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TESOL Arabia Dubai, UAE March 29, 2006 Reflective Teaching in an Online Environment Robert S. Williams The American University in Cairo What is reflective teaching How does one ‘do’ reflection

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reflective teaching in an online environment

TESOL Arabia

Dubai, UAE

March 29, 2006

Reflective Teaching in anOnline Environment

Robert S. Williams

The American University in Cairo


What is reflective teaching

How does one ‘do’ reflection

Why I decided to be a reflective teacher

How using a reflective teaching journal saved my hybrid course

From the Journal

Voices from the Students

what is reflective teaching
What is Reflective Teaching?

Reflection is thinking about something in a purposeful way

Dewey (1933) defines reflection as “…active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or practice…”

As teachers, we can reflect on classroom decisions and events, but reflection also involves the emotional, passionate, and intuitive side of teaching

So reflective practice in teaching necessarily encompasses critical self evaluation, which can be difficult emotionally

The Thinker

Auguste Rodin

can we reflect on teaching alone
Can We Reflect on Teaching Alone?

“The process of learning and that of teaching go together, just as do buying and selling. No one can buy unless some sells, and no one can teach unless someone else is learning” John Dewey (1910, p. 5)

Teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists as part of a system, along with learning, and situational contexts such as administrations, cultures, etc.

Being a reflective practitioner then means reflecting on the relationship between teaching and learning and between teachers and students.

John Dewey1859 – 1952

why is reflective practice relevant to modern teaching
Why is Reflective Practice Relevant to Modern Teaching?

A good teacher should learn while teaching, and reflection turns experience into learning

Constructivist learning incorporates reflection into the learning process, where learners learn by observation, processing, and interpretation, and then personalize the information into personal knowledge (reflection)

Photo by Bill Thompson

how does one practice reflection
How Does One Practice Reflection

Reflection can be done individually, interactively, or situationally.

It can be carried out by thinking, journal keeping, reading, conversation

Schön (1983) introduced the phrase a reflective conversation with a situation.

Image: Hand with Sphere

by MC Escher

cunningham florez 2001 model of reflective practice
Cunningham Florez’ (2001)Model of Reflective Practice
  • Collect descriptive data – reflective journals, theoretical literature, talking to colleagues
  • Analyze data – in terms of attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, goals, power relationships, etc.
  • Consider how the situation or activity could have been different – examine alternatives to teacher behavior and choices and beliefs behind classroom teacher behavior
  • Create a plan to incorporate new insights.

Mallorie Ostrowitz

"Ladder Reflections"

about the class
About the Class

The class, Learning and Teaching Online, was a six-week summer graduate seminar.

It was offered in hybrid mode – half FTF and half online.

Students were in the MATEFL program at AUC.

Thomas Hawk

The Game

  • The course was task-based, interactive, and constructivist, which meant that students were required to think and act somewhat independently and to work as members of small teams in solving tasks.
  • My roles as the instructor were many, but mainly I was the guiding member of the learning community.
course activities
Course Activities

Course activities consisted of:

  • Acquiring a theoretical background for online learning
  • Using the theoretical background to form a set of guiding principles for designing an online language class
  • Learning to build an online courseusing the WebCT course management system

Thomas Hawk

Toy Store

The course project: Designing and building a six-week online language course using WebCT. Each course project was accompanied by a paper that justified the course design and content according to the groups’ guiding principles.

course activities cont
Course Activities, cont.

Theory acquisition and the learning of WebCT was done in the FTF mode during the first three weeks of the class.

Construction of guiding principles and all course project work was done online during the second half of the class.

For guiding principles construction, the class of 12 was divided into two online discussion groups.

Thomas Hawk

Seaside Romance

The course project was done in pairs or individually.

This meant that most work during the task-based online part of the class was interactive.

how i became a reflective teacher
How I Became a Reflective Teacher

Sounds like a great course, huh?

From my reflective teaching journal, June 2005

“Frankly, I was upset and a bit hurt after class. I feel like I’ve put my heart and soul into making a great course, and into teaching the way I would like the students to teach. So, when I sense a lack of trust, and when some students tell me that I’m being unfair to them, it hurts. “

Thomas Hawk

Trouble in Mind

why my feeling were hurt
Why My Feeling Were Hurt

Like most people who have been teaching for a long time, I consider myself a skilled teacher, one who has mastery of content and the ability to interact meaningfully with students in a learning community.

I also spent an enormous amount of time building the class – finding the best readings, constructing the course tasks, and lining up an expert from our IT department to help with learning WebCT, a component of the class.

I also took care, or so I thought, to incorporate community-building and anxiety-lessening activities into the curriculum.

Thomas Hawk

Lost His Way

what i did
What I Did

Upon encountering student frustration, my first reaction was to complain about it to colleagues.

Listening to myself talk to them, and to their feedback, made me realize I had do something to fix the problems.

This meant I had to take a critical look at myself, not only as a teacher, but as a part of the teaching-learning system.

I decided to take Schön’s advice and have a reflective conversation with the situation.

Thomas Hawk

My Friend Shadow


Thomas Hawk

Letters and Signs.

…I started a reflective teaching journal.

the reflective journal
The Reflective Journal

I wrote in the journal everyday after class and even on some days when I didn’t have class.

I wrote about how things went in class in an honest way, giving myself credit where credit was due and criticism where that was due.

The “conversation” with myself in the journal allowed me to vent my negative feelings and then to reach a catharsis, which allowed me to better understand myself and my students.

I was then able to direct my energy in positive directions.

the reflective journal cont
The Reflective Journal, cont.

The most valuable outcome of my reflection was that it allowed me to understand and manage student anxieties, without taking them personally.

These anxieties were caused by:

  • A challenging class
  • The short summer term
  • Learning new technology
  • Being asked to perform new types of classroom tasks: reaction paper, the course project, interacting and producing outcomes online
from the journal
From the Journal

Today we were able to spend the entire 1.4 hours discussing the readings, though we did talk a bit more about the first assignment, a reaction paper. This was the cause of some anxiety, since not everyone had previous experience doing a reaction paper. I thought my prompt was pretty specific and clear, and our discussion of the assignment bore this out.

However, an interesting cultural element was present. The assignment asked the students to synthesize the readings by developing three principles of online learning from their perspective. Many of the non-American students were confused about the idea of forming principles on their own. One asked where they should get the principles, and I explained that they would develop them.

from the journal 2
From the Journal (2)

A tough day – introduced project, which caused even more anxiety. Some students felt it was unfair and an extra burden not to be able to do their project in Arabic.

I spent the entire day talking about the project and reassuring the students. This often the case when students are asked to do new learning. None of them have ever done a project like this, and are afraid of failure. They may also be afraid that I will grade harshly. From the beginning we’ve talked about building a learning community, and the kind of trust we need to establish among the group to make it work. This not only included them trusting each other, but also them trusting me to be fair in my evaluation of them.

from the journal 3
From the Journal (3)

[Dealing with student anxiety and anger] is also emotionally draining, and I vented my hurt feelings the next day. I couldn’t help it. Thinking about things later, I realized that frustration engenders a range of emotions, including anger, which I definitely felt from some students.

However, this is all part of teaching. I am a believer in sociocultural models of learning, and part of scaffolding is keeping frustration levels down. After I settled down emotionally, I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on this class, specifically how human emotional interaction works in a learning community. The reflective analysis help to put the day into perspective, and helped me to understand that emotion and passion is a central part of human social events – in this case, of learning.

from the journal 4
From the Journal (4)

I decided to see what I could do about lessening the anxiety level, but without rehashing the experience that brought it about. One of the things I did was to open the threaded discussion early. I asked a question about anxiety, and learned from one student’s reply that what I thought was making people anxious was really not.

“Personally I'm not too worried about the online discussions. What I find kind of overwhelming is the technology involved in the actual design of the course. It's a lot more than just having to click on the reply button, type your msg, and finally click on send. Running in parallel lines to the technology anxiety is the amount of different material that I have in my mind which I carefully need to funnel into the design of icons and course menus. And to think that all this will be graded. Heeeelp!”

from the journal 5
From the Journal (5)

I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to get the class back on track, since we’d spent the entire previous class period discussing assignments. However, we had an incredible class. The students had all done the reading and liked it, and had lots to say. Plus, we talked about some big life issues related to online learning, including the relationship between humans and technology and how online technology, coupled with constructivist pedagogy, might be subversive to economic, political, and social institutions. Part of this was a discussion of the subversiveness of open-source material. I later opened a thread to continue this discussion online.

It was one of those great moments in teaching. I came out of the class excited and energized. I hope the students, at least some, felt the way I did. Maybe there’s hope yet that the course will give the students the kind of learning experience that I’ve planned and worked for.

student voices
Student Voices

I guess it's my turn to make an exit. It has been such an interesting learning experience. I think we formed a great community of practice. I'll miss you all on the discussion forum. I'm certain though that it won't end here. Thank you Dr. Williams. Thank you M. You've been a great support.

Guys, this class was a unique experience for me. I have learned many things, among which is the importance of building a community of practice. I really realize now how it is important for learning.

student voices 2
Student Voices (2)

This has been an incredible experience - hasn't it? I must say that last week's discussion was a highlight for me, especially because of being so far away. I mean, it would have been really easy to feel 'out of it' and detached from the whole course with so much else going on in my life that is not course related. Last week's discussion helped me to still feel part of the class.

I also found the project very rewarding but frustrating. I think the frustration came from having such a limited time to work in (I tried to get most of it finished by the time I left Egypt) and I just didn't have time to explore all the possibilities of WebCT. I think I could have done things in an easier way than I did, but once I'd started it was hard to undo it all and start all over again, so I just kept going.

student voices 3
Student Voices (3)

This is my first posting. I read all of your postings and I see how we all are excited to have finished, delivered and accomplished. "First hand knowledge" was a good title for your posting Ahmed because it truly is. What we experienced can not be taught in a book, but the theories and principles we endlessly discussed (dreamed about at night sometimes) made it possible for us to do the job. I think it was Dewey who started the idea of project based learning, I must say I had always liked the idea but now I truly believe in its effectiveness.

On line learning for me, was like a new modern way of presenting knowledge and Technology allowed us to enter and develop it. Today after this course I guess it is more than that. I would call it a unique learning environment that has similarities and differences with our usual FTF settings. I guess that all these readings, discussions and ideas enabled me to realize this uniqueness and build up my own style to deal with it better in the future.

student voices 4
Student Voices (4)

Wow I can't believe it's over. I learned so much… It's been amazing, and frustrating at the same time, but as I mentioned to Dr. Williams in my final paper, this course really took me out of my comfort zone, sometimes eight hours a day, and I feel like I learned so much because of that. H and I really pushed ourselves, and thank God for M, who saved the day when we almost lost our minds with the whole uploading process, where you know you uploaded something but it doesn't appear when you click on the hyperlink aaaaaaahhhh!!!


Cunningham Florez, M. (2001) Reflective teaching practice in adult ESL settings. Center for Adult English Language Acquisition.

Dewey, J. (1910) How the mind learns. White and Blue5(2): pp 5 – 14.

Dewey, J. (1933) How we think. New York: Heath & Co.

Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Hawk, T. Various images.

All images used by permission.