of pedagogy, resources, methods and evaluation?  It became clear to me that they hadn’t read the document.  And when I asked this question outright, the answer that echoed around the room was that indeed they hadn’t.

Months later, I was sitting in his home, when his son, who was a high school ELA teacher, walked into the room holding onto his laptop.  His eyes were wide in disbelief as he scanned the screen.  Looking up from his reading of The Québec Education Program he exclaimed in disbelief “Hey, did you know that Freire is quoted in here?”  I chuckled out loud.  Here was the son of two of the most prevalent minds in critical pedagogy, not to mention a successful English Secondary School teacher, and he was just now realizing that the curriculum he was teaching was based on the theories and ideology of Paulo Freire.

What struck home at this point was that here was a curriculum document that was almost ten years into implementation and it was still being referred to as “The Reform” or even “New” and added to that was the reality that so many in the field of education, from classroom teachers to critical pedagogues, had never taken the time to sit down and read it through in order to understand the freedom it offered along with the respect of viewing teachers as professionals.

In an era of “No Child Left Behind” standardized curriculum throughout the United States and a thrust for “back to the basics” in most of North America, we in Québec have been given the opportunity through the Québec Education Program (QEP) to teach a completely unstandardized curriculum.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Freireian based model of critical pedagogy underlying the English Language Arts literacy program. It was designed to promote the development of literacy as both an individual achievement and a social skill as well as “the development of a confident learner who finds in language, discourse and genre a means of coming to terms with ideas and experiences, and a medium for communicating with others and learning across the curriculum” (MELS, 2008,  p.6)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting our Quebec curriculum at a gathering of academics and teachers at The International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, held at the University of Illinois.  The dialogue that followed my presentation was a mix of shock and confusion.  There was an overwhelming buzz of excitement and genuine interest in the curriculum that is found here in Quebec.  No one could believe that our teachers were awarded such autonomy and self-determination in deciding the best suited pedagogy, resources and teaching strategies to ensure their particular group of students be able to meet the outcomes at the end of a cycle.  They cringed as they compared this to the system under which they were forced to work; teach to the test, no time for the rest.  There simply wasn’t a mechanism put in place that would permit them to look at their students as individuals, to allow for a variety of perspectives or opinions, or for that matter to even ask the students what they wanted or cared to learn. They were envious of what we had in place and I truly began to understand once again how lucky we were.

So as the end of year stress begins to build.  I think it is important to remember that we have been given a very precious gift…the acknowledgment that we are capable and competent to accomplish great learning alongside our students.  And to think that we have a government document that supports this, reassures me time and again.  When the pressure starts to become too much, I simply have to open up the QEP and read “More than ever, teaching requires autonomy, creativity and professional expertise.” (MELS, 2001, p.5) If you ask me, that’s not a bad thing at all to have to work towards!


For further reading:

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. London: Routledge.

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. The Education Reform: The Changes Under Way. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/lancement/Renouveau_ped/452771.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. (2007). Provincewide panorama – Literacy in Québec in 2003. Info Adult-Ed. Vol. 4, Issue 1, January 2001.  Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/_information_continue/info/index_en.asp?page=article6

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Preschool Education, Elementary Education. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/dfgj/dp/programme_de_formation/primaire/pdf/educprg2001/educprg2001.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Secondary School Education, Cycle Two. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/sections/programmeformation/secondaire2/medias/en/5b_QEP_SELA.pdf

Game-changers: Teachers who changed my life

(c) Todd Berman

 Mrs. Stevens was strict.  Mrs. Stevens scowled.  Mrs. Stevens got after her students.  Mrs. Stevens had fiery red hair.  Mrs. Stevens was not some people’s favourite grade 2 teacher but…she was mine because Mrs. Stevens loved reading! Mrs. Stevens was, for me, a game-changer.

Teaching is an intensely personal experience, richly coloured by our own personal beliefs and worldview. Game-changers are people who force you to examine your beliefs and come to a place of action, who give you the tools to make up your own mind and move forward from there.

Mrs. Stevens would gather us all around her for read-aloud and I would become lost in another time and another place.  There was something magical about those stolen moments between math stencils and spelling lists.  It was a time like no other.  I can see myself as if it were yesterday sitting cross-legged listening with every inch of my body to the sound of Mrs. Stevens’ voice.  I was drawn in.  I was hooked.  The only thing that could break the spell was the sound of the book being closed.  A collective groan of disappointment would follow and then off we would go quietly back to our desks, back to SRA and workbooks, biding our time until the next read-aloud would sweep us away between the pages to learn more about ourselves, others and the world in which we lived.

It was not until years later that I realized that Mrs. Stevens was the first to plant the seeds for what would become a lifelong passion for literacy and literacy education. In the magic garden of read-aloud, I found what made school meaningful to me… and I never looked back.

Throughout my educational career, there have been other teachers who have come into my life, each one unique and each one contributing to the defining moments of what makes me the educator that I am today. These are my game-changers:

Lynn Butler-Kisber was my very first professor at McGill University (Montreal, Canada).  I was fortunate to have her for an entire year, back when English Language Arts was a 6 credit course.  I will never forget her quick step as she entered the classroom pushing her cart filled with goodies…picture books, manipulatives and movies of her days in the classroom.  I loved that class and I loved Lynn.  I wanted to be Lynn.  I would sit there totally mesmerized by her stories.  She would read to us, she would talk to us, she would share with us and all the while she would prompt us to think for ourselves, to consider our opinions, our connections, and what we were going to do once we were out there in the field with a class of our own.  It was the questions that we had to ask of ourselves and our students as we turned the pages of the beautifully illustrated picture books.  We learned not to only appreciate what the text had to offer but the responses and conversations that we brought to and from the text.  Rich dialogue that pushed us to look, interpret and become more aware as we explored the whole-language approach to literacy.  Although I did not know it at the time, this course and the conversations that flowed out of it became the underpinnings for my interest in Critical Literacy.

Abigail Anderson, architect and writer of the English Language Arts curriculum for Québec’s teachers.  Strong, opinionated, passionate and brilliant.  There was never a time that I left her presence without having learned something new and usually it was more than one thing.  Wow!  She made my head spin.  How could someone know so much about literacy?  How could she time and again speak so eloquently and always draw reference to both theorists and novelists alike in order to get her point across?  I would hurry home and look up the person, the quote or the book that she had offered.   I knew that I could be a fearless teacher and take the risks required to implement a Freirean pedagogy because that was the pedagogy on which our very ELA curriculum was based.  She believed in critical literacy and she put her money where her mouth was by having it live and breathe in the Québec Education Program that she had envisioned. Abigail Anderson was my game-changer because through her actions I saw the words of Paolo Freire come to life in a tangible way – and I knew what I could do to follow that same path.

Janet Radoman had the patience of a saint with her students.  She was a true teacher.  She was gifted in the ability to take anything, no matter how convoluted and explain it in such a way that everyone present could understand and then apply.  She was a constructivist in action, an advocate for her students and a champion for the unheard and voiceless.  She was the teacher that would throw away a planned afternoon math lesson if a child of hers entered the classroom sweaty with excitement and full of questions regarding the fistful of worms they had found in the schoolyard after a lunchtime rain shower.  She not only listened to her students, she engaged them in critical conversations, inquiry and dialogue.  What her students thought and felt mattered.  This is what she believed and this is how she taught.  Janet Radoman was my game-changer because she taught me how to bring critical literacy into the lives of the children we teach.


These four women prompted me to reflect on what I believed about literacy education at different points in my life and how I chose to teach to reflect my beliefs.  I will always be grateful to them.  And you, who have been your game-changers? I would love to hear your stories.

Memories From the Field: Part III – Rainbow of Dreams

by Melanie Stonebanks

From the author's own family archiveby Melanie Stonebanks

By looking back and by remembering the past, I have attempted to bind my past experiences as a professional educator in several contexts and roles to create patterns of my professional development in the stream of my consciousness (Green, 1991).

            Okay, I’ll admit it…I’m nosey by nature, so when the high school publication Rainbow of Dreams (http://www.nd.ca/tournoi/ref/rainbow/index.htm) crossed by my desk I was instantly hypnotized.  Leafing through the pages, I’ll never forget the countless faces reaching out and drawing me in.  There was something about these silent images that beckoned me to read their stories.  I had to find out where they had come from and why their pictures had been captured at that particular time in their lives.  I read and I read and I thought to myself that this would be a perfect literacy project for my class to undertake.

It took a few years after having discovered the ground breaking high school work (two further publications had come out in the mean time) before I was ready to tackle this type of inquiry assignment with my students.  My class’s heritages spanned from various cultural backgrounds that touched all parts of the globe.  My motivation was not only for my multicultural students to learn from and about each other in order to build understanding and acceptance but to empower them through the discussions and writing they would produce and share with each other and the community.

Days and weeks that turned into months were spent together pouring over family photographs, asking each other questions about where we came from, why we had left our native homeland, what we had brought with us on and continued to practice in our new country and what we had to leave behind.  Questions that couldn’t be answered at the moment, were sent home, discussed with parents and grand-parents and then brought back to move the conversation forward.  The students knew they were in a safe environment where no one would openly pass judgement, mock or demean them.  Together, we could take risks, we could ask questions, we could share stories, we could laugh and we could cry.

I think one of the most powerful moments during this project came when a student teacher who was in doing a final field experience with me, decided that he would like to investigate his past as well.  He worked simultaneously with my students in order to follow the process as authentically as possible.  The day came when it was his turn to share with the class the first draft of his “constructed memoir” (the major writing piece for this inquiry was for each student to take a family photograph that spoke to them, interview family members to uncover the story behind the photograph, then take the information from the interview and craft it into a memoir from the perspective of one of the people in the photograph…this involved many, many hours of instruction of reading photographs, asking questions, interview techniques, reading and writing the memoir genre, writer’s craft, oral speaking, peer editing, and much more).

As he stood in front of his young audience, he read to them a story of leaving home and family behind, a story that obviously reached deeply into whom he was and where his roots held fast.  I say obviously as part way through the retelling, his voice wavered and cracked, tears welled up in his eyes as he struggled to continue his reading.  My students were transfixed.  Their bodies in complete stillness as they sat in their seats listening to him try to get his story out.  He needed to share this narrative with them and they knew this.  Quietly and without disruption, a couple of my twelve year old students turned and questioned me with their eyes of what they should do.  I nodded to them and gestured that all was alright and that we should let him continue.  As he concluded his sorrowful and moving tale, the class burst into a round of supportive applause.  He had put himself out.  He had taken a risk.  He had shared with them a piece of himself and they understood this.  It was a transformative moment in my classroom for each and every one of us.

Reflection of Rainbow of Dreams

I am always hesitant to share anecdotes of successful teaching and learning moments in my history for fear of coming across as some “super teacher” in the likes of Ms. Frizzle of Magic School bus fame (who is my idol by the way…what better mantra than “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy!”).  The above narrative was one positive incident where there was harmony between a desired critical literacy outcome and the reality of what actually transpired in the classroom.  Occasions like that one are often few and far between with missed opportunities and inconsiderate unconscious and/or dysconscious reactions being the rule rather than the exception (according to King (1991) dysconsciousness is a state of mind that occurs when there is exclusion and disconnect of the Other’s pain).

One of those reactions took place while the students were in the midst of searching for their family snapshots.  Most of the pictures that were handed in showcased wedding photographs, images of families partaking in celebrations, outdoor gardens and homes long gone as well as individuals who had since past away but held a place of honour in the history of the family and the country of origin.  As I was sifting through the pile of pictures, noting who had brought what in, my student teacher approached my desk with a look of concern on his face.  He placed the photograph in front of me and I remember being quite taken aback by the image of the young smiling man standing behind the large anti-aircraft gun, hands in ready position.  There was no way that I was going to be able to use this photograph.  It was violent and who knew how many people had been killed before or after this picture had been taken.

That night at supper, I spoke with my husband about the photograph and asked his advice as to how I should approach the student in order to discuss the inappropriateness of his choice.  What followed was another lesson in how I had missed a critical literacy possibility and was running the risk of closing the door to learning for one of my students.  What I have not yet divulged to the reader is that the country of origin of the armed soldier was Iran and what I was dealing with was the bias I had to these types of images in relation to the country in which they were taken. After all, Christopher (whose father was of mixed English-Italian decent and served in three wars himself) asked me how I would have reacted if a child had brought in a shot of a grandparent who fought for the Canadian, British or American army in WW1 or WW2 or Korea, or Vietnam or etc., etc.  I had to be honest and say that because I had grown up seeing these types of photographs depicting “our heroes”, I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

In case you are wondering, the student used the photograph in his project and it turned out that his father was not a soldier but an informations officer who had stood there behind the gun and simply asked his buddy to take the picture for a lark.   Another bit of information I would never have learned if I had allowed my background and bias make the final decision.  The next step though is to ask myself “why does that make a difference and make me feel better”?


My own personal development of any true sense of being conscious came from discussions with my husband who was in graduate school when I began my entry into teaching in the classroom.  However, it must be said that even when you become aware of what it is that you should be working towards enacting; there are so many factors that stop you from truly engaging in critical pedagogy and critical literacy.  Essentially what occurs is that the majority of your time is spent with acts of micro resistance and with the few and far between overt actions that leave you sick.   The micro resistance then becomes lost over time and it’s not those minor attempts that become the critical incidents rather it’s the ones that you lose sleep over when you worry about responses from the administration, peers, parents and community.  This is probably why they are so few and far between.

As someone who now teaches at the university level, I disagree with the often repeated notion (and one that I have to admit held myself at one time) that there is such a large chasm between academics and “the real world of teaching”.  But the one reality that did and does still exist is the fear.  Teachers often pride themselves on being the vanguard for change but after two plus decades of teaching, I am starting to agree with the social theorists that state that schools are a reflection of society; we change only when society changes.


References for further reading:

Green, M. (1988). The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teachers College Press.

King, J.E. (1991). Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers in Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 133-146, Spring.

“I want to tie my shoes” – Reflection and Goal Setting in Cycle One


“I believe that the theme ‘again and again’ is paramount in cycle one. Children (people) don’t always ‘get it’ on the first round, or second, or third. Children love to do the same activity again and again.” Peter Simons, Cycle 1 teacher, CQSB

Here’s the good news: children in Cycle One (grades one and two for those of you unfamiliar with the Quebec system) can set goals and reflect on their learning. I’ll say it again: six- and seven-year-old children can discuss what they did in the past, they can make plans for the future and can look back at their progress. I’ve seen their goals and heard their reflections in classrooms across the province. More importantly, teachers say that engaging in conversations about learning and not just about WHAT they are learning helps their students succeed in class. So why are some educators reluctant to embrace the practice of reflection and its alter-ego, goal setting? Misconceptions and misunderstanding abound, as many workshops on the topic target older learners, which leads Cycle One teachers to wonder if its even possible with their young students…and what it might look like in their classrooms.

Defining the terms

Reflection is thinking for the purpose of analyzing and evaluating our learning. We often talk of reflection in the context of portfolio practice, that is, in the context of using a process-based device for tracking student learning and growth over time, such as a portfolio. But even if you do not use portfolios with your students, you can still use the reflection cycle to improve your students’ awareness of their own learning. Goal-setting is part of the reflective learning cycle, and allows the learner to plan a focus for their learning.

Goal-Setting and Reflection in the Learning Cycle

So, with the intent of providing some pathways for exploring reflection and goal-setting with young learners, here are 5 myths about these practices and some reasons to let them go to the big myth graveyard in the sky:

Myth 1 – How can they set goals and reflect – they can’t even write! 

This is an easy one and immediately obvious to most Cycle 1 teachers, who are very used to dealing with early- or non-readers and writers. What do we do when our learners can’t write? We talk, of course! We talk during circle time, we talk one-on-one, we talk in groups, we talk in pairs! We talk about what worked, what didn’t and why. We talk about our plans and the choices we make when we enact our plan. Planning and choosing are precursors to the goal-setting process, or as Epstein (2003) puts it, “planning is choice with intention” (emphasis in original) which is based on a goal. The other thing we do in Cycle 1 in addition to talking is drawing! Children can make regular representations of things that occurred or things that are to come, such as planning out a project or an activity. Over time, this planning can become more purposeful and tied to each student’s individual learning path, but it rarely starts out that way. In fact, by engaging in daily planning and reflecting conversations and visual representations (drawings, diagrams, etc), the Cycle 1 teacher can help lay the foundation for future self-reflection and goal-setting tied to learning, just as she helps to lay the foundation for lifelong literacy.

Myth 2 – Students don’t get what they are doing – reflection and goal-setting are just too abstract!

Lots of things are quite abstract, but that shouldn’t prevent us from taking the first steps to understanding, right? Moreover, while the concepts of goal-setting and reflection on learning might be abstract, the habits involved are actually quite concrete. Sitting with your students during circle time is one way to look back on an activity and to set goals for another one. Let’s use writing as an example activity:

With your students sitting together on the floor, you may ask them what kinds of things they remember about writing from recent activities. Students might say things like:

  • “we learned about capitals”
  • “putting a dot at the end”
  • “making a space between the words”.

You can write these down on a flip-chart or on the board (whatever you usually do) and suggest some goals of your own that are important to you, such as: “let’s use a new word” or “let’s use a word from the Word Wall” or whatever you happen to be working on at the time. Ask students what their goals will be and listen to a few students. This will allow students who don’t quite get it to listen to other children work through goal setting. When its time to reflect, students will have something specific to say about their work – they either met the goals set out, or they didn’t and it will be easy to see. In Cycle One you might not hear sophisticated metacognitive discourse, but you will be developing habits of mind that will prove useful once metacognition kicks in.

Myth 3 – Goal-setting and reflection are for older kids

I was reading over some research data and came across a goal set by a grade one student who wanted to learn to ties his shoes. This was his global goal, and not one related to any specific assignment or activity. It was clearly important to him in his life, and I bet he had more where that came from. I could picture him sitting at his desk thinking about what he intends to get done in Grade One, and by golly, he was going to master this shoelace thing! Did it matter that it wasn’t tied to the teacher’s goals of literacy and numeracy? Not really, since the act of setting a goal and working towards it will leave an imprint on this student that he can recall when asked to set goals in the future. In addition, it is important to understand the abstract idea of goal setting in a way that is obvious to the learner – in this case, the student understood goal-setting because he was allowed to choose a goal that was meaningful to him. The act of setting goals and reflecting from an early age is what makes more complex goal-setting and reflection possible later on.

Myth 4 – Cycle 1 students just don’t have the vocabulary for reflection

What do we do when we want to introduce new vocabulary, ideas or habits? We model and we scaffold and we do both of these over and over until we reach our goal. Scaffolding can be done in the form of questions or prompts, which can be oral or written on the board or on flip-chart paper.  Here are some examples of prompts for reflecting on an activity:

  • I liked ___________.
  • I can ___________.
  • I feel ___________.
  • Next time, I will ____________.

Modelling can be done by the teacher or by peers, to share vocabulary and strategies. Listening to the reflections or goals of other students helps everyone acquire new vocabulary and clarifies new ideas. A teacher can also reflect out loud on some of her own actions. She can say “Last time, I asked you to bring me your work, but that didn’t work so well, because there were too many pieces and they fell on the floor, so this time I will try a different way and I’ll come see you at your desk.”

Myth 5 – Reflection takes too much time

I have difficulty with this one, because I always think to myself “Reflection takes too much time away from what?” From the next thing that you will be doing? Hopefully, we do not jump from topic to topic or activity to activity without pausing to tie them together in some way, to provide some coherence for our youngest scholars. And because it is THEM navigating the unchartered territories and not us, we owe it to them to allow them this time to consolidate, to make links, to understand and to set a new course for themselves. After all, if not us, then who?



Reflection and goal-setting do not come naturally, but they bear metacognitive fruit in the years following Cycle One! What myths are you busting in your own practice?


For more on reflection and goal-setting:

Reflective practice as professional development

Art (c) Todd Berman

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a group of educators, among them a pair of Cycle One teachers from the francophone sector. We got to talking about a series of learning and evaluation situations that we had been asked to review and possibly work on. One of the required components of the LESs was the “phase d’objectivation” which I’m guessing is the equivalent of a reflection phase in English (although the definition specifically deals with making the abstract concrete). Every LES designed had to have a reflective activity built into it.

“You know,” one of the teachers said to me quietly over coffee, “nobody actually does that”.

“You mean reflect with their students at the end of an LES” I asked, sort of puzzled.

“Yes, exactly” she replied. “There just isn’t the time. And the kids don’t really understand what it is. Everyone just wants to move on.”

The other teacher nodded in agreement. And there you had it: reflection swept neatly under the rug with all the other things we’re supposed to do as educators but don’t quite get there…

This exchange has stayed with me. Far be it from me to judge individual teachers. We all live with our own shifting classroom and school realities and in this day and age, there is no room for judgement. The teachers I spoke with surely are not the only ones who feel this way about the reflection phase of an LES. They were speaking with the conviction of those who feel the disconnect between that which they should do and that which actually happens, and who don’t see any way around it except to nod and smile. We were talking about reflection, but it could have been one of any number of sound pedagogical approaches, such as critical literacy or goal setting or authentic assessment.

This is where things get a little “Choose your own adventure”. On the one hand, I want to write about how teachers might come to embrace a proven approach (or fail to do so) and on the other hand, I want to show those two teachers I spoke with and all the others who don’t reflect with their students how they might begin in Cycle One and what it might look like. I’m going to do both eventually, but this post is about reflection for teachers.

“But I would not feel so all alone…”

Reflection is for everyone. In my work with dancers who are also dance teachers with no formal background in education, I have seen firsthand the power of reflection on action, and the subsequent new learning that emerges from it. We use social media mostly, but also meet face to face every session, which is every six weeks. Sometimes I organize the discussion by giving it a framework and other times I just facilitate and make links between ideas. I can see this process taking place in a school. What I’m trying to say is this: teachers who believe that reflecting with their students is a waste of time have probably not experienced the power of reflection in their own practice, in spite of its pervasiveness in education literature.

As a professional, actively reflecting on one’s work is called ‘reflective practice‘, a term popularized by Donald Schön‘s work some decades ago and increasingly relevant to practitioners today. Schön, drawing upon Dewey, defined reflective practice as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”. Duh, right? His basic premise, and that of other scholars who took up the reflective practice baton, is that being able to reflect on professional actions ultimately leads to improvements on these actions. A continuous cycle of learning and, eventually, innovation. Teachers, like their students, can benefit from reflecting on what they do, using whatever lens matters to them most, and following a scaffolded process of action-reflection-action. This article from Educational Leadership expands on this idea of reflective practice as a means of professional development. With a constantly shifting political landscape, and a changing and increasingly diverse population to contend with, it makes sense that the most effective professional development initiatives would be those in which the teachers themselves would play the most active decision-making role.

Just to be clear, reflective practice is not a fluffy “let’s sit down and talk about our feelings” kind of process. It is rigorous in that it takes on the thorny issues of practice in the field and forces participants to examine their actions, beliefs and patterns. It asks participants to identify precisely those areas that make them uncomfortable, the ones in which they feel a lack or a conflict. I can hear some of you now: “Yes, but what if teachers don’t choose the RIGHT thing on which to focus??” Ah, and now we come to the crux of the matter.

Trust and Time

I believe that the reasons reflective practice is not yet the dominant professional development paradigm for teachers can be summed up in two words: trust and time. On the one hand, there is a legacy of paternalism and hierarchy still at work with regards to professional learning initiatives. Teachers are given choices, yes, but these choices are often limited to traditional classroom-style ways of learning. What is missing is trust – trust that teachers will make the right decisions for their practice and trust that they will follow through with self-driven modes of learning such as reflective practice or action research. Luckily, in Quebec there have long been initiatives like the PDIG grants and other grants are available today. Unfortunately, these are not the norm for all practitioners and writing them yearly is no mean feat. Ideally, everyone should have regular and ready access to such approaches (facilitated or not) and a professional portfolio model could be used to provide an accountability framework for teachers engaged in self-driven modes of professional learning.

The thing about these pesky self-driven, iterative, process-based forms of professional development is that they take time. Gobs and gobs of it. Thankfully, the experimentation and active learning required of teachers actually take place in the classroom, on the job. Still, reflective practice requires a consistent time commitment and preferably a community of peers with whom to share ideas and insights. Currently, only a skilled and creative administrator committed to carving out more time for teachers can find the necessary resources to do so.

What can you do?

If you want to engage in reflective practice, find a community. Professional communities online abound. LEARN has communities you can join, organized by Subject Area or interest (animation, portfolio). If going online is not your thing, look in your school or approach fellow teachers you like and trust. If you are a principal, you can engage your whole staff in process-based professional development, with the help of an outside facilitator, or on your own.

Perhaps you are engaged in reflective practice and have a community of peers. If so, I would love to hear about it.

For more on reflective practice

Osterman, K. F., & Kottkamp, R. B. (1993). Rethinking Professional DevelopmentReflective practice for educators: improving schooling through professional development. Newbury Park, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2000). Getting into the Habit of ReflectionEducational Leadership57 (7). Retrieved March 10, 2012, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr00/vol57/num07/Getting-into-the-Habit-of-Reflection.aspx

Finding Time for Professional Development – BetterTeacher.org

Stephie’s professional practice course – A sample reflective blog from a pre-service teacher.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the Reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. (available from on-line booksellers)