Review: Cambridge Elements – Reflective Practice in Language Teaching – Thomas S.C. Farrell

For those that don’t know, Cambridge has an Elements series, which is basically a series of 50-page booklets aiming to cover all the relevant and recent research on a certain topic. When they are released, there is usually a two-week period in which they are free to download, then you need to pay for them. Some time ago, I downloaded VanPatten and Smith’s Explicit and Implicit learning in Second Language Acquisition and Farrell’s Reflective Practice in Language Teaching. I’ve already written a review for the former, which you can read here, but today I’m going to be reviewing Farrell’s Element. As usual, I’ll cover my main takeaways, things I liked/didn’t like, and some other stuff as well 🙂

Three-sentence summary

Farrell’s Reflective Practice in Language Teaching is a booklet in the Cambridge Elements series that aims to explain to the reader a short history of ‘reflection’ and then take a look a Farrell’s own model of reflective practice. Whilst the Element focuses on Farrell’s reflective model, he takes the time to talk about the influence that Dewey and Schön has had on it, as well as taking the reader through an ‘example’ of the model in action. This Element answers many questions, but it also leaves the reader with many more – so for those looking to have a good grasp on reflective practice, this might be an excellent starting point, but certainly not the only source of information you’re going to have to consult.

Three takeaways

As usual, there are way more than three takeaways. This Element has loads of little goodies inside, but I’ll jump on the major ones here.

“Essentially, I suggest that one of the main reasons scholars and practitioners alike have problems with “doing” reflective practice is a lack of understanding of what reflective practice is and how it can be operationalized in language teaching.”

Farrell, 2022, p.5
  • Reflection is many different ‘things’: In the first section of the Element, Farrell makes it clear that there are many definitions of reflection, reflective practice, etc. He argues that unless reflection itself is thought about critically, and “whose tradition [reflection mirrors]” (Farrell, 2022, p.5) is considered, then it is likely to remain vague and improperly operationalized. To provide an example, Farrell talks about the early views of reflection within language teaching, and writes how there was a ‘weak’ and a ‘strong’ version. The former was a thinking and informal evaluation process about one’s practice, which may or may not lead to changes in ones practice. The latter, however, was a type of reflection in which teachers systematically collected data about their teaching and used “that information to make responsible decisions about their teaching” (Farrell, 2022, p.6). Farrell also talks about the difference between Dewey’s and Schön’s perspectives on reflection, noting that both viewed reflection as essential, but Dewey focused on reflecting after an event, Schön encouraged both reflection-in-action (during the event) and reflection-on-action (reflection after the event). Finally, when we look at Farrell’s own reflective, Farrell encourages reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action, and reflection-for-action (i.e., proactive reflection that incorporates reflecting on the past to inform the future. An example of this (although not given in the Element) could be a teacher trying out a teaching technique for the second time – before the second class, they may sit and visualise what occurred last time and consciously make notes about the things they may need to do in this next lesson).

“I believe that engaging in reflective practice should not result in technical, rational teachers; rather it should result in integrated teachers because they have knowledge of who they are (their philosophy), why they do what they do (their principles), what they want to do (their theory), how they do it (their practice), and what it all means to them within their community (beyond practice).”

Farrell, 2022, p.20
  • Farrell’s model aims to be very complete: One of the main focus points of this Element is Farrell’s own reflective model, and as such there are a number of pages dedicated to looking at this in detail (as one would expect). Farrell’s model aims to make reflective practice very ‘complete’, covering all aspects of a teacher’s practice – philosophy, principles, theory, practice, and beyond practice. His model is heavily influenced by Dewey and Schön (as well as many others such as Kolb’s learning cycle, Brookfield’s lens, etc.), but he disagrees with the idea of reflection-as-repair, i.e., only engaging in reflection when there is a problem. In Farrell’s (2022, p.17) words: “I believe that reflection should not only begin with seeking answers to a problem but also allow for some kind of uncertainty in that we may not reach a clear solution”. Below I have included a brief overview of the main components of Farrell’s model and a brief explanation of each.
    • Philosophy: This refers to a teacher’s basic philosophy, and encompasses their life experiences, social and cultural backgrounds, etc. and how all of these elements determine their philosophy towards teaching.
    • Principles: Reflection on principles refers to reflecting on one’s “assumptions and beliefs about teaching and learning English as a subsequent language” (Farrell, 2022, p.21). By uncovering these beliefs, teachers can have a much clearer understanding of their actions as teachers.
    • Theory: This part of the model includes reflecting on “teachers’ planning and the different activities and methods teachers choose (or may want to choose) as they attempt to put theory into practice” (Farrell, 2022, p.21). Farrell notes that reflecting on critical incidents, responses to the incident, etc. is part of looking at and reflecting on ‘theory’.
    • Practice: This is most likely the most ‘common’ reflection we engage in or think about when we hear reflection. Farrell (2022, p.22) writes that this is where the teacher can “explore what they do in their classrooms and [closely] examine connections between their philosophy, principles, and theory with more visible actions and thus note any” mismatches between what they think and what they do. At this ‘stage’ within the model, teachers can reflect-in-action, on-action, or for-action.
    • Beyond Practice: This stage within the framework looks at “the moral, political, emotional, ethical, and community/social issues that impact teachers’ practices both inside and outside the classroom” (Farrell, 2022, p.22). Here the teachers consider issues other than their techniques, etc.; for example, a teacher might look at how a certain social norm within their teaching context affects the teaching/learning process (e.g., the learners’ perception of what a good teacher is). This, I suppose, could fall under the Freire’s notion of praxis, i.e., “the site where theory and practice come together to create action that leads to social change” (Hawkins & Norton, 2009, p.31). Interestingly, Farrell also emphasises that Beyond Practice needs to look at the teacher’s emotional perspectives towards learners, their practice, themselves, etc. He encourages this reflection on the ‘affective’ through an analysis of their language used when talking about certain areas of teaching (e.g., if they generally use positive language when talking about learners, then we might assume that they generally feel positively towards them).
Farrell, 2015, cited in Farrell 2022, p.21

“When we ask colleagues to help us look, we can develop a sense of community, and when we ask our students about our teaching, we are getting them to engage in reflective learning. All this is a win-win outcome for everyone involved in the community.”

Farrell, 2022, p.19
  • Reflection is a social act: Whilst reflection is often carried out by individual teachers, Farrell notes that the social element is often necessary (and vital!). Looking at his model, whilst he doesn’t say this, it would seem to me that it is almost impossible for a teacher to be fully ‘reflective’ through the eyes of Farrell’s model without gaining perspectives from others (learners or teachers). Looking at the example case study Farrell put forward (I’ll go into more detail about this soon), without a teacher educator or someone to provide a description of one’s teaching, it seems very difficult to be fully ‘reflective’ also. Whether you view this as a positive or negative thing is personal opinion, I think. Although, I will say that it seems that this observation falls very much in line with a social-constructivist approach to Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE), and in-line with what others have stated about (at least some) aspects of reflection (e.g., Roberts, and Richards).

What I liked

  • Includes a brief overview of the major influences on Farrell’s model: Rather than going straight into the ‘this is my model’ section, Farrell goes through the background of reflection in language teaching (briefly), and also talks about the reflective models that influenced his model. His description of Dewey’s and Schön’s models was succinct and to the point, but his analysis of the weaknesses I thought really insightful and something fresh. I say fresh because very often in literature, many author quote Dewey or Schön without critical analysing their models, simply stating something like ‘teachers need to engage in reflection-on-action’. Roberts was also very critical of this in his book Language Teacher Education. Farrell also does a good job a raising awareness of other important reflection models that the reader might like to take a look at, some of which I had never heard of before (e.g., Shapiro and Reiff’s R.I.P framework).

“I think it is important that teacher educators consider that when learner teachers are requested to reflect, often a top-down, “reflect on demand” type of imposed power differential is attached to the process wherein what teacher educators consider to be important “situations” override the perceptions of the learner teacher doing the reflecting. The likely outcome of such reflection is one of compliance, where the teacher looks to the supervisor for “what to reflect on” while going through the motions.”

Farrell, 2022, p.16
  • Is critical of reflection-on-demand: Farrell (2022, p.15) writes that we teacher educators need to be very aware of “whose interests are being pursued/met” when we get teachers to reflect, and this is something that struck a chord with me. I think back on my own teaching experiences, especially post-observation, and at the start of my career I remember reflecting on what the observer asked me to reflect on, and even though I found this beneficial, I think back now on that relationship and realise that perhaps I was just going through the motions and not engaging in reflection because I wanted to. I also think back to last year with an experience that I had with one of my teachers – she felt negative towards reflecting, or at least completing a written reflection after an observation, and I, in effect, told her that she needed to put more effort into her reflections. Here, I basically imposed my view of reflection on her. Both Robert’s and Farrell’s points regarding the idea of top-down imposed reflection has really got me thinking about how we teacher educators should be implementing, or at least encouraging reflection with our staff. I’ll talk more about this in the applying practice section shortly.
  • Farrell’s model encompasses more than reflection as repair, and looks at things we know are important: One of the things about Farrell’s model that stood out for me was how ‘broad’ it is, and how many areas teachers are encouraged to look at. For example, being asked or being helped to analyse one’s own past experiences and see how they are influencing one’s philosophy is really interesting and important (e.g., I’m thinking about things like the apprenticeship of observation here). Whilst I think that the model itself look simple, it is actually quite complex and it covers a whole lot of ground. Also, there is an emphasis on reflection-on, -in, and -for-action, whilst also covering personal emotions associated with language teaching and praxis. Perhaps, then, it is more than a model of reflection – could it be seen as a model for effective teaching?
  • The Damien case study is very detailed: In one of the sections of the Element, Farrell takes the reader through an example case study of the framework in action. A teacher, Damien, is interviewed, observed, asked to write reflections, asked to reflect on Farrell’s descriptive observations about his teaching, interviewed again, and has his interviews and reflection analysed for emotive language. All of this is done in such a way that Farrell is able to garner a complete picture of Damien, although with Damien’s input. It is hard to explain all of the processes succinctly (I’ll talk more about this soon), but needless to say that the framework, when used in this manner, certainly draws on a lot of data and discussion to build a reflective ‘teacher overview’ of sorts. I liked that there was quite a bit of detail in this section as it helped me to identify how the process might be ‘reverse engineered’ (more on this soon).

“I shared Damien’s complete descriptive reflections with him so that he could reflect on these descriptions without any comments, analysis, or interruptions. I believe that teachers constructing their own meaning, understanding, and knowledge of their practice is more important than creating a condition of what Fanselow (1988) has called “learned helplessness” (p.145), when others provide the analysis.”

Farrell, 2022, p.25
  • Farrell emphasises the social AND the individual aspect of reflection: One of the most interesting parts of the case study was seeing how Farrell recorded his observations (as descriptions of what occurred, Damien’s comments, etc.) and then provided these to Damien so that he could read them and come to his own conclusions about his own practice, the meanings of his actions, the discrepancies in his actions, etc. Farrell could have essentially said “this is what you say you do, this is what you do, and this is what you need to do / change” but he didn’t; rather, he provided these observations and then used these as a base for further exploration, both at the individual and social level. I feel that this falls very much in line with social-constructivist thinking, in that the framework recognises the “interdependence of the personal and social dimensions of teacher development” (Roberts, 1998, p.44).
  • Covers the basics of a whole-person-context reflective framework: The book doesn’t go into loads of detail, as you can imagine. But it does provide the basics, and whilst I wouldn’t say this is the first source of information people should eb reading to get an understanding of refletion, I will say that it could be a great starting point.

What I didn’t like

  • Very difficult to see how to operationalise the framework from the case study: So, one thing that I kept thinking while reading is “right, but how do I do this?”. For example, when taking a look at the Damien case study, Farrell covers very briefly the instruments used: semi-structured interviews, follow-up interviews (all transcribed), observations, reflective tasks. This is all well and good, but if I want to make this framework teacher-ready, then I need more than that. Now, I know that Farrell has many books out, some of which include this framework, but it would have been nice to have been able to see a little more detail about how he went about collecting this data, the questions that were asked, etc.
  • The framework involves a substantial amount of work: This is not so much a negative as it is a ‘warning’, in my eyes. I think that developing a case study such as Damien’s is an excellent idea, but I can see that to do this, there is a lot of work involved by both the teacher and the teacher educator. I really do feel that this work is worth the while, but I can see some teachers being put off from going at it because of everything that is involved. This being said, Farrell has noted that this is not meant to be a prescriptive framework, and so I am guessing that it could be ‘envisioned’ and operationalised in many different ways.
  • Discussion covered a lot of the same ground as the findings: The discussions section pretty much stated much of the same information in the Findings section. Now, we’ve all read plenty of research papers and know that this is part-and-parcel of academic studies, BUT if the Element is limited to 50 pages, I would think that the discussion could have simply referred to the information rather than re-stating it, perhaps saving space for more examples, tasks, etc. I just think that the space could have used more effectively.

Applying to practice

Ok, so I got excited when I thought about this section of the post as I already have a few things to take away.

  • Teacher profile: I personally think that Farrell’s framework is great but for many teachers would be difficult to take on on their own. So, I’m going to offer my teachers next year the opportunity to create a teacher profile like the case study over one of the terms of the year. I’ve included a possible procedure below, but would love any feedback!
    • Initial interview: In this first interview, there will be a list of questions that aim to elicit information about the teacher’s life experiences, philosophy and principles. In this interview, teachers would describe their teaching practices and perspectives on certain issues (e.g., corrective feedback). This part, though, could be done as a questionnaire prior to the interview. So this interview (and possibly questionnaire) would help build the teacher educator’s description of the teacher’s philosophy, principles, theory, and practice.
    • Two lesson observations and a descriptive account: These observations would be purely so that the observer can write a description of what occurs in the classes. Following the observation, there would be a postlesson interview with questions about what happened, and the teacher’s thoughts on the lesson. The observer would then write a descriptive account of the classes matching them against what the teacher has written/said (e.g., in the lesson, the teacher responded to learner errors by using recasts and delated correction. She mentioned in both the post-lesson reflection and the interview that dealing with errors was necessary for language learning, from both a learner’s and a teacher’s perspective).
    • Written task(s): In looking at the Beyond Practice, I think that getting teachers to expand their thoughts on these through writing might be best. So there would be a writing assignment in which teachers respond to questions such as “What do you feel are the effects of teaching on your learners?” and “What do you feel are a teacher’s responsibilities to their learners, or “How do you see the academy?”. I still need to flesh out the questions, but you get the idea.
    • Creation and delivery of the ‘teacher profile’: This is where the teacher educator takes all the notes from the lesson observations and the written task(s) and compiles the teacher profile – basically the same things as the case study of Damien. The difficult part here is analysing the interview notes and written task for ’emotive language’. Once this is done, everything is presented to the teacher to read over.
    • Final interview and thoughts: The teacher and educator get together to discuss what the teacher discovered about themself, and what conclusions they have come to (if any). This final interview could be linked with a SMART goal, or even follow-up interviews (if the teacher is on-board).
  • Reflection options: This very much follows with what I wrote in the applying to practice section for Robert’s book. Basically, I will look to provide teachers with varying options for the post-observation reflection. I am still up in the air about offering the ‘no reflection’ option, as I do believe that reflection is vital (and much of the literature tends to show that it is), but I also get the point raised by both Roberts and Farrell in that top-down imposed reflection can lead to negative sentiment.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers: I think teachers should definitely read this Element, although those with a few years of experience are likely to get more out of it. This being said, I have a feeling that this booklet was not written for teachers, per se.
  • Teacher educators: I do have the feeling, however, that the Element was written with teacher educators in mind – the people who may be pushing teachers to reflect, who may be working with reflective models already, and may be working with Farrell’s model already! Either way, teacher educators should definitely be reading this, if for nothing else to get an idea of where to look for more information. Farrell gives plenty of insight into other very important models and frameworks, and the reference list is full of some very interesting titles.

Some questions

One of my favourite ELT people is Rachel Tsateri – I’ve interviewed her before for Sponge Chats, and I read everything that she writes on her blog The TEFL Zone – I highly recommend checking it out. She read Farrell’s Reflective Practice in Language Teaching and had some questions. I’m going to try my best to answer them.

I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. I think the idea Farrell is trying to get across is from the start the emotional component is being focused on, with each of the ‘stages’ being linked to emotions in some way. In the case study, it seemed like Farrell elicited a lot of information from Damien and then only at the end conducted the analysis which included a descriptive account of the affective element. In my mind, then, the teacher may only become aware of the emotional ‘stuff’ at the end of the process, if the process is carried out like the case study, but then it seems to me that they are being asked to focus on the emotional dimension from the get go. This being said, Farrell does mention that the framework is not meant to be prescriptive, and so perhaps the case study was only one way of bringing it to life, and the analysis and exploration of the emotions could actually be done at a different stage. Not too sure – we might need Farrell to sort this one out 🙂

I find having a framework is easier to work from, and I do think that by intellectualising it, it becomes a little more ‘accessible’ and understandable. In the conclusion, Farrell (2022, p.47) talks about not seeing reflective practice as an intellectual exercise, and notes that his model aims to bring in the “spiritual, moral, emotional, or noncognitive aspects” as well – in effect, a more holistic approach to reflection. But like he said before this, before we engage in reflection we need to discuss whose tradition of reflection we are engaging in. For example, if we take a Dewey-like approach, then intellectualisation becomes part of the reflection.

But what about from a teacher educator perspective? I find making something (somewhat) scientific lends weight to the questions I ask or the areas I ask teachers to explore. This being said, perhaps making things too scientific, teachers start to rely on the applied science knowledge, and not their own practitioner knowledge. What are your thoughts?

I, too, was a little stumped when I came across this, and I feel that when Farrell talks about reflection-for-action, he means that we revisit the past to gain insight into what we could/should/will do in the uncertain future (I’m not sure I agree with the term uncertainty, though – it seems to convey the meaning that you have no idea about what’s going to happen and no idea about what you’re going to do, and no idea about anything really. Perhaps I’m reading into too much though). Farrell really disagrees with the idea of using reflection simply as a tool for repair, although I feel that it is a very good tool for this! Apart from the overview of what Practice is within the framework, though, he doesn’t actually go into too much detail. Again, another ambiguous response!

If you’ve read the Element, I’m sure Rachel (and I) would appreciate your answers!

Final notes

Farrell’s Reflective Practice in Language Teaching is a short, fast-paced read that is going to bring up as many questions as it answers. I definitely think it is worth reading, but with the thought that you’re going to need to explore a little deeper to get all the answers you want.

Book details

Book title: Reflective Practice in Language Teaching

Author: Thomas S.C. Farrell

Pages: 57

ISBN: 9781009013901

References

Farrell, T.S.C. (2022). Cambridge Element – Reflective Practice in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hawkins, M. & Norton, B. (2009). Critical Language Teacher Education. In Burns, A. & Richards, J.C. (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education (p.30-39). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, J. (1998). Language Teacher Education. London: Arnold.

2 Comments

  1. Rachel Tsateri says:

    Thanks for this in-depth analysis, Jim! I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions! My brain is kind of fried from writing the MALTLM assignments, so reading your thoughts was super useful and helped clarify some points.

    Yes, the uncertainty bit is a little hard to digest. It sounds like a waste of time if you don’t reflect-for-action. Then again, Girish and Zhenya’s comments on my blog, as well as Matthew’s words made me think of the importance of reflecting in order to appreciate our own growth and look at our ‘weaknesses’as part of your journey. Maybe it helps build confidence? Reflection-for self-appreciation rather than reflection-for-action? 🤔 Dunno!

    The teacher profile idea? I LOVE it! I’ve actually started writing a post ‘profiling’ myself (to use your words) but it will take a while to be published. I think it’s a wonderful project- the way you plan to collect the info throughout the academic year is brilliant. I just wonder: won’t the last part ( creation and delivery) be a little time-consuming for you? Why not encourage your teachers to kind of do it themselves, put the pieces together themselves. At least the most experienced/motivated ones? What do you think? Best of luck with it and let us know how it goes!

    P.S. 1: I thought of emailing Farrell, too, but I lacked the courage😂 😂
    P.S. 2: You know you are one of my favourite ELT people, too! I truly admire you for all you’ve done in such a short period of time! Your dedication, enthusiasm and insight are inspiring. Hopefully we can meet in person one day!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like the idea of reflection for self appreciation! Also, you’re right – it would be a lot of work, but I think with teachers’ workload then perhaps it would have to be done this way. Although I agree that they need to be the drivers more, so I could include some kind of final wrap up task where I put together the observations and and then they have questions that link to Farrell’s stages. For example, after reading X, what did your find out about your ‘philosophy’? Not sure… Will require a little more working through!

      And yes, I hope we can meet up one day! That would be great 😊

      Like

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