Fostering a Reflective School Culture

Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous.” Confucius

For a school to establish itself as a learning community, being ‘reflective’ should be integral to the school ethos. Reflection is a quality essential to living in the 21st Century, because, without reflecting on our past and current practices it is difficult to make changes and adjustments to the way we live our lives. When we refer to a school, we should consider all components of the school community – students, teachers and parents.

We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey

In classrooms, students are regularly asked to complete reflections at the end of their work, to add to their portfolios or as a consequence of their actions. But, are we guilty of asking students ‘to reflect’ without providing them with the time, tools and scaffolding to ensure that their reflections consider a range of perspectives and reach a metacognitive level? Reflection that builds on prior understandings and learning will only occur when authentic connections can be made and reflected upon. Reflection requires time and space and an environment that is emotionally supportive. If we try to cover too much, at a pace that does not allow enough time for reflection, learning is superficial. The simplest ‘activity’ can be turned in to a genuine learning engagement when supported by reflection that guides the learners to make connections. Building guided reflection into learning is a perfect way to move away from practice that is based on isolated activities to ensure that significant understandings are ‘uncovered’, explored and inspire learning.

By scaffolding reflection with tools such as sentence stems and reflection prompts teachers provide children with triggers to support their thinking. One supportive strategy is to keep a box of cards with sentence starters in the room that students may access at any time when reflecting, either orally or in writing, by completing the sentence. Prompts such as:

If I could do this again I would..

I discovered………. and…..

The most challenging part for me was…..

From my inquiries I found out…

I believe…..

My understanding of……….. is…

I would like to find out more about…

I can now explain why …

In my opinion the following changes need to be made …………………. as …………………

Providing assessment tools such as rubrics, checklists, success criteria and exemplars prior to learning gives students a foundation for their reflections when the work is completed and when significant time and structures are provided for them to review their work against the criteria.

Student Portfolios are one tool for sharing reflections on work but reflection should become an integral part of the teaching and learning program, not just something that is completed at the end of a unit or for a portfolio entry. Reflection is a skill that the students need to be using readily, without prompting, and one that can be transferred to varied situations…. It needs to become a habit.


Teachers need to include reflection in the planning process and ensure that they revisit it regularly to ensure that their teaching is leading to student learning, not just covering the curriculum requirements. As for the students, for this reflection to be effective, planning it requires time. Often teachers are so busy preparing their next units of work/themes that reflection on past work is not considered and, therefore, records for future reference are not completed and the next unit/topic does not build on what students learned previously. Why do we only reflect at the end of the unit/ subject topic?

One possible approach is to use a daily reflection journal where comments can be added and sorted later, or to keep a hard copy of lesson plans in a place where post it notes with direct reflections can be added throughout the unit/topic and then compiled during the reflection sessions.

Teachers too can model the learning portfolio of their students by starting the year with goal setting. The pedagogical leaders can meet with teachers, establish support strategies, suggest mentors, books/ articles and use the information to plan in-school or external professional development.  As the year progresses, the learning portfolio may be expanded to include regular reflections, responses to readings or research, reflections on the implementation of strategies from PD sessions or workshops and general reflections on student learning and the program. This information can be supported by artifacts and maintained digitally. As for students, some scaffolding provided by school leaders can help to get the process started. Once teachers establish a professional learning portfolio it becomes both a reflection tool and an ongoing record of development that can provide useful support during further career interviews. Leaders may also like to ask teachers to write a letter or develop a mind map at the conclusion of a school year outlining the significant characteristics of their year. This should be used at the beginning of the next year for goal setting.

Engaging parents in the reflective process may require a higher level of scaffolding.  3-Way conferences and Student-Led Conferences provide two useful tools to engage parents with their child’s learning. Prior to a conference, it is important that parents have a clear outline of their role, a guide to some possible questions and prompts they may use and a framework for giving feedback. Asking parents to write a letter to their child after a the Student-Led Conference engages them in reflecting on what their child knows and can do, as well as providing feedback for the child. Another tool is the Home Conference, where students take their portfolio home several times throughout the year, and share their learning journeys with their parents; again parents can provide feedback and reflections with prompts provided by the school.

Home journals/daily communication books can include pages for parents to note action taken at home or evidence of connections made between learning and the home environment.

For the students, teachers and parents the needs are similar. Reflection needs to be nurtured, scaffolded and prompted so that it can become a healthy habit and a part of the school environment. Change such as this takes effort, persistence and ongoing monitoring but the rewards are beneficial for all school community members.

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About MV Education Services

MV Education Services collaborates with governments, organisations, schools and teachers to develop authentic student learning and make a difference to communities, societies and the planet.
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