Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

What Is Reflection? Looking for Clarity in an Ambiguous Notion

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

What Is Reflection? Looking for Clarity in an Ambiguous Notion

Article excerpt


A surprising paradox is occurring today in the field of research on teaching and teacher education: Although there is broad agreement that reflection is crucial for teacher education and teaching improvement and change, there is also, at the same time, similarly broad agreement that there is no clarity on what reflection is. What is even more surprising is that this uncertainty over the meaning of reflection arises although the vast majority of approaches are all based on the same theoretical sources, which are very well defined: mainly Dewey (1) (1910/1978, 1933/1986) and Schon (1983/1991, 1987).

Just to cite some examples, Davis (2006) takes reflection (productive reflection, in her words) as consisting of integrating ideas on different aspects of teaching; Quinton and Smallbone (2010) consider reflection as a kind of teacher's self-assessment or self-awareness defined by a series of steps; Gelfuso and Dennis (2014) consider reflection as a process to produce a warranted assertion, and they define this process by means of the phases proposed by Dewey (1933/1986); Postholm (2008) considers reflection (forceful reflection, in her terms) as thinking in new ways or seeing things from other angles, pointing the way to development; Loughran (2002) considers reflection (effective reflective practice, in his words) as the process of understanding the practice setting from a variety of viewpoints; and Korthagen (2001, 2010) considers reflection as the transition between different types of knowledge (from gestalt to schemata to theory).

There must surely be several and different reasons why common and well-defined theoretical sources have generated this great ambiguity in the notion of reflection. Be that as it may, the current ambiguity in the notion of reflection poses a serious problem for teaching and teacher education research and practice. Considering the central role that is given to reflection within the field, the ambiguity in its meaning may carry the danger that this notion becomes not only useless but also an important obstacle to understanding and improving teaching. The problems of this ambiguity for research have been already highlighted, for example, by Rodgers (2002), whereas others (e.g., Akbari, 2007; Mena, Sanchez, & Tillema, 2011) have also stressed the problems that an ambiguous notion of reflection may imply for teachers' practice and for the improvement of teaching.

This article aims to go back to the theoretical sources to clarify the notion of reflection and establish criteria to clearly define and recognize what reflection is and what it is not.

What Is Reflection?

Reflection Exists

In some approaches, reflection is considered almost utopian: something that teachers and student teachers should do, but rarely manage (Korthagen, 2001; Mena et ah, 2011). From this conception of reflection in teaching, many proposals have focused on assisting teachers to reflect, for example, by means of scaffolding scripts (Harford & MacRuairc, 2008; Quinton & Smallbone, 2010), but the literature keeps finding that, even with assistance, it is difficult to make teachers reflect (Davis, 2006; Gelfuso & Dennis, 2014; Postholm, 2008). Of course, in any of these approaches, the nature of assistance and the characterization of reflection depend very much on how reflection is understood. For example, Gelfuso and Dennis (2014) characterize the extent to which teachers reflect according to whether or not they proceed through the five phases of reflection proposed by Dewey (1933/1986) in How We Think, (2) concluding with warranted assertabilities about teaching and learning; Postholm (2008), instead, decides whether teachers reflect or not according to whether they use general theories as proposed by Schon (1987) to see possibilities for change and improvement in their teaching; by contrast, the criteria used by Davis (2006) is whether or not teachers integrate ideas about different aspects of teaching in a way that is beyond description and juxtaposition. …

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