Can teachers learn from interactive reflection? A study into Schön’s reflection-in-action

Can teachers learn from interactive reflection? A study into Schön’s reflection-in-action

Reflection-in-action is a highly influential, yet often misunderstood construct that is central to Donald Schön’s epistemology of practitioner learning (Schön, 1983, 1987). Particularly in the field of teaching it has often been understood to mean simply ‘thinking on one’s feet’ (e.g., Francis, 1995). Yet, within Schön’s epistemology, its importance was much more than this, as a vehicle through which practitioners are able to learn without the need for ‘technical rationality’ – the academic knowledge that Schön was highly critical of (see Schön, 1983). This blog post reports on my recent research published in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education (see here). The blog post summarises the paper for those interested mainly in the findings, and for those who don’t have academic journal access. Quotes below are from the paper unless otherwise specified.

Despite widespread discussion of reflection-in-action (RiA) in teacher education literature, few studies have attempted to document it during interactive teaching, and those that do usually fail to separate it from post-hoc (subsequent) reflection on action (RoA). Using video stimulated recall triangulated with observational field notes, post-lesson interviews, daily audio diaries and delayed interviews, this study investigated the interactive reflection of four experienced teachers of English as a foreign language. It found clear evidence to support Schön’s RiA, largely as he perceived it (and contra Eraut, 1995), but also documented reflective processes not described by Schön. An original eight category typology of teacher interactive thought and a taxonomy of interactive reflection are offered as potentially useful vehicles for studying teacher interactive reflection (interactive here means while teaching, following Jackson’s original distinction; 1968).

So what exactly is Schön’s reflection-in-action?

Within his epistemology, Schön discusses “knowing-in-action” (“knowing-in-practice” for professionals) as the instinctual, procedural knowledge that practitioners develop through practice, informing much of their automated decision-making. RiA is the means by which this knowing-in-action can develop, through a process of awareness raising that leads to restructuring without the need for what Schön (e.g., 1983) called “technical rationality”. Here is perhaps Schön’s clearest definition of this process:

“Reflection-in-action … is central to the art through which practitioners sometimes cope with the troublesome “divergent” situations of practice. When the phenomenon at hand eludes the original categories of knowledge-in-practice, presenting itself as unique or unstable, the practitioner may surface and criticise his initial understanding of the phenomenon, construct a new description of it, and test the new description by an on-the-spot experiment.” (1983, pp. 62-3)

Yet Schön also discusses a more instinctual side to RiA, for example, during the improvisation of jazz musicians:

“They are reflecting-in-action on the music they are collectively making and on their individual contributions to it, thinking what they are doing and, in the process, evolving their way of doing it. Of course, we need not suppose that they reflect-in-action in the medium of words. More likely, they reflect through a “feel for the music” which is not unlike the pitcher’s “feel for the ball.” (1983, p. 56)

In the paper I recognise both these types of RiA as valid, potentially useful constructs, referring to them as critical reflection-in-action (CRiA – first quote) and adaptive reflection-in-action (ARiA – second quote), and discuss a continuum between knowing-in-action, ARiA and CRiA, consistent with Schön’s writing (e.g., 1987, p. 29). I note that this is also consistent with a recent single-system theory of learning from cognitive psychology, Cleeremans and Jiménez’s (2002) Dynamic Graded Continuum. Thus, Schön’s RiA is much more than just quick thinking. It is part of a learning continuum through which practitioners develop their expertise… autonomously.

RiA played a key role in the Reflective Turn of the 1980s, a paradigm shift of sorts from the post-positivist-informed decision-making research that dominated teacher cognition research in the 1970s and early 1980s. This Google N-gram illustrates this paradigm shift well:

Google Ngram result for “teacher reflection” and “teachers’ interactive decision
making” (date range: 1970-2008; corpus: English; smoothing: 1). Vertical axis indicates
frequency percentage within Google Books database, retrieved (11 August, 2018) from Copyright 2018, Google Books Ngram Viewer.

A second misunderstanding of Schön’s epistemology is that reflection-in-action and reflection on action are complementary opposites, with the first involving reflection during the act (of teaching) and the other reflection after the act. As well as the point noted above that RiA is much more than just interactive thought, it is notable that Schön rarely discussed RoA, only clearly defined it once (1987, p. 26), and never hyphenated it. As such, RoA wasn’t a thing for Schön in the way that RiA was. It was a useful, additional phenomenon that could be taken at face value – reflection on past action, unlike RiA, which, as Eraut (1995) noted, may not even necessarily refer exclusively to interactive reflection. Despite this, RoA has become as famous as RiA, and is usually seen as its corollary. A third, later construct was added: reflection for action by Killion and Todnem (1991), although this is arguably redundant, given that all reflection within Schön’s epistemology is valued for its formative potential; its ability to inform future practice. As such, there is no reflection that isn’t, ultimately, for action.

My research questions

The study was exploratory, and aimed first to document and describe teachers’ interactive thought processes themselves, and then to work out whether these are reflective, and if so, whether they constitute RiA, as Schön discussed it (i.e., ARiA, CRiA, or both). Thus, I developed four RQs:

  1. What broad categories of thought process can be identified during the interactive teaching of experienced teachers?
  2. To what extent can the thought process categories identified and the individual examples of these be classified as “reflective thought”?
  3. What evidence is there that some, or any, of these types of thought constitute what Schön would have called “reflection-in-action”?
  4. What else can we learn about teacher interactive reflection from this study?

 How did the study tap into teachers’ interactive thoughts?

The challenge of accessing a teacher’s interactive thought requires an innovative research design. You can’t ask them to share their thoughts with you as they teach through a process known as ‘think aloud protocol’ (used in certain types of information processing research) – it would obviously disrupt the lesson. The closest you can get to directly accessing these thoughts is to get a teacher to recall them afterwards, using video as a stimulus for the recall (video stimulated recall; VSR) – see here for an example. However, relying naively on VSR is dangerous, as it can prompt post-hoc rationalisation (as Borg calls it, 2006), or stimulate new ideas altogether. So I developed a triangulated design that enabled me to corroborate participants’ recall with observed events, and used a pilot study to identify verbal cues indicative of both interactive thought and post-active rationalisation. I also refined the VSR process itself, so that the participants had complete control of the playback to reduce the danger of leading prompts, questions, or the pressure to recall (Borg, 2006; Yinger, 1986). I also conducted the VSR directly after the lessons themselves, and followed it with reflexive discussion of the process itself, all in line with best practice recommendations on the use of VSR (see Gass & Mackey, 2017). This, I argue, got me as close to the interactive thoughts of a teacher as one can feasibly do.

Participants and scale of the study

The participants were four experienced, fully qualified English language teachers teaching adult classes in leading private language schools in London, including general English, exam classes and ESP (English for specific purposes). Although the study was comparatively small scale in terms of participants and lessons analysed (8 lessons), it yielded over 5 hours of VSR data, involving over 1,000 separate codings. As such, the data sample was sufficient for my purposes, although the limitations of the small scale of the study are acknowledged. While I argue that many of the findings are likely to be indicative of teacher cognition across a range of fields (and provide evidence to support this), I also acknowledge that some findings may be specific to the context studied.

An original typology of teacher interactive thought

I coded the data inductively, developing an eight-category framework for describing teacher interactive thought, aware of Marland’s earlier framework (1977, 1986), but not using it for reasons discussed below. I then tested it through inter-rater reliability tests, with the help of 3 PhD colleagues, and found “substantial agreement” (Landis & Koch, 1977); K = .630 (95% CI, .510 to .750), p = < .0001, indicating that it’s fairly solid as a descriptive framework. Here it is in full (click here for PDF version):

Table_6._The_coding_framework-A_typology_of_teacher_interactive_thoughtCategory 8, reflexivity, emerged inductively during data analysis as follows:

“During analysis of value judgements in the data, a number of more critical reflective thoughts were noticed, and labelled reflexivity. During such episodes, teacher’s thoughts tended to turn back on their own practices in ways that seemed to be indicative of potential restructuring of knowledge or beliefs (recalling Schön’s CRiA). Reflexivity seems to begin when evaluations, particularly of own actions (7b) became more extensive, focused, or critical.”

Quantitative findings

Initial quantitative analysis revealed a number of notable differences between the four teachers, and one interesting similarity. Very different recall rates were documented during VSR, likely due to “differences in lesson type and content, teaching styles and individual personalities” (pseudonyms used throughout):

  Robin Hannah David Amber
Total # recalls 150 141 93 56
# recalls per min. VSR 1.9 2.0 1.0 0.7
# recalls per min. observed lesson 4.8 3.5 2.1 1.0
Average length of recalls 19 secs. 13 secs. 31 secs. 21 secs.

Table 7 from the paper: Teachers’ differing recall rates.

Yet despite this, there was surprising consistency across the four teachers when it came to the distribution of global thought categories:

Figure 2. Relative frequencies of 8 thought categories

Figure 2 from the paper: Relative frequencies of the eight interactive thought categories.

A further quantitative finding of interest was that the most common thought subcategories across the four teachers related to teachers responding to the learners’ contributions or challenges:

“It is notable that four of the top five [subcategories] involve noticing, responding to, or evaluating learners’ actions or contributions, and that only one of the ten (planned intention) relates to the teachers’ pre-lesson intentions, providing evidence of experienced teachers’ ability to notice and respond to learner contributions, what Yinger (1987) called “improvisational performance”, and found to be an important component of the practice of expert teachers in a number of studies (e.g., Borko & Livingston, 1989; Sorensen, 2017; Traianou, 2006).”

Figure 7. Most frequent subcategories across all four teachers

Figure 7 from the paper: Most frequent subcategories across all four teachers.

 Qualitative findings

Detailed qualitative analysis revealed three broad types of interactive ‘reflection’ (with overlap), termed as follows:

  • Practical reflection: “relatively straightforward thoughts that tended to draw on standard pedagogical procedures”
  • Adaptive reflection: “tended to correspond to unplanned events, responsive decisions or more complex judgements than those predominantly involving categories 1, 2 and 3, indicative of Schön’s ARiA”
  • Reflexivity: “a separate third type of interactive reflection that was invariably critical” and corresponded more often to Schön’s CRiA (see the subcategories in Table 6).

One example of each is provided here; more are in the paper along with more extensive discussion of how these were identified and distributed (L = lesson; R = recall; bracketed indices relate to thought subcategory codings from Table 6):

Practical reflection Amber L2/R3: “I realised that there were three columns(3b) and I didn’t want them to make a mistake and put it in the first column(1a) which was explaining what the [laughs] function was of the words(2c).”
Adaptive reflection Robin L2/R11: “Well I’m thinking how should I help, should I help?(6a) Um I’m also, I’m also thinking why, why after so much practice is it taking her so long to, to recall the phrasal verb(6a) which is a slightly unfair thought(7b)…”
Reflexivity David L1/R50: “I’m suddenly self-conscious about the fact that I’ve looked up ‘writ’ and I don’t want anyone to know that I’m in any doubt as to what ‘writ’ means, for credibility reasons, not for sort of egotistical reasons(8d) [laughs].”

While the teachers showed similar distribution of global thought categories in their recall codings, there was more noticeable variation with regard to the distribution (relative frequency) of subcategories. For example, within reflexivity:

Figure 8. Relative frequencies of subcategories (reflexivity)

Figure 8 from the paper: Relative frequencies of subcategories for Reflexivity.

Qualitative “patterns of interactive reflection”

Contextualised analysis of longer ‘suprasegmental’ stretches of data revealed more complex patterns of interactive reflection, organised into 6 groups in the paper:

  I.    Automated responses “regular events that required conscious decisions, yet rarely prompted recall in the VSR data”
II.    Response strategies “recalls of occasions when unexpected affordances prompted a specific intervention to keep the lesson progressing appropriately, making them more salient than automated responses”
III.    Internal reflexivity “recall sections coded reflexivity [within which] there was no obvious sign of a specific event (e.g., an instructional shift) to trigger reflection in the observed lesson”
IV.    Recovery strategies “specific affordances or teacher uncertainty led to careful consideration of a challenge or potential problem in ways that always prompted reflexivity during recall. Such moments were followed by deliberate action to avert a potentially problematic incident”
V.    Acknowledgement “acknowledgement of an affordance (often a problem or small mistake) or a lack of knowledge to the learners, either as part of, or as an alternative to, a recovery strategy. This always prompted reflexivity during recall”
VI.    Face loss incidents Critical incidents when teachers find themselves “in significant difficulty in front of the learners, leading to extended critical reflexivity during recall and extensive reflection on action” subsequently.

Each one of these is accompanied by extensive contextualised examples from the data. Here’s the example provided for Recovery strategy, from David’s VSR data (“T” = teacher; “(.)” = long pause; bracketed indices refer to subcategories in Table 6 above):

Recall # Lesson transcript VSR transcript
10 T: …there’s another word that we can use which is um [turns to write on board] “markup”. Yeah, as I turn around to write it on the board I realise that actually my knowledge of this word isn’t quite as good as I thought it was(8d) and I’m not completely sure(6b). I know basically what it means(2c) but I but I’m not complete sure about the usage or even if it’s usually spelt as one word or two(6b).
11 [Vincent challenges the definition provided]: Vincent: But don’t you say “a markup” if it has come to you and you added something complemented it and then sent it back?

T: Yeah that is the markup.

I want to sort of move this on now(1c) cos I am a bit out of my depth(8d). I can answer Vincent’s definitely right(7a) but um  (.) I want to say that he’s right(5a) but I also just wanna move things along(1c).
12 T: It’s not the version that’s being drafted (.) not being drafted. It’s being modified, altered… Yeah I change, I say that the version’s being drafted but I change that because I realise that I’m using draft in a way that might cause confusion now(8c) having, having set out [waving fingers away from self] I’m now regretting getting into this whole thing(8a) because having set out to resolve confusion, taking opportunity to resolve some confusion(5b) I think I’m risking creating more confusion(8c).
13 [two students are still confused by “draft”, teacher is clarifying]

T: If you say draft a contract it just means write a contract. OK?

Yeah so I say, I said that last sentence to try to, I’m trying to [turns head down to the right and waves fingers in slicing motion in front of the image before him] (.) round off summarise sort of put a full stop to, to the um to the topic(1c).

Returning to the research questions

  1. What broad categories of thought process can be identified during the interactive teaching of experienced teachers?

Eight broad categories emerged from the inductive data analysis (see Table 6), several of which were consistent with prior research on interactive thought (Marland, 1977, 1986), but several were not, including affordance awareness, uncertainty awareness, value judgement and reflexivity, likely due to the paradigmatically different circumstances in which Marland and I conducted our research – his within post-positivist research into teacher decision-making, mine within post-“reflective turn” multi-method research on teacher cognition.

  1. To what extent can the thought process categories identified and the individual examples of these be classified as “reflective thought”?

To answer this question, I compared my qualitative findings to a continuum from practical to critical reflection suggested earlier in the paper, based on an extensive review of definitions of teacher reflection in educational contexts (intentionally avoiding Schön’s ARiA and CRiA at this stage¹). The three types and six patterns of interactive reflection map onto this continuum well, also consistent with Cleeremans & Jiménez’s (2002) Dynamic Graded Continuum. The resulting diagrammatic framework is proposed as a taxonomy of teacher interactive reflection:

Figure 9. A taxonomy of interactive reflection

Figure 9 from the paper: A taxonomy of interactive reflection.

Click here for a downloadable pdf of the taxonomy, and the 3 types and 6 patterns of interactive reflection described.

  1. What evidence is there that some, or any, of these types of thought constitute what Schön would have called “reflection-in-action”?

Recalls in the data involving adaptive reflection and reflexivity corresponded well to Schön’s ARiA and CRiA respectively. Particularly Response strategies correspond closest to the instinctual ARiA that Schön identified in the fluent performance of experienced professionals—a “feel for the flow” of the lesson analogous to Schön’s “feel for the music” of a musician, or “feel for the ball” of a baseball pitcher (1983, p. 56). Recovery strategies (see example above) seem to provide the closest approximation to Schön’s CRiA—events that seem most likely to lead to restructuring of knowing-in-action (automated knowledge). Evidence in the data of self-criticism, awareness of the limits of one’s own knowledge, and questioning of one’s general practice supports this. The salience of such events provides further evidence to support this; almost all the instances of recovery strategies were recalled without difficulty and in detail during interviews conducted over one week after the lesson, and were frequently reflected upon in audio diary entries. However, such recovery strategies are rare in my data (n = 6), as are Shroyer’s analogous “critical moments” (1981, p. 114), noted only 20 times during 421 student occlusions. Nonetheless, the range of reflective episodes documented provides clear evidence to support Schön’s construct in all its variability and complexity – reflection-in-action as a formative phenomenon seemed to be a regular feature of the participant teachers’ interactive thinking. Here is an example of Acknowledgement that also appears to involve formative reflection from Robin’s VSR data:

Recall # Lesson transcript VSR transcript
78 [teacher is summarising the challenge of the activity]

T: In general I think I think this was quite difficult to…

As I say that I’m thinking, ah that should have been a question. I should’ve, I shouldn’t tell the student or students that was difficult, I should ask them and then [restarts playback](8c).
79 T: …what do you think?

Didem: No it’s good.

When Didem says “no”(3a) I’m thinking yeah that should’ve been a question(8c) [laughs].
80 T: I mean I think you communicated very well and you asked lots of good… And now I’m thinking, OK I sort of messed up with that I should probably give them some positives(8c).
  1. What else can we learn about teacher interactive reflection from this study?

While supporting Schön’s construct within classroom contexts, my data also indicates that teacher interactive reflection involves more than reflection-in-action, as described by Schön. I note:

“Schön was not a classroom teacher, nor a teacher educator. His discussion of teaching tended to involve examples of 1-to-1 tuition, in which his invocation of Hawkins’ “dialogue of I, thou and it” (e.g., Schön, 1992, p. 133) is revealing—“thou” refers specifically to only one learner. Yet classroom teaching involves another level of complexity—how one manages learning in the “crowded environments” (Eraut, 1995, p. 17) of classrooms, meaning that Schön’s characterisation of RiA, as documented in the practice of architects and psychotherapists, may not apply to teachers (Eraut, 1995).”

I document two additional phenomena of interest, the first I call “micro-improvisation”, as a more appropriate construct for teacher improvisation than Schön’s on-the-spot-experimentation, noting that micro-improvisation events…

“tend to be less of the curiosity-inspired “arbitrary” type of experiments evident in the tuition of Schön’s architect (e.g., 1983, p. 81), and more of the problem-solving strategies of experienced teachers (see Moallem, 1993) in which the priority is to keep the lesson on track, and to focus on students’ learning, rather than their own.”

The second is the pattern of interactive reflection that I call internal reflexivity:

“incidents where teachers appear to reflect carefully on their practice, but only internally, and often when opportunity allows (such as during individual work or groupwork). The focus on “instructional shifts” in many prior studies of interactive thinking (e.g., Bartelheim & Evans, 1993; Gün, 2014), may have left such reflections unnoticed.”

The following example of internal reflexivity, from Amber’s data, is indicative of potential restructuring of a teacher’s knowing-in-action, yet it lacks the “surprise”, “artistry” or “experimentation” of Schön’s RiA:

“Amber L2/R7: When I was using the Internet the thought crossed my mind about whether you, whether I was, whether one loses sort of credibility when one goes to the Internet in the eyes of the students(8f). I think it’s just a  thought that came into my mind at some point [waves hand up in the air] … because maybe I was feeling self-conscious about the fact that I couldn’t come up with an example just like that(8d) and I had to go to the Internet, um and I did it a few times so I feel like that was a thought that I had at some point was: do, do I still seem credible despite that?(8f)

Suggestions for application and future research

After acknowledging a number of limitations (particularly the small scale of the study, the potential limitations of the method used, and the possibility that the findings may be partly context-dependent), a number of suggestions are provided, both for potential uses of the tools and frameworks developed, and for future research, especially in different contexts:

  1. The typology of teacher interactive reflection may be useful for teachers and teacher educators in studying their own, and their teacher-learners’ reflective processes as a means for developing reflection literacy (defined below).
  2. “Micro-improvisation” is offered as a more useful construct than Schön’s “on-the-spot experiment”. While a number of authors—including myself (Anderson, 2015; also see Yinger, 1987)—have discussed the necessarily improvisatory nature of effective teaching, “micro-improvisation” is an empirically derived alternative to these, documented frequently in the responsive practices of the teacher participants.
  3. Schön’s construct of reflection-in-action is supported by the study, but integrated into a continuum of teacher decision making, reflection and learning that was intimated towards by Schön (e.g., 1987, p. 29) but never explicitly stated. It is also linked to a cognitive learning framework, Cleeremans and Jiménez’s Dynamic Graded Continuum, from the perspective of which…

“potential examples of ARiA in [my] data may involve representations on the border between explicit cognition and automaticity. CRiA could be analogous to moments when “normally automatic behaviour … suddenly becomes conscious because the normal unfolding of the behaviour has been interrupted” (Cleeremans & Jiménez, 2002, p. 25)—i.e., Schön’s “surfacing” (e.g., 1983, p. 241)—that in turn allows for control and restructuring of the representations through critical analysis.”

 The relationship between these elements may prove useful for future research into  the to-date understudied area of teacher interactive cognition.

  1. The significant differences between the recall frequency and type among the four teachers is notable and warrants further study, particularly in a wider variety of contexts. For instance…

“are Amber’s vaguer recalls due to less experience, less reflection, her choice of lesson activities, or simply greater caution during the recall process? Does Robin’s more frequent reflexivity indicate that he is learning more, that he is overly self-critical, or that he is engaging in more frequent post-hoc reflection?”

 By improving our understanding of these differences we may learn more about a) how teacher expertise develops, and b) how to develop the reflective processes that lead to deeper learning.

  1. Finally, the three types and six patterns of interactive reflection are offered alongside the above discussed frameworks for analysing teacher thought and reflection as means to develop teacher reflection literacy —  “the ability to identify, describe and discuss reflective practices coherently”.

Thanks for reading! I would be interested in learning about, or assisting with any future research that makes use of the tools offered above. If you would like to read the full paper, but have difficulty accessing it, message me through my website here.


  1. Given that Schön’s epistemology was not intended solely, or even mainly, for describing teacher learning, I avoided imposing his framework on the taxonomy proposed, preferring to draw upon more education-specific understandings of reflection (e.g. Dewey, 1910; Zeichener 1981; van Manen, 1991; Eraut, 1995; Brookfield, 2017, etc.). Schön’s constructs are addressed in response to RQ 3.



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