Understanding critical reflection

Donna Morley, Director of KU Lance Children’s Centre, explains why educators should embrace professional learning opportunities to inform the way they critically reflect. 

KU Lance was awarded the Excellent rating by ACECQA in March 2018. 

‘Critical reflection’ is a common phrase in early childhood education that can often be misinterpreted and underestimated. As a Centre Director, I have run into experiences where staff have advised me that they have completed their critical reflection on children’s learning and the program, when in fact they have simply stated what happened during an activity or perhaps observed some progress in the child’s development and planned a new experience based on their observations. While these are all expectations of the planning cycle, critical reflection involves higher order thinking, drilling down and using multiple perspectives and creative thinking. These aspects are often missed by educators and are sometimes challenging to understand and use.

In my experience, it takes both time and getting to know the other educators in your team, to develop the skills, understanding and motivation to truly embrace and undertake critical reflection. Critical reflection in an education and care service is multifaceted, and involves thinking about all of your practices and procedures with honesty and purpose. There is a level of bravery required to be able to identify the need for change within your service environment. As humans, we are sometimes content with familiarity, predictability and some of us do not like change. Critical reflection means being ready for change, willing to challenge yourself and others and being able to adapt.

So how have I developed the skills to critically reflect, and how have I promoted these skills within my team? One example that I’d like to share with you, is when I eagerly snapped up the opportunity to join a group of educators from a range of services in a KU Professional Learning Community (PLC). We initially came together to learn about the work of Ann Pelo and use her methods to examine our work with children. Ann is known amongst early childhood educators for her unique perspective on challenging predefined practices and shifting the focus ‘from instruction to inquiry’. With a facilitator in the group, we began sharing the same children’s book with each of our classes to explore the practice of ‘researching with children’. At our meetings we would share our critical reflections of the children’s responses. Essentially, we told the stories of what the children had developed around the book, the stories of their artworks, their buildings and their discussions. As the PLC got to know each other, built trust and confidence and settled into this new meeting and sharing routine, we were encouraged, challenged and sometimes unsettled by provocations from our PLC facilitator. The PLC facilitator provided academic readings that assisted us to drill down deeper into the critical reflection of our work, and the work of the children. As there was a heightened level of trust between members of the PLC, we drew inspiration from each other and found that having a group who respected, listened, considered each other’s perspectives and looked to external sources for challenge, was very valuable in the development of our own critical reflection strategies.

After seeing Ann Pelo at the KU Conference, and spending an intensive five days at a writing workshop with her, the PLC plunged into some intense critical reflection around children’s learning as well as our own practice. Ann gave us permission to become involved in the children’s learning stories, to make this work personal and to think outside the square.  At times it was terrifying, and I was thankful that we had each other for support.  We took our learning back to our service teams, inspiring them to think beyond the obvious, to dig deeper, and to be brave in their own critical reflection of their teaching practices.

Some of the PLC changed jobs, or took on new roles within KU, however, we committed to make our PLC meetings a priority. The meetings continue to renew our purpose and vigour, and provides us with the ability and support to think differently about working through various issues and obstacles.

The reality for many early childhood professionals is one of professional isolation, where the opportunity to discuss children’s learning at a level of deep understanding and theoretical exploration is rare. It has been a privilege to be involved in a group who can share stories, experiences and insights so generously. My involvement reinforced the value and benefit of professional learning communities. The value of working within a trusted community of learners who are similarly educated and have a range of perspectives and experiences has been incredibly positive.

The benefit to my own team and the children of the service has also been extraordinary. Our ability to critically reflect on a more profound level continues to develop. The initial work with Ann Pelo’s approaches empowered staff to be brave and to dig into the unknown, to explore practitioner research alongside children and trust each other more, in a combined effort towards improvement in our practice. The results have been amazing, and in 2018 our service was awarded the Excellent rating by ACECQA which I believe was a direct result of continued critical reflection instigated by a small group of educators who formed a PLC and embraced courage.

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