• Suzanne Axelsson

How to master being reflective

Taking the time to reflect... it should be one of the simplest things to do, and yet often it feels impossible... as where do we get that time from..?


Often educators are not given the time or sufficient time to reflect both personally and also together with their colleagues. Every where we turn these days we are being told about the importance of reflection - to analyse the documentation we have been collecting etc - we know and understand the benefits, but reality often prevents that time from materialising... colleagues become sick or are away, or things happen that require all educators to be with the children rather than one being able to leave to do some reflecting, let alone do that with a colleague.

Preschools are seldom designed, time-wise, to allow reflection. Here in Sweden preschool pedagogues have a max of 40 hour working week which they have to cover the 60 hours the preschool is open. There is always the puzzle of how to arrange planning time, reflection time etc... knowing full well that this will result in lowering the teacher ratio - so if the guidelines say we should to be x number of pedagogues for every y number of children this will radically change if pedagogues stop interacting with the children to be able to focus on reflecting with the documentation especially together with colleagues.

If a high quality preschool is dependent on the educator:child ratio - are we reducing the quality by the fact educators spend time child-free reflecting? At the same time are we reducing the quality of the early years setting if we are not providing adequate reflection time?

In my research, while doing my masters about quality in preschools, the three educators I interviewed all mentioned this problem, one of them it was not as much of a problem as this educator worked at a setting that was only open 45 hours a week... it was SO much easier for them to arrange child-free time without impacting the adult/child ratios when there were 15 less hours for the staff to cover... Preschools in Sweden are legally required to be open 12 hours a day to meet parental needs (less if there is not that need). It is always a tricky balance... educare is a place of care and a place of education where sometimes these roles create problems... being open 12 hours a day to take care of 1-6 year olds while parents work is the best service to the parents (and the children of those parents who need care). While education-wise much shorter days would be optimal for children's well-being, learning and development. Not only from the child's perspective of not being overwhelmed or exhausted by long days - but also from the perspective of the educators having the time to properly reflect and plan so that the play-ecosystem is primed for optimal play-responsive education.


What I realise is that there is a huge need not only for time for reflection but also support.

How should we be reflecting in order to improve our practice?

What kind of documentation do we need, and how should we be analysing it?

Do all kinds of reflection lead to improvement, or are some forms better than others?

Are some educators reflecting on what the children do, or on how the children learn - or both, what difference does this make?

How are these reflections being documented? Are educators returning to these reflections again to deepen their understanding and to connect to new observations and reflections?

Is what they are learning from these processes getting put into practice... and how is this being documented and analysed?

Are educators being given the training in how to document, analyse, reflect and put ideas into practice?

And how do you train teachers in this... is there an approach that is better than another, or are there many perspectives and approaches?



Before moving onto ideas of planning teacher training I thought I would share this image to provoke reflection...

How do you see learning and teaching? As a hierarchy or within a system of equity...

In the ego logical men are at the top, then come women and mammals -- but where are children?

Historically women were classified as children, and therefore not capable of voting etc...

But that is another story...


Maybe for play to be truly valued society needs to truly value children...


I keep writing about the play-ecosytem, as a space to aid reflection of the relationships of learning, teaching, play and understanding - and it strives to create a space for educators to understand the multiple roles and power balances in spaces where we work with children...


The Original Learning Approach leans on the idea of the play-ecosystem a lot... it is hard to be a play-responsive educator if you do not understand the the intricacies of the play-ecosystem .


Teacher training needs to consider that we are "life-long learners". I found a presentation. I once listened to, by Marco Snoek really interesting - the idea we are, as educators, evolving - student, novice, experienced and master teachers... and as there are many areas within teaching. we can be at multiple levels at the same time... as you see in this model I have put together based on his thinking - we could maybe master supporting the learning of the children, be experienced at developing teaching and learning, but be a novice at supporting the learning of colleagues...


So at first one learns how to be a teacher, then you need time to be new as a teacher, then you get experienced and eventually you start to master. It might be that some teacher training colleges are inadequate at some parts - so that when a person starts being a novice teacher, they also become a student at the aspects that were not covered properly in the teacher training.


I would also like to point at that no matter where we are on the circle - student, novice, experienced or master - we need to always be continually learning. One cannot remain a master within teaching if we are not continuously engaging in reflective practice where curiosity and critical thinking are driving forces. Think about the ego-logical and eco-logical image... amassing knowledge, mastering a skill does not place one higher up the hierarchy, just empowers your ability to do your job well.


I once reflected over this in a more specific way, rather than a sense of being experienced or mastery. How could the process of observation, reflection and action could be best supported. The following schedule was drafted... not as a must-do thing, but could this be a part of reflective practice, allowing regular intervals of studies? At the same time I am not keen on labels, and this kind of system might do that, and put more worth on the master teacher... my own gut feeling is that this circle should be the same as my approach to children and adults - we are equals as humans and that the "master" should always be open to learn from the "student" because they will have different experiences, read different things, and have different contents in their "pockets" of life?


  • STUDENT: for 3.5 years or more, like it is now in Sweden to be a preschool teacher, but this can also apply to other trainee teachers

  • NOVICE: a two year period working in a school/preschool as novice teacher, with mentorship

  • the novice teacher then returns to university/college for six months to gain more training. This gives them time to reflect on the experiences of being a teacher, the interactions with children, parents, colleagues and the curriculum to have a better understanding of what they need to learn more about to become...

  • Fully qualified teacher: they return to their setting to put some of that new found theory into action. During the following years they become an..

  • EXPERIENCED teacher. After at least 10 years of experience as a teacher there is an opportunity to return to university/college to become a

  • MASTER teacher. The interaction of years of experience can be deepened with more and relevant theory and time for deep reflection and this can then be applied back in the classroom/preschool afterwards.

I feel that this approach would allow not only the teachers to re-invigorate their teaching approaches but also for teacher training colleges to be become better aware of what educators actually need. Teachers will be able to inform the teaching colleges of what was missing in their original training, and patterns can be seen if it is the same sort of knowledge that is missing and be able to address it. For instance, I find that many new teachers are unprepared for neurodiversity and how to interact and support neurodiverse learning environments.


Reflection. There is a massive lack of time set aside for real reflection, and the above approach to teacher training and continued teacher development books in set periods of reflection. But of course this is just a dream, and is not reality. There is a real need to work out how reflection can be a part of the daily lives of educators... as individual reflections and together as a team.


Reflection requires that we break out of our norms and comfort zones to really take notice and think about the causes and affects. Reflection requires a kind of brutal honesty, that dares to accept mistakes and learn from them.


I know over the years watching colleagues evaluate our academic year that there is a loathing to admit not getting it right... especially in the box checking kind of evaluations - there tends to be a focus on those children who have engaged in all the activities and learned and developed as we hoped - and those children that make the statistics look bad get ignored. Life is messy and complicated and I doubt any school or class can get it right for every student all of the time - but we can strive towards that and learn more about how children learn and how we teach. But it means being honest.

As an autistic person I do not lack that brutal honesty and that can be irritating at times for those I work with who want to tick all the boxes for the sake of the parents and the local authorities... while I appreciate that we want to ensure we maintain the confidence of the parents that we are doing a good job, that their children are safe and learning, if we sugar coat the reality we are denying ourselves opportunities to evolve for our own sake and the sake of the children.

This is why I feel we need a greater focus on how do we reflect.

We not only need to create, but also disrupt, in order to create sustainability in schools/education. Disrupting can make people feel uncomfortable... and let's be honest most people actively avoid feeling uncomfortable. Education tends to be normative if we are not engaging in the uncomfortable questions and that there is a need for a more reflexive society.


How about reflecting on "understanding"... how do we know when someone understands something? and did you know that we often think others understand us because we like them, rather than actually checking to see if they have actually understood. I think this happens in the classroom but also in the teacher training institutions... that words like observation and reflection are being used with the assumption that everyone knows what they mean and how to do this... yet when a group of Palestinian educators visited Sweden a few summers ago to learn about preschools here, they constantly asked the teachers they met how do you observe, what kind of observations do you make and how do you use them to create lesson plans or plans for learning and play? None of the teachers they asked this to was able to answer them in a way the teachers felt satisfied... the Palestinians complained, that they just kept answering "we observe the children play" but never what was it they were observing, or how... etc

Are we providing an adequate teacher training when there is a risk for not fully understanding how much each student comprehends and whether they are actually able to apply the theory. Shouldn't the focus be based so that there is an understanding of how the trainee teachers (learners in a classroom too) are interpreting and comprehending the theory. Only this way can we assure that educators are adequately equipped for their future profession.


Maybe the true goal of education should be about everyone being able to see themselves and understand who they are and learn to be a part of society - the norm being so restrictive we prevent people from seeing themselves - instead we are forced to see the norm and to try and adapt to that.

Reflecting on the power of knowledge is another area to consider... does the teacher/adult sit with all the power? Knowledge is often deemed as power - seeing the child as an empty vessel that needs to be filled or should we be sharing that power, by listening to the child/learner to discover what they already know and to build from there... but also to allow the children to learn from each other. This was something the children in Gästrike Vatten's Board of Children made clear in our evaluation with them, that they realised that they could all learn from each other, and not just the adults, that by them becoming active listeners not just having to hear what the teacher says. The oldest child was happily surprised that she could learn from others that were 4 years her junior. The teacher down system relies on the assumption that the older you are the better you are.

I think that age does allow us to gain more experience and more knowledge, because we have had more time to gain knowledge and experience to reflect on... but there is an equality in our capacity to learn (of course we do not all learn the same things, or in the same way or that all of us learn according to the learning norm - but there is an equality in our humanity). In other words... when I talk with my preschoolers, or older children or adults, I go in with the agenda that I will learn from them and that I will share my experience and my knowledge when needed. It can be that I learn new facts... that they have been to places and done things or read things that I have not - it might be that I learn more about the children, as an individual, as a group, or how they learn etc etc. I go to the group as teacher and learner... and encourage the children to also come as teacher and learner. Frequently adults explain stuff to children rather than entering a dialogue with them. A dialogue can allow the children to learn the same stuff as an explanation would, it is simply viewing the child as competent rather than something that needs to be stuffed with facts.


Reflecting on our relationships with the children, how we talk to them is essential. Are we valuing children as humans equal to our own humanity - or is there a hierarchy? And how does this hierarchy impact how you teach or interact with learners.


I once chatted with Eero Ropo , a professor of education based in Tampere University, Finland, about education in Finland and Sweden, as I had raised earlier in the day that Swedish preschools were not always this perfect educational approach that the rest of the world seems to see... he said that this was also true of Finnish schools/education... that the rest of the world was cherry picking the best elements and not seeing the complete picture. This is in no way to diminish the Finnish or Swedish educational systems... but maybe we all need to reflect without rose-tinted glasses, and to admit that we are cherry picking - after all isn't this exactly what Loris Malaguzzi was doing when he created and continued the Reggio Emilia Approach - he cherry-picked theories, approaches, methods and research to put together a pedagogical approach that would work in the city of Reggio Emilia at that time... he said "our Vygotsky" which implies how he/they interpreted Vygotsky and which bits were useful for them. We need to look honestly at what we are doing. And that includes being reflecting on what we are including and not including.


Education should be for people and the planet and not for the economy, like it is now. That the economy should be there to serve us, and not for us to serve the economy. The world is filled with people that create doubt so that people do not change their habits (think global climate, additives, smoking etc etc) - is doubt being created in education so that change does not happen? I mean why do teachers around the world stay in a profession they feel is not productive or the best for the children/students they work with. Why do we consent to the policies? Why do we comply?

I once listened to Anja Swennen's presentation on the history of teacher training colleges in The Netherlands during the Second World War and how they complied with the Nazi's to remove books with Jewish etc content and accept the nazification of the training programme. The reason given is that the teachers thought it would pass... it was just a phase... very few made a stand against it, although some did.


I keep reading about the need to revolutionise education, to change it etc and have done for many many years now... and I also hear a frustration of nothing happening...

So how do we create a disruptive capacity in our schools in order to create sustainability... where sustainability is not just climate, economic but also social etc... Should we be doing things better or doing better things? Now that is something to reflect on? Does it need to be one or the other? How does multiplicity fit into all of this? Really it all starts with time. Making the time to start reflecting.

This has been part of the goal of #slowdown #lookclosely #listedeeply - to create time to not slow down enough to notice and also to reflect on what we notice. How does it make us feel? How does it feel to slow down... so reflecting not only on what we notice but also on how we feel and experience noticing within ourselves so that we can recognise how to be good at Observing and to master how to reflect be knowing it through doing.



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