How critical reflection can guide learning in your service

Published on Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Last updated on Monday, 24 February 2020

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Reflective practice in early childhood education sets the stage for critical reflection. This ‘next level’ approach applies the same system of observing and questioning but goes further by seeking a diversity of opinion and requiring an openness to change. 

According to early childhood educator and blogger, Jodie Clarke, the aim of critical reflection is to “Use it as an ongoing tool to build on your current practice and ask important questions not only of those actions, environment and activities but also of why you choose to do those things the way that you do, how theories and perspectives might have informed your approach, how your actions might have impacted on others' and what others viewpoints on this approach or action might be.” 

Practice and time are required to build the skill of critical thinking and it’s a powerful form of ongoing learning that can take educators beyond their own understandings and knowledge. 

What is critical reflection?

Critical reflection is a form of personal learning and development that involves thinking about practices and procedures with intent and honesty. It needs to be embedded in daily practice and can be a challenging skill requiring the ability to question and change deep-seated assumptions and practices.

Application of critical reflection starts by engaging with your own thoughts, feelings and experiences on what is occurring within a work setting and rigorously scrutinising the assumptions that underpin your perceptions. 

The next step is to draw in different viewpoints to learn and evaluate how you may change your approach or perspective on an event. This can lead to new conclusions, possible changes and new ideas to inform future planning and actions.

The idea is that you not only explore your own reaction to an event or experience but you are also examining them from alternative viewpoints, such as through the eyes of a colleague or by reviewing relevant literature and theories, and considering if change is required in your approach or perspective.

Critical reflection involves:

  • Reflecting on your own personal biases
  • Examining and rethinking your perspectives
  • Questioning whether your perspectives generalise
  • Considering all aspects of experiences
  • Engaging in professional conversations with colleagues, families, professionals and community members 
  • Using reflective questions to prompt your thinking. 

Working with children compels constant reflection on how an educator’s practice is influenced by their worldview. Engaging in critical reflective practice allows you to examine your practice and gain insights from various viewpoints to inform future decision-making.

Why is critical reflection important?

The practice of critical reflection in early childhood education is to ensure the best possible outcomes for children. 

Critical reflection offers many benefits for an educator, as the process is part of an active learning experience to promote professional development. Some of the benefits of engaging in critical reflection include:

  • Strengthening professional practice
  • Generating learning
  • Engaging higher order thinking and creative practice
  • Helping educators make sense of experience
  • A vehicle for problem solving 
  • Allowing the development of deeper understandings 
  • Building valuable insights to inform decision-making and manage issues more effectively

Critical reflection provides a framework to think differently about working through various issues and obstacles, and helps educators make purposeful changes to practice to improve children’s outcomes. 

How to apply critical reflection in your practice

Australia’s Early Years Learning Framework offers some helpful questions to guide reflection, these include:

  • What are my understandings of each child?
  • What theories, philosophies and understandings shape and assist my work? 
  • Who is advantaged when I work in this way? Who is disadvantaged?
  • What questions do I have about my work? What am I challenged by? What am I curious about? What am I confronted by?
  • What aspects of my work are not helped by the theories and guidance that I usually draw on to make sense of what I do? 
  • Are there other theories or knowledge that could help me to understand better what I have observed or experienced? What are they? How might those theories and that knowledge affect my practice?

To get started, break the process into manageable chunks. Begin with just two of the questions and be patient – it takes time to explore multiple perspectives.

To be successful the process of critical reflection requires a participatory culture and leadership support, engagement is more likely to happen when there is a culture of openness and trust where everyone has a voice and is listened to. 

Educators need to feel they can openly question, offer ideas and raise concerns about their own and the service’s practice. Recognising there is no single or ‘right’ way to approach complex issues is also an important element in supporting reflective practice.

An article by Queensland University of Technology lecturer Melinda Miller lists the following key elements required to build a reflective culture:

  • Direct teaching - Some educators require explicit support when learning about and applying processes of critical reflection.
  • Modelling - Educators with experience in critically reflective practice are well positioned to model processes of reflection to colleagues. Examples from everyday practice can provide a basis for discussion, modelling and teaching.
  • Collaboration - A collaborative approach to critical reflection is valuable because multiple voices and perspectives are included in discussions. Collaboration can occur between educators, other professionals, children and families. 
  • Physical spaces and resources - Create an environment that is conducive to reflective practice. Educators require access to current literature (professional magazines, journal articles, texts) to extend their knowledge base. Prompts such as a highlighted section of an article or a question written on a noticeboard can be used to support critically reflective practice.
  • Time - Effective critical reflection takes time and practice. Opportunities for individual and collaborative reflection are necessary to build educators’ skill levels.

Other strategies to support reflective practice include: 

  • Establishing routines to allow reflection to occur regularly. Allocating time during a regularly scheduled meeting to reflect on practice across the service, as well as personal ‘reflection’ time in a prescribed time slot during the day.
  • Networking with other services. Regularly meeting with people in the wider community can provide insights into the way the service is perceived by others. This provides opportunities to explore ways the service can become more responsive to the interests and needs of families and children in the local community.

Thanks to Jodie Clarke, The Empowered Educator Online and ACECQA for their insights on critical reflection which helped write this article.

Further reading

Unpacking Critical Reflection
The Spoke
Critical Reflection 

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