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Reflective Practice

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I made an audacious suggestion to my administration this past year about reflective practice. Each week teachers at my school are asked to submit their lessons plans for the coming week on Friday to their administrative evaluators. My suggestion was that instead of doing a forecast of what we wanted to do for the next week, we should instead all do a post mortem of what had happened the past week. My rubric for the post mortem was simple: describe what went well and describe what didn’t go so well. Now let me say in full disclosure a couple of things. First, my administration did not adopt my suggestion. Second, I added a section of reflection to my own forward looking lesson plans and found that section very easy to write and extremely helpful. (I guess I am a critical-analytical type anyway.)

[I should also say that I don’t do this enough. All the excellent teachers that I admire do this. The whole blogging and tweeting movements are basically teachers with highly developed reflective skills putting themselves and their practice
on display for others to be encouraged and challenged. Now you don’t have to be famous to blog, but the activity of putting down what went well and what didn’t go so well is extremely valuable, *even just for you.* Let me repeat, even if you have 1 follower
or 5001 followers, reflection is the key to improvement and growth. I know this in my bones. I just don’t do it enough.]

When I have been reflective, when I have been analytical, I and my students have both benefitted. Let me share a few examples of reflection which I have done and how it impacted my teaching.

One week I only shared something in the “What Went Well [WWW]” section. In fact, there was very little in that section except the following “Gravitational waves last week!!” I put this comment in the WWW section because I am a firm believer that students of physics need to know that the topics (physics, waves) which they are learning about have relevance and significance in the real world. We all know that experimental confirmation of Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves as a capstone to his theory of general relativity was huge. I can’t imagine a physics class in the country, nay even the world, that could have ignored that topic. What I am saying by this reflection is that “yes, you took time to pause and bask in the relevance of physics and the triumph of experimental physics to successfully support theory.” Yes, there is pressure to cover material and meet standards, yes there is a schedule, but there are also teachable moments and crucial opportunities to make a special day or experience coincide with a student’s experiences. Imagine saying in 5-10-15 years, “Oh yeah! That was the year they confirmed gravitational waves, 2015-2016, Weisenfeld’s physics class, 2nd period.”

One week I only shared one thing in the “What Could Have Gone Better [WCHGB]” section. I wrote: “Objects move at a constant velocity in a straight line unless acted on by a force, I’m not sure students all believe that.” For those of you who remember your high school physics, you might recognize this as Newton’s First Law, or the Law of Inertia. In this reflection I was saying something at once simple and yet profound. Newton’s extension of Galileo’s experiments on inertia basically upended the current (and still prevailing notion!) that objects that are moving must have a net force on them. This was a major topic of that week, and the simple statement for WCHGB is that not all students are making that connection yet. To realize that your teaching has failed is hard! But the profoundness of the statement is that they not only need to have the knowledge of that fact, but they have to really believe it to prove that they have learned it! What I was saying in this reflection is that I don’t think we should move on yet. That directly affects teaching practice.

Imagine writing lesson plans each week for this coming year by starting with a frank analysis of what went well (WWW) and what could have gone better (WCHGB). What I have seen in my practice is that this has been transformative in how I gauge my effectiveness and in how I set my plans for the coming week. I should do it more often!

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