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July 14, 2010

The reflective teacher

I have been refreshing my memory of John Bigg's book, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (2003, 2nd edition). I always find it helpful to copy out some of the content which I find most useful, thought-provoking, stimulating, etc. Below are some of the aspects I have picked out in relation to reflective practice.

Biggs, John, Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press, 2003.

P20. The 3P model draws attention to three sources that might affect the learning outcome: a direct effect from the student-based factors, another direct effect from the teaching-based factors, and an interactive effect from the system as a whole. Each of these ways of determining learning forms a theory of how teaching works.

  1. Learning is a function of individual differences between students.

  2. Learning is a function of teaching.

  3. Learning is the result of students’ learning-focused activities which are engaged by students as a result both of their own perceptions and inputs, and of the total teaching context.

These different ‘theories’ of teaching are in order of complexity and sophistication, and so we refer to them as ‘levels’. They include what others call intentions or conceptions (Trigwell and Prosser 1996).

Teachers tend to hold these theories at different points in their teaching career, some progressing to level 3, others staying at levels 1 or 2. They describe a sequence in the development of teaching skill: a route map towards reflective teaching, if you like, where the level at which you operate depends on what you focus on as most important.


Level 1. Focus: what the student is

At level 1, teaching is held constant—it is transmitting information, usually by lecturing—so differences in learning are due to differences between students in ability, motivation, what sort of school they went to. Ability is usually seen as the most important factor.

Level 2. Focus: what the teacher does

This view of teaching is still based on transmission, but of concepts and understandings not jus of information. The responsibility for ‘getting it across’ now rests to a significant extent on what the teacher does. The possibility is entertained that there may be more effective ways of teaching than what one is currently doing. Learning is seen as more a function of what the teacher is doing than of what sort of student one has to deal with.

Level 3. Focus: what the student does.

Teachers at level 3 focus on all the components in the systems, in particular on what the student does at process and product, and how that relates to teaching. Level 3 sees teaching as supporting learning. No longer is it possible to say: ‘I taught them, but they didn’t learn.’ Expert teaching includes mastery over a variety of teaching techniques, but unless learning takes place, they are irrelevant: the focus is on what the student does, on what learning is or is not going on.


A reflective teacher starts with three important components:

  1. Experience. You cannot reflect on a blank slate.

  2. Deep content knowledge. You cannot teach effectively if you don’t know your subject content very well indeed.

  3. A level 3 theory of teaching. As a level 3 teacher you say: ‘Why aren’t they learning? How can I get them to be relevantly active? That is the sort of theory we want here, one that focuses on what the student does. This is a cyclical process; you keep looking at what they do, what they achieve, and link that with what you are doing. You get to know your students as learners very well.

There are several outcomes:

  1. Teaching is enhanced, eventually. You may need several goes at the problem.

  2. Experience is enriched. Each go at the problem adds to your store of experiences

  3. The teaching theory is enriched. Using the theory in action makes you realize which aspects of the theory work and which do not.


There are three questions that the teacher, to be reflective, needs to ask:

  1. What is my espoused theory of teaching?

  2. Is my current practice in keeping with my theory? How can my theory help me teach more effectively?

  3. What, within myself or in my context, is preventing me from teaching the way I should be teaching?


We are back at the two faces of good teaching:

  1. Promoting those factors that support the deep approach, which we now know to be about getting students to be relevantly active, and constructive alignment is a good way of doing that.

  2. Eliminating those factors that support the surface approach, which were discussed in Chapter 4.


Further steps. We will use an action learning structure to define and then attack your problem.

  1. Defining the problem. … The issue is what the students are doing: are they doing what you don’t want them to do, or not doing what you do want them to do?
    So the first step is to reflect on the problem, using the constructive alignment theory in Chapter 2, which addresses both students’ learning behaviour, and the design of your teaching. Examine your problem in these terms, hypothesize as to the possible reasons for it, and possible solutions. The process can be made much easier with the help of a ‘critical friend; (see below).

  2. Implementing a change

  3. Monitoring the change
    Before putting the change into effect, you need to decide how you are going to make sure that what you are proposing to do will be effective. It is necessary to observe systematically what is going on, to know where you and/or the student behaviour started from, and where it ends up after the change has been implemented.

  4. Fine tuning.
    Action learning recycles: you try something, see if it works, then try again with a slight variation. You will be unlikely to get something as complex as teaching right first time, so it is a matter of looking back over your observations, after you have implemented the change you had decided to make, and see how things are going. Did matters improve? If not, or if not enough, what might have been the problem?

  5. The role of critical friend
    Reflection is often not best carried out alone. You have been living with the problem possibly for some time and may be the last person to find out about it.

I like Biggs' general approach, although sometimes I find him a little sweeping and over enthusiastic in the presentation of his position and views. He bases a lot of his argument on Marton and Saljo's notion of Deep and Surface level learning, which again I have a lot of respect for and, indeed, have turned to and used in my own publications (see elsewhere in this blog). However, I am surprised that Biggs appears to dismiss surface level learning altogether. It seems to me that both are important, and that Deep learning on its own, while almost certainly of a greater 'quality', however one would like to define that, is inadequate. We need to have a grasp of content, to be able to remember facts and figures, to store information and knowledge, and be able to reproduce it. The risk with a Deep approach to teaching and learning that Biggs advocates is that we sacrifice this dimension, or at least downplay it to the point of it no longer playing the role it should. I would favour an approach which emphasises both dimensions. (As I write this, I am reminded of a paper I think Biggs himself wrote about the 'Brainy Asian'. In it, he reported on a research project he and others had conducted which investigated why it was that a small group of Chinese learners appeared to do much better academically and intellectually than both their peers and most Westerners. His interest was spurred by the fact that Chinese education was principally by rote learning (and therefore tended to foster a surface approach to learning) while Western education systems valued and practised learning from experience and reflection (fostering a deep 'meaningful' approach). The 'Brainy Asians' somehow managed to bring both approaches together with the result that they were far better learners and developed in an exceptional manner. How ironic that this message doesn't come through in his book, even though he does explore aspects of it in his chapter on Teaching International Students! Unless, of course, I've got it wrong somewhere...)

Secondly, although I think I concur with Biggs' statement that experience is indispensible to the process of reflection, it does beg the question of what that means for new and inexperienced teachers and lecturers. I suppose everyone has the experience of being at the 'learning' end of the teacher-learner relationship and so has that experience to draw on, but I really can't agree with the implication of his assertion for 'beginners'.

I guess I would place myself as a Level 3 teacher, in Biggs' hierarchy. I am very much a facilitator, someone who does focus on what the student does, yet I am aware too of weaknesses that I want to strengthen. Maybe my comments about surface learning relate to these, since I don't have a good memory, can find it hard to recall facts and content, and can be unconfident about my 'deep knowledge' of the subject matter (although in reality that is not the case). For me, the biggest challenge to come out of this reading is Biggs' assertion that teachers need to be:

...clear about:

1. What it means to 'understand' content in the way we want it to be understood';

2. What kind of teaching/learning activities are required to reach those kinds of understandings.

Now I have a lot to go and reflect on!

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