So I’m presenting at AERA in New York on March 27th along with some folks I went to school with and my thesis advisor. Some of the Visitor Research people from the Exploratorium will be there to speak, too. I’m going to talk about the importance of reflection in teacher research, and I have to edit my thesis so that I can submit it. I’ve never spoken at a conference before, so I’m excited and nervous. I’m blogging here to help me focus on why I’m going to this conference.
When I was at SFSU getting my MA in Education, I was exposed to a really powerful method for looking at my teaching practice. It’s called Descriptive Review and it was conceived by a group of independent, progressive educators in rural Vermont at the Prospect School. Prospect’s staff documented the children’s learning by writing down observations, taking pictures of the children’s work, and saving individual and group work. Today, the Archive consists of over 300,000 pieces, and is currently housed in the University of Vermont’s library.
How did the Prospect teachers make meaning out of all of this collected information? That’s where the Descriptive Review method comes in. It’s not easy to talk about what Descriptive Review is or why it works; it’s something that a person needs to experience and practice in order to really get it. A group of people sit together and, with help from a facilitating chairperson, slowly build meaning. I have participated in reviews about a child, a learning environment, a piece of curriculum, a transcript of what a child has said, a picture of children at work, a piece of art, and excerpts from my own teaching journal. As the process builds, participant’s reflections connect and interact, often in complex and surprising ways. Always I end in a new and unexpected place, just by allowing myself to listen to fellow educators and consider their viewpoint.
Why is reflection so important to me? It is so easy to remain in a “putting out fires” mindset of a bustling, busy day. It is quite difficult to slow down and stretch out my attention span so that I can appreciate the many possibilities that exist in a child’s painting, the subtleties of a child’s question, the contradictions within my own lesson plan, or the political implications of a school’s mission. When I don’t reflect on my teaching practice, my interactions with children and other teachers can be reactive: I can easily jump to conclusions, let bias get the better of me, make snap judgments about chaperones or entire school groups, blame a bad orientation on any number of things. But when we do Descriptive Review, we make no assumptions. We base our comments on what can be observed. We avoid labeling or diagnosing children. We see details that make up a more complete big picture, and are less likely to feel defensive or possessive about our role as teacher.
I liked Descriptive Review so much that I decided to start a group to practice it. Three other students joined me and together we formed an independent study group, meeting every week for academic credit with the support of our advisor. We researched the history of the Prospect School and read about other teacher research groups that practiced Descriptive Review. Some of us went to Vermont the following summer to meet the founders of the method and practice with educators from all over the country. Five semesters later, the independent study group on Descriptive Review is still functioning at SFSU, and a second group has formed for teachers who are not currently in school. We meet about once a month at my friend Karen’s house. She’s the only one in the group still in school – she’s going to write her thesis about this latest iteration of the group.
One of the best books I read in my program was Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it is a powerful passage that reminds me both of the reflection we do in Descriptive Review, and the philosophy we practice as Explainers.
Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are—or, as we are conditioned to see it. when we open our mouths to describe what we see, we in effect describe ourselves, our perceptions, our paradigms. When other people disagree with us, we immediately think something is wrong with them. But, sincere, clearheaded people see things differently, each looking through the unique lens of experience.
This does not mean that there are no facts. But each person’s interpretation of these facts represents prior experiences, and the facts have no meaning whatsoever apart from the interpretation.
The more aware we are of our basic paradigms, maps, or assumptions, and the extent to which we have been influenced by our experience, the more we can take responsibility for those paradigms, examine them, test them against reality, listen to others and be open to their perceptions, thereby getting a larger picture and a far more objective view.