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Masters in Educational Practice: Professional learning


Teachers as researchers


How are reflection and research linked and why do they matter?

As practitioners it is often difficult to switch off and not think about what has happened during the school day. Reflecting, or mulling things over, is very much part of a teacher’s professional make-up, whether thinking about why a child misbehaved, the outcomes of a staff meeting or simply how to fit everything in!

The importance of reflection to practitioners has a long history. It can be traced back to John Dewey (1933) who defined reflective thinking as active, persistent and careful consideration of existing beliefs or knowledge. He contrasted this with routine thinking in which decisions are based on factors such as tradition, habit and what is expected by the institution. His ideas were developed by many others, notably Donald Schön (1983) who introduced the idea of reflective practice to describe the use of reflection as a means of coping with unpredictable, complex situations in professional contexts.

Reflective practice goes beyond describing what happened by looking forward in a structured way, consciously stopping to think how things might be different in the future. As Biggs and Tang (2007) explain: it is a bit like looking in Snow White’s mirror, moving the viewer from the state of what-is, to the more effective what-might-be. Rolfe et al (2001) offer a simple framework for reflection, which was originally used in nursing but is easily transferable to teaching. It is based on three questions.

  • What? 
  • So what? 
  • Now what?

The first question is a prompt to describe what happened, for example, an incident in a lesson, what you were trying to achieve, the actions you took, how learners responded and the feelings of those involved. The second question is about reflecting upon what the experience says about your teaching and any broader issues. You might draw on other knowledge (theory) and experiences to inform your view. The third question focuses on what needs to be done in order to improve and what the consequences of this action might be.

Ethical signpost

Whenever you describe incidents or issues, do so in a professional manner. For example, if referring to a person, imagine he/she is sitting alongside. Bear in mind that under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone can request information held by schools and other public sector organisations.

Activity 2.1.1

Choose a recent classroom experience and work through the three questions.


Transformational reflection then is about improving school experiences, whether this means drilling down to particular details such as asking better questions, or a more general point, such as creating a better climate for learning.  

Likewise, the most important aim of educational research is to provide practitioners with reliable information so that they can improve the quality of learning. In other words, the success or otherwise of reflective practice and research is judged by results. To make a difference, reflective practice and educational research have to contribute to better learning and teaching outcomes.

Figure 2.1.1: A simple model showing the relationship between reflection and research
Figure 2.1.1: A simple model showing the relationship between reflection and research

These results or outcomes could be manifested in many ways, such as:

  • resolution of difficulties
  • feelings of empowerment
  • insight into aspects of learning, teaching or management and leadership
  • increased learner or teacher confidence and self-esteem
  • improved technical skills, e.g. communication, planning or assessment 
  • more effective school processes and policies
  • higher levels of learner engagement
  • understanding the need for further professional development
  • a greater knowledge base among practitioners.

Ethical signpost

When discussing the outcomes of any research, you should respect the participants’ privacy, confidentiality and anonymity and report findings accurately.

There are lots of models and plans that set out how you might improve the quality of reflection and research. One example put forward by Brookfield (1998) highlights the link between reflection and research. He suggests that teachers become more effective when they see their practice through four critical, inter-connected lenses such as:

  • their own views
  • views of their students
  • views of colleagues 
  • views expressed in the wider educational literature (Figure 2.1.2).
Figure 2.1.2: An example of a reflective activity using Brookfield’s prompts
Figure 2.1.2: An example of a reflective activity using Brookfield’s prompts

Understanding multiple viewpoints, and the fact that aspects of school life can be interpreted in different ways, is essential to genuine reflection. It is also central to effective research.

Ethical signpost

Always try to understand the viewpoints of others and work on the premise that there will be alternative interpretations. Be prepared to defend what you say robustly.

Activity 2.1.2

Think about a professional issue. You might want to select something from the following.

  • Observation of your own classroom experience.
  • A priority within the school development plan.
  • A professional development goal.

Choose an experience to reflect upon using Brookfield’s model and these prompts.

  • How might this be seen differently from the viewpoints of yourself, learner(s) and a respected colleague(s)? 
  • What can you then find out from educational literature about this issue?
  • Having looked at the incident or issue through these four lenses, has your view on what happened, and what you would do next, changed in any way? 
  • Was it, therefore, worth spending the time to undertake this exercise?
  • If you have selected a priority within the school development plan, how might you work with colleagues to create a whole-school response?
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