Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Reflective Practice and Professional Development Planning

One valuable application of reflective practice is the improvement of every day personal practice that arises from identifying, capturing and systematically examining unexpected significant events that happen on a daily basis. Systematic critical analysis of relatively small events can be a very effective approach to practitioner problem solving and personal improvement. On first encountering this approach to learning many undergraduate students feel they are already instinctive reflective beings but once they have critically reviewed literature and experimented with critical incident theory in the workplace they start to report that they are more alert in the workplace and notice that each day is full of significant events that could become critical incidents. These may be events such as noticing body language and tonal cues that indicate an explanation has not fully made sense to pupils or clients. Reflection in action can often be a good solution at such times and can provide a cue as to when deeper reflection after the event might be needed to uncover a better solution. These events are largely unpredicted and awareness of reflective practice heightens sensitivity and helps practitioners become aware of them.

 I have met people who say it is important to think in terms of solutions not problems, this aims to stop people feeling they are drowning in a sea of problems when they could see themselves as swimming towards solutions. I do feel that a changed perspective as to what a problem is can also be valuable. In addition to rectifying problems where there is an obvious weakness that needs to be addressed there is always the task of how to get better at something we are already very good at doing. Purposeful improvement of already competent behaviour can also be seen as problem solving. Problems are something to be hunted out and addressed where-ever they lie, noticing that problems exist should not be seen as an indication of lack of competence or failure. In some organisations a blame culture can develop where problems are identified and the solution is to blame others for them, this can lead to stagnation and resentment. In the worst case scenario problems are ignored and major failure can result.   A no blame culture with a positive attitude to problem solving is key to good professional practice and a thriving organisation. Identifying a problem is the start of finding a solution and that is a vector that leads towards success.

Many workplaces have an organisational system that involves most employees in professional development planning, this often an annual cycle or target setting and learning. This can be an effective system and could be seen as a 'Do-Review-Plan-Learn-Do' cycle that has resonances with reflective and action inquiry cycles.

Do - behaviour in existing practice.
Review - identifying aspects of existing practice where improvement is needed.
Plan - setting achievable and relevant targets and the means by which they can be met.
Learn - implementing strategies through which new learning can be achieved.
Do - implement the improved practice that arose from the new learning.

 Within this over-arching cycle there is the opportunity to apply reflective practice strategies to implement a critical approach within the Review, Plan or Learn stages - reflective practice for professional development can have cycles within cycles. In addition to your main PDP targets you may have many minor development areas that arise as unplanned needs that may take a few minutes, hours or days to fullfil. Reflection and action learning may be effective strategies to apply to these as well.

 A professional development plan will often set multiple targets so there is a branching at the planning stage. If sufficient depth of learning is to be achieved it is important not to set too many main PDP targets, as a rule of thumb three targets is a sensible aim in any one year.
Fig 1. Basic PDP strategy.

The review stage is where reflective practice is particularly relevant, in the diagram below I have added some ideas for steps in a systematic review process. There are others that could also be relevant to augment some steps such as 'How do I feel about that?' - 'What do others feel about that?'. Reflective models offer ideas for structuring analysis of real world events. Exploring the application of models you find in the literature is a valuable means of testing theory against practice. You are likely to find yourself uncovering other questions that are valuable to a specific context. One of the important overarching learning outcomes from BA LTR modules is learning about what kinds of questions are useful to solve problems. You might find the ones in my diagram useful, there are many others that could be asked. In many of our modules we ask you to apply models that appear in literature and are widely accepted as being valuable. In order to meet module learning outcomes it is important that you carry out these tasks. Students are encouraged to show their autonomy in managing their learning by devising their own approaches to problem solving. I have started building in an active experimentation phase to some modules - this enables you to consider adoption of existing models and to build your own structures based on the foundations you meet in literature. 

Fig. 2. PDP with detailed review cycle.

Looking in more detail at the structure, each learning cycle could also be broken down by showing approaches such as those discussed by Kolb, Piggott-Irvine and others that BA LTR students will read about in the course literature. Piggott-Irvine (2000) highlights the potential complexity in her Problem Resolving Action Research model. Reflection and action based cycles can prompt new vectors that are related but tangential to the planned core learning path. For the purposes of time and word limit bound undergraduate modules we advise students to focus mainly on the main cycles in their assignments in order to provide sufficient evidence of deep analysis. Tangential paths may well be very valuable in work practice and are something that is sensible to discuss concisely in the stitching section of a module to show transfer of learning strategies and wider adoption across practice but it is important to keep to main cycles in the core patches of modules.

It is not unusual for all or at least some PDP targets to be treated as having been met after one cycle and for a different set of new targets to be identified in the subsequent annual cycle. A conscientious employee may well continue development by remaining aware of the potential for on-going improvement. Learning is a long term process hence the term 'life-long learning'. Learning is a transferable process and can extend across different contexts in the workplace and into life beyond work hence the term 'life-wide learning'. The life wide aspect was very much brought home to me in a stitching piece by a mature student in one of the first cohorts of the BA Learning, Technology and Research course. Having applied reflection in action and on action to good effect in her workplace she was also very please to be able to say she has transfered the skills to home life and was now winning all arguments between herself and her husband. Other students have mentioned using reflection to help plan decisions about where to go and what to do on holiday, how to manage financial decisions by reflecting on needs and then prioritising spending.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013


"Pupils learn to read 'in many ways', says laureate"

"The Department for Education said the ability to decode words was essential."

I do not disagree with the value of being able to decode words but I do not see phonics as a great way to learn about decoding. We have the great joy and horror of having one of the most inconsistent languages on the planet, it is also one of the most versatile and widely spoken. I have always been very wary of phonics, I found it to be a very confusing approach when I was at school, I have 5 children, 4 of which also found phonics confusing. Fortunately I had some old school teachers who also did not like phonics but did like classical education. I also had teachers who were interested in creative approaches to using language as well as some who 'knew' that phonics was the best way to teach. For me phonics was one of the more confusing aspects of learning the English language although it proved very useful when learning the more consistently pronounced Spanish and French. 

 I could get very stuck when asked to decode a word that was made up; a word that is not a word is not a word so a request to decode it did not make sense. What always did make sense to me was learning about the real roots of language. One point on that journey that stood out as significant was the day an uncle who was a keen photographer gave me a tri-cycle for my 5th Christmas, explained the meaning and compared it to the word bi-cycle and tri-pod. Lights started to go on, on the same day I linked bi and tri to the increasing complexity of sound between our doorbell that sounded a 'bing-bong' and my tricycle bell that went 'tring' and to the family of triplets in the next street; the codes within words started to make sense. As I progressed I noticed that words like these, they, them, had a 'the'ness to them as did this, that, those, and thing. That made far more sense to me than a non meaning related phonics approach. Linking decoding of words to sounds within the word never made sense to me, perhaps that was also linked to the impact of regional dialect. Some of our English teachers tried to teach us to speak correct Queen's English but we were in the Geordie heartlands and many parents were proud of regional language and pronunciation. Being taught to pronounce 'but' in a way that was more akin to 'bat' just sounded plain daft, made little sense and for some would lead to ridicule in the home. 

 We had geography and geology teachers in secondary school who were classically educated, understood the Greek and Latin roots of words and used that knowledge to help us understand terminology of the subjects. That was so much more useful than the attempts by English teachers to improve my spelling and decoding by getting me to stay in over playtime and write out endless phonemes or words that were similar to each other. By 13 it should have been fairly obvious that was not going to work with me. I remember reading the word 'pyrotechnics' in an Alistair McLean novel and subsequently using it in an English Essay. To me it was a beautiful word that had a construction that made sense, that gave it an importance that helped lock the spelling into my brain. The teacher had never heard of it and had to look it up in a dictionary. My spelling of it was perfect yet she still kept me in writing out; cal-en-dar, col-an-der as I had misspelled 'calendar' repeatedly in the same essay, probably because we would speak it as 'calanda' in Geordie. Why she ever thought that writing it out along side a very similar word would help me learn it or differentiate between the two I do not know. Perhaps explaining the link to the Latin 'calends' would have helped me lock down the spelling.  Missing playtime caused mental frustration, embarrassment and meant I often missed out on the letting off steam thing that is so important to growing boys. learning via phonetics is just a memorising of sound shapes and has little to do with being able to decode meaning, there are only so many words that can be learned in school and many many more that will be stumbled upon as life progresses, it is then that the ability to decode from roots of language really comes into its own. If well practiced any child who meets antidisestablishmentarianism will soon work out what it means and will probably not have too much trouble spelling it after hearing it either. 

Learning nonsense verse such as The Jabberwocky was more fun and made far more sense than having to decode non-word phonics combinations as there are hints of meaning and onomatopoeic resonances in many of the words. Galumphing and frabjous evoked a clear picture to me and that enabled me to attach importance and a reason for knowing the spelling. Many other words were explained such as the 'mimsy borogove' that is later described by Humpty-Dumpty. To me there appeared to be purpose in the nonsense in that there was an exploration of the ability of word sounds to provoke emotion, a sense of fun and a clear link to how new words can evolve or be created out of existing ones. 

In science the meaning of words like mon-oxide, di-oxide, xeno-phobic, quadri-ped, tri-lobe-ite, were joyfully clear to me as there were clear cues to help decoding meaning, even where meaning was not immediately clear the roots could be looked up and the sense of the construction elicited. Key to understanding scientific words is not the sounds of the parts, it is the consistent meaning of the parts. Whether trilobite is pronounced tr-i-lobite or tr-eye-lobite is of less importance than whether its meaning is understood. 

One strategy that really worked but is not infinitely replicable was the "You will never be able to spell this one..." approach. That was used by my O-Level geology teacher and lead me to be able to spell Mohorovicic discontinuity and rhipidistian crossopterygians before I had mastered 'calendar'. 

"Some children respond better to phonics, some to looking and seeing words and some learn by osmosis. Any good teacher knows you need a variety of ways of reading."

I agree with this statement as well, variety is critical in providing effective learning to a heterogeneous group of learners, one problem is how to provide variety in a way that does not amplify confusion, another is how to teach something well that does not make sense to the teacher. I have taught children who take to phonics like a duck to water but in my experience most did not, that might link to my own dislike of phonics. Despite being trained in how to teach phonics I find it difficult to teach with conviction as it does not work well for me, the same goes for teaching religion. I enjoyed helping children learn about religion and about humanism but would never want to teach a child to be religious or to cast off one religion in favour of another or of humanism, to me there is no evidence of there being 'One True Way' of understanding existence. I loved teaching language and achieved high standards by teaching it using a variety of strategies - combining them in a way that made sense to me and that I believed allowed many different kinds of children to make sense of language and see it as important. Having to teach phonics as part of my toolkit was a distraction to me, I do not believe it was 'The Way' and hope that combined approaches and exposing pupils to appropriate variety remains a key strategy for all teachers. 

Today the BBC are asking whether a phonetic alphabet could promote world peace. I heard mention of the place name "Ponteland" on the radio recently - like many strangers to Tyneside do it was pronounced" Ponty-land" as in land of the Pontys. The local pronunciation is more akin to "Pon-teel-and" That error is not really a threat to world peace. I really am divided on this issue, it does make sense for easy interpretation of the sound of a word by a non-native traveller who can decode phonemes to construct sounds that a local can understand but this is only of high relevance for the passing visitor or perhaps for languages that are complex hybrids or use a non alphabetical code. There was a sense of the being of a nation when I moved on from initial learning to say Spanish words, by interpreting their basic phonetics. That was necessary when using phrase books or bilingual dictionaries - look a word up in English, find the Spanish equivalent then try to say the word in Spanish. When I started to experience the language in longer conversations, where many new words are encountered, and I had to interpret what others were saying on the hoof as best I could; the common roots of words started to become clearer and more important. Mal, vent, and super were some of the first word fragments common to English and Spanish that I noticed, then hundreds started to cascade their meaning into place. That really helped me start to understand the subtleties of how language is constructed and what words are understood to mean. 

The SaypU system would distance the spelling of the word from its constituent fragments and from interpreting its meaning through summing the parts to make a greater whole..Writing 'egzit' for 'exit' destroys the inbuilt offering of meaning through the combination of ex and it. Besides I don't say egzit I use a softer 'ecsit' as in exit, oh dear why change what works well already.