Educators’ self-reflection

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Tina Vršnik Perše

Self-reflection of educators is a key factor of their professional development. It can also influence educators’ perspectives, notions and practice regarding the education of students at risk of early school leaving (ESL). Therefore, self-reflection should be implemented as an important element of ESL prevention but with a consideration of its possible downsides.

This paper focuses on educators’ self-reflection as a professional development tool. The individual’s ability to reflect and assess their behaviours and abilities affects their choices, aspirations, motivations and coping mechanisms (Frydenberg, 2011) and this ability should therefore be promoted and developed, especially among educators. An overview of the development of the concept of self-reflection in education (from Dewey, 1933 to Korthagen, 2004) highlights the most important models of self-reflection. The definitions regarding self-reflection and related approaches in education (such as core reflection and critical reflection) reveal the process’ attributes and the relationship to early school leaving (ESL). In the article, the importance of self-reflection as an element of educators’ professional development is addressed while some contemporary approaches of self-reflection are also discussed since it has been determined that self-reflection can help educators analyse their own competencies, their own teaching practices and their own evaluation strategies. This analysis is a good foundation for changing their perspectives, notions and practice regarding their education experiences and consequently for preventing ESL.

Video-based self-reflection is introduced here as one of the latest methods of self-reflection linked to improving competencies regarding the prevention of ESL. As with other professional development approaches, such as lessons, courses, supervision, coaching or others also when using (video) self-reflection, some considerations and possible negative effects need to be taken into account. The paper analyses and discusses the possibilities of self-reflection and the related approaches and methods and establishes that it can have a great influence on educators’ practice involving interactions with students at risk of ESL and on preventing ESL if used with evidence-based considerations.


In more recent European Union (EU) documents on education, the reduction of early school leaving (ESL) is often tackled as a comprehensive task that must address the entire education spectrum, including educators’ awareness of the scope and challenges of ESL (European Commission, 2013). Awareness of the scope and challenges, what triggers ESL and the practices to prevent it are mostly left up to educators and their skills and competencies (although individual and systemic factors also importantly contribute to ESL). These aspects are typically not achieved through formal education process of future educators but evolve during the process of their professional development.

Developments in teacher education and professional development require a rethinking of how best to build linkages between theory and practice and, in this context, reflection has become a keyword in the education of teachers (Korthagen, 2014). The individual educator’s ability to reflect and assess their behaviours and abilities affects their choices, aspirations, motivations and coping mechanisms (Frydenberg, 2011). In order to become aware and improve educators’ behaviours, coaching and self-reflection have been shown to have positive and promising results with significant effect sizes and nowadays especially video self-reflection is recognised as a powerful tool (Osipova et al., 2015). Self-reflection is thus recognised as an important method of professional development with the possibility to tackle contemporary educational issues, including reducing ESL. Currently, the approach to implementing self-reflection in every educators’ practice is not systematic and is left more up to each individual.

Despite the numerous scientifically recognised advantages of engaging in self-reflection as a systematic approach to professional development, there are also downsides that need to be considered. Košir and colleagues (2015) demonstrated that, in the interaction with perceived workload, reflection can actually be a maladaptive personal characteristic. It seems that in the circumstances of a high workload, reflection works as an additional stressor and contributes to intensified stress levels. Therefore, it is important that self-reflection is applied with a consideration of all characteristics of each educational experience (students, educators, content…).

The research into self-reflection tends to focus on two of its core aspects, one that centres on rumination (that is a negative, chronic and persistent self-focus motivated by perceived threats, losses or injustices to the self and contributing to neuroticism and depression) and a more healthy form of self-reflection (motivated by curiosity or epistemic interest in the self and associated with openness to experiences and the promotion of self-knowledge and positive mental health) (e.g. Trapnell and Campbell, 1999). The latter aspect is referred to in this paper.

The purpose of the paper was to analyse the characteristics of educators’ self-reflection and to discuss its possibilities in terms of changing educators’ practice in general and in the context of ESL prevention. Conceptual issues and several models and methods of educators’ self-reflection were therefore introduced.


We conducted a review of the literature by searching in the ERIC, SpringerLink, Wiley, Sage, Proquest, and Science Direct search engines for information about teachers’ self-reflection, video self-reflection, the development of the concept and its relationship to ESL. We included four types of documents: scientific papers, webpages presenting educators’ self-reflection, scientific monographs explaining the theoretical background for engaging in educators’ self-reflection along with EU documents and reports on the subject matter.

Self-reflection: conceptual issues

The definition of self-reflection has been developing since about the 17th century when the first known use of the term self-reflection was documented in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.) as a careful thought about one’s own behaviour and beliefs and as related to self-examination, defined as a careful reflective examination of one’s own behaviour and beliefs to see whether they are good or bad (also introspection). This definition can easily be related to educators and their professional development with regard to improving competencies for reducing ESL. Educators’ careful thinking about their teaching and the related beliefs offers an opportunity to reconsider and improve their performance as educators. Sellars (2014) also provides a broad definition that reflection or self-reflection can be defined as deliberate, purposeful, metacognitive thinking and/or action in which educators engage in order to improve their professional practice and to establish such a practice that would enable all students to be successful. The Encyclopaedia of Child Behaviour and Development defines self-reflection as related to self-evaluation and describes self-evaluation as a key regulatory process through which an individual compares self-generated or externally provided performance information against personal standards or goals (Cleary, 2011). If such goals are set in order to establish a supportive environment for all students to succeed, the comparison of one’s own performance should emphasise such actions of the educator that in the future would establish a more supportive environment for more students. In the Encyclopedia of Adolescence, self-reflection refers to the capacity to exercise introspection and the willingness to learn more about one’s purpose, essence and true self (Levesque, 2011). These can also help greatly in learning about one’s performance, emotions and notions, followed by altering them so as to improve their own education practice according to the goal of reducing ESL.

However, the definitions are not straightforward since interpretations vary by scientific discipline and also by the purpose of using this terminology. The concept of self-reflection regarding its use in education also has some specifics. The question remains if self-reflection is (or should be) a systematic or spontaneous process, which characteristics are (should be) included in this process, and which methods and approaches are (should be) used.

When self-reflection is used as a method for improving educators’ work performance it can be addressed as one of the three cyclical phases of self-regulatory processes: forethought, performance and self-reflection. Therefore, self-reflection can also be perceived as a process that occurs after learning (or other) efforts and is designed to optimise a person’s reactions to their outcomes (Zimmerman, 2008). The methods of self-reflection can have different intentions, but they can generally all be used to improve self-regulated learning on one hand and as a principle of assessment on the other. As regards educators’ self-reflection, these principles can also be used for both purposes depending on the paradigm whether educators’ work is being assessed or they are trying to improve their work. Since this is a cyclic model, self-reflection again influences forethought and also the work performance, so both purposes are eventually tackled. In terms of reducing ESL, forethought may be interpreted as preparing for education interactions (i.e. teaching, mentoring…) and classroom management in terms of supporting all students. The second phase is the actual educational experience, followed by self-reflection (critical evaluation) on the success of the prepared plan and its implementation. Afterwards, based on these observations there come planning and preparing for further education experiences that would engage all students.

Changing pedagogies to include more relevant (life-related, practical, vocational) experiences for students and develop more individualised approaches as well respectful inclusive relations is crucial to keep students engaged in school (Rogers, 2016). Thus, reflection and self-reflection can be understood as a key element of educators’ professional development (but it is not the only element or better than others) in order to acquire better approaches and competencies for meeting students’ needs and creating a supportive education environment for all students in order to reduce ESL. Ever since Schӧn (1983) presented self-reflection as a powerful tool for professional development, research has proven that teachers who reflect on their practice are more likely to change their practice to better meet the needs of their students (Osipova et al., 2011). When educators observe some critical indicators that could lead to a student’s ESL, a subsequent self-reflection could lead to more supportive actions of the educator that would prevent the student dropping out.

Different models of educators’ self-reflection

Dewey (1933) was one of the first to research reflection in relation to the professional work of educators. His research was about linear models of thinking and the interaction of thinking, experience and reflection. His work has influenced several researchers regarding the concepts of reflection and self-reflection, such as Schӧn (1983) and Kolb (1984).

Dewey (1933, p. 9) defines reflective thinking as “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends”. He recognised five steps of thinking or reflection: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; and (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection, that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.

One can recognise Dewey’s influence on the characteristics Schӧn (1983) established regarding educators’ reflection, where it was concluded that skilled practitioners are reflective practitioners and apply their experience as a basis for assessing and revising their existing theories to develop more effective strategies. Schӧn (1983) identified a framework for thinking and becoming aware of one’s own implicit knowledge and learning from experience, but he aimed to determine the development of educators’ reflective practice rather than explicitly explain reflection as a step-by-step process. Nevertheless, he recognised three levels of reflection (setting a problem, framing the experiment, deciding on a course of action). Another important contribution he made was the recognition of three types of reflection: reflection-in-action (reflecting during the action or interaction, i.e. while teaching), reflection-on-action (reflection on a previous event, i.e. reflection about previous educational experience) and reflection-for-action (planning and reflecting before an action, i.e. reflection before an educational experience for the purpose of planning) (Schӧn, 1987).

Based on previous models, Kolb (1984) developed a model of reflection that comprises four stages: (i) reflective observation; (ii) abstract conceptualisation; (iii) active experimentation; and (iv) concrete experience. Kolb (1984) believes that this is a cyclic process that can be entered at any stage, but it can only have a learning effect when all four stages are carried out. Because Kolb’s model incorporates the characteristics developed in previous models and also represents an upgrade of them, it is introduced here in greater detail.

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Figure 1. Kolb’s model of learning and reflection (adapted from: Kolb, D. A., Boyatizis, R. E. and Mainemelis, C. 2001, p.229).

Attributing the effects of reduction of ESL to Kolb’s model for the professional development of educators would mean the educator is involved in reflective observation (of their own performance, of the performance of others, of how supportive the learning experience is…), then they should engage the abstract conceptualisation (which could be induced by a mentor or tutor). After that, educators should be allowed to autonomously experiment with new approaches to produce a more supportive learning environment for all students and, based on that, to analyse the experience and their feelings about it. Again, a reflective observation on the educational experience follows.

Tripp (1993) also added to the contemporary understanding of reflection, self-reflection, reflective teaching and using reflection for educators’ professional development. He describes reflection as a component of professional judgement that is developed through a diagnosis of their practice and critical incidents. Tripp (1993) claims that being aware of what something means to us is of little practical value unless we do something about it by creating a critical incident. This critical incident acts as both an agenda for further action and a way of evaluating and interpreting it. This cycle can be used instantly during teaching in an informal or more formal way. It can also be used in professional development in terms of reducing ESL since creating (or observing) and analysing critical incidents would enable educators to establish understanding and usage of good (and weaker) practices.

Ziecher and Liston (1996) developed an understanding of reflective teaching which emphasises five key features and where a reflective teacher:

  1. examines, frames and attempts to solve dilemmas of classroom practice;
  2. is aware of and questions the assumptions and values they bring to education;
  3. is attentive to the institutional and cultural context;
  4. takes part in curriculum development and is involved in school change efforts; and
  5. takes responsibility for their own professional development.

These authors (Ziecher & Liston, 1996) believe that viewing educators as reflective practitioners assumes that educators can both pose and solve problems related to their educational practice, including ESL.

Of course, the reflection and self-reflection of educators may have different perspectives and comprise several characteristics. Accordingly, continuing changes in understanding and interpreting the meaning and content of educators’ reflection and self-reflection is expected. Thus, a model of critical reflection was developed (Brookfield, 1995) that views it as a process where those who are performing the self-evaluation actively engage with a (most often first-hand and meaningful) situation with the intention to “integrate the understanding gained into experience in order to enable better choices or actions in the future as well to enhance overall effectiveness” (Rogers, 2001, p. 41).

Self-reflection of educators today: The ALACT model of core self-reflection and its implications for ESL

Recently, Korthagen (2004) developed a model of so-called core self-reflection through which an individual can become aware and improve their options for transforming their already acquired knowledge, experience, cognitive structures, feelings, emotions, motivation to learn and an engaged attitude to work etc. The model is based on several already presented models of reflection developed in the 20th century but it highlights new aspects of educators’ professional development such as their professional identity, mission and core qualities. It has been developing for almost two decades and today it is one of the most referenced contemporary models on educators’ self-reflection, especially with the link to educators’ professional development and the possible implications for preventing ESL.

Korthagen and Kessels (1999) describe four phases of self-reflection (the ALACT model) which are suitable for facilitating and developing an (active) reflective attitude to one’s professional activities and professional development, based on an analysis of one’s own practice and cognition that guide an individual’s thinking, actions, evaluation and comprehensive activities: 1. Action; 2. Looking back on the action; 3. Awareness of essential aspects; 4. Creating alternative methods for action (also see Figure 2). The fourth phase is followed by a fifth labelled Trial, which at the same time functions as phase 1 – Action. During phase 2 of the model, teachers reflect on their thinking, feeling, wanting and doing, as well as on the same aspects in their pupils. The aim is to become more aware of how they are reacting during their teaching, what their feelings and needs are along with the feelings and needs of their pupils (Korthagen, 2005).

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Figure 2. Korthagen’s ALACT cycle of reflection (adapted from Korthagen, 2014, p. 75).

Korthagen’s ALACT model is also relevant to improving educators’ competencies and reflecting on already established practices in order to reduce ESL. The first phase (Action) can be considered as teaching or counselling a student with high-risk factors for ESL by using a certain approach. During the second phase (Looking back on the action), educators reflect on their thinking, feeling, wanting and doing during the first phase, and on the same aspects in their students. During the third phase (Awareness of essential aspects) educators focus on becoming aware of the aspects that are important for improving their further education practice. The fourth phase (Creating alternative methods of action) is when educators can plan for the future education experience with the same student or other students based on their observation during the second phase. The fifth phase (Trial) represents the period when an educator tries to implement what was created and planned during the third phase, i.e. tries to use another approach with the same student or with other students. This is simultaneously also the first phase (Action) since the educator then looks back on this trial, reflects and the cycle begins from the start.

Korthagen and colleagues (Korthagen & Kessels, 1999; Korthagen, 2004; Korthagen, 2005; Korthagen & Vasalos, 2010; Korthagen, 2013; Korthagen, 2014) established that the ALACT model of self-reflection is a helpful process model, but it does not support the practitioner in knowing what to reflect on, and that this can easily make the reflection somewhat superficial. Especially in complex and recurring problematic situations, such as preventing ESL, a reflection which only focuses on one’s previous and future behaviour is counterproductive. In order for more transformational changes to take place, deeper layers of educators’ understanding need to be touched on. For this reason, Korthagen et al. supplemented the ALACT model with a model describing possible contents of reflection at six different levels – the Onion model (Korthagen & Vasalos, 2010).

The “onion model” or “a model of levels of change” presents various levels that can be influenced by self-reflection (individuals’ behaviour, competencies, beliefs, identity and mission) (see Figure 3; Korthagen, 2004).

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Figure 3. Korthagen’s Onion model – the model levels of reflection (adapted from Korthagen, 2014, p. 76).

The link with ESL can be explained on each level. The environment for each educator means reflecting on the way students react (e.g. students at risk of dropping out) as well as the whole classroom and school climate and culture (whether it is accepting and motivating for students at risk of dropping out). The reflection on behaviour may focus on behaviours that are more and less effective (e.g. showing empathy for students at risk of dropping out). The reflection on competencies may focus on one’s own competency to respond empathetically or motivatingly. The reflection on beliefs about ESL can also put many actions into a different perspective. It is also important for educators to reflect on what kind of educators they are and what kind of educators they want to be. Finally, the reflection at the level of mission would deal with questions about why somebody decided to become an educator (e.g. only to educate the best students or to support all of them).

Core reflection as a concept is an important ingredient of effective learning at all levels of schooling and teachers’ professional development and is also crucial as a method for growth in collegial coaching (Korthagen, 2013) although it needs to exceed the superficial levels of the reflection. When teachers are able to progress through the various model phases independently, they will have developed a growth competence (Korthagen, 2014).

A very interesting conclusion was drawn by teacher educators after including core self-reflection in their curriculum that core reflection is a profoundly reciprocal process and that the further we integrate the approach within our work with students, the more we ourselves are changed as a result (King & Lau-Smith, 2013). Williams and Power (2009) concluded that acknowledging and examining personal characteristics (core qualities) and emotions in teaching practice, and in the core reflection process itself, is an important way in which educators can construct their professional identities, and examine and improve their practice. Further, Attema-Noordewier, Korthagen and Zwart (2013) described how, after professional development through core self-reflection, teachers reported an increased feeling of autonomy, stronger coaching skills together with enhanced core qualities of students, colleagues and themselves. The teachers also reported an increase in the students’ working and communication skills and in the students’ attitudes, which are among the most important factors in preventing ESL.

(Self)-reflection as a core reflection in such a cyclic form based on the ALACT model is an activity that directs teachers towards examining the existing and creating new approaches and methods for further actions (educational experiences), new views and notions and new competencies while analysing their own activities or activities of another. Teachers’ own views of knowledge, learning and teaching can also be key to what teachers report about students (are students successful, how successful they are) and how students perceive the school environment (as supportive and engaging or not). When educators reflect on a certain educational experience they can better understand not only their own but also their students’ perspective which enables them to create a more supportive environment and therefore reduce the risk factors for ESL.

Methods of self-reflection

Self-reflections may be conducted in various forms. Effective teachers may reflect on their work formally or informally; for instance, they may review a day’s work mentally, keep a journal, meet regularly with a mentor or with colleagues, or assess a videotaped recording of their teaching (Good & Brophy, 1997). Yet the self-reflection of teachers should not be limited to reflecting on their day’s work (such as teaching approach or assessment strategies) but also on their social and emotional competencies (such as relational competence) and responses. A connection between professional and the personal elements is important (Korthagen & Vasalos, 2010) since many authors emphasise that a strong divide between the personal and the professional may lead to an ineffective friction in an educators’ identity (Beijaard et al., 2004). Therefore, inadequate conceptions about students, defragmentation of relational competence and inability to engage students are associated with an inability to prevent ESL since students at risk for ESL are generally less motivated for school work and do not perceive the school and teachers to be very a positive environment and good motivators (Traag & Van der Velden, 2008; Harrington, 2008) and thus they need educators who possess the best possible combination of the above characteristics.

Several different methods can be used to engage in self-reflection in order to induce professional development, such as the “thinking-aloud” interview or stimulated recall, in which a subject engaged in a task speaks their thoughts aloud (Gläser-Zikuda, 2012). This allows the study of thoughts without influencing the subject to think too long about what they are asked, for example, in questionnaires. Further, written forms of self-reflection are a learning diary, learning protocol, and portfolio (Gläser-Zikuda, 2012). As indicated, the choice of self-reflection strategy is extremely important for attaining the expected outcomes and reducing the adverse effects.

One approach for reflecting on one’s own education experiences or reflecting on the educational experiences of other educators is based on video. Video has become quite a widely used tool in teacher professional development (Brophy, 2004) and also in educators’ self-reflection (Osipova et al., 2011). However, as Seidel and colleagues (2011) point out, the available research only provides limited insight into teachers’ experiences of watching videos of their own teaching versus others’ teaching. It also offers limited information on how teaching practice changes following video-based (self)reflection during in-service professional development courses. They (Seidel et al., 2011) discovered that teachers who analysed their own teaching experienced higher activation, indicated by higher immersion (deep-level engagement), resonance (a link to own teaching) and motivation than before the self-reflection, and higher than when reflecting on others’ teaching. Osipova (2015) then demonstrated with the results of a study that lessons undertaken when applying a certain intervention: coaching, video self-reflection, and the combined intervention of coaching and video self-reflection, produced much higher quality ratings than lessons without such intervention. Research (Tripp & Rich, 2012) has also proven that participating in video reflections increased teachers’ desires to change their teaching. The implication was that, where teachers see no need to change their practice, participation in video reflection may alter that view and create an intrinsic desire to change. Teachers also reported that, based on the video self-reflection, they were also changing their teaching when returning to the classroom (Tripp & Rich, 2012). Since one of the main principles for reducing the impact of the risk factors for ESL is to create a supportive educational environment for all students which includes educational experiences that engage all the students, video self-reflection combined with coaching and the implications for changing one’s teaching could contribute greatly to preventing ESL since it leads to a better understanding of the educational process, educators’ own behaviour, students’ behaviour and better education outcomes.


We have demonstrated several benefits of educators’ self-reflection and thus believe that self-reflection should be a major element of every educator’s professional development since it enables a wide range of understanding and analysing of one’s own practice, competencies, beliefs, identity and mission and in such a way contributes to students’ higher engagement and therefore lower ESL rates.

Several models of self-reflection were presented, with all indicating the importance of educators’ active participation in the self-reflection process and all determining that self-reflection is a process that can help educators with their professional development.

According to Korthagen and Kessels (1999), being aware of the main aspects connected with our actions is the key phase of reflection. Self-reflection based on the ALACT model (Korthagen & Kessels, 1999; Korthagen, 2004; Korthagen, 2005; Korthagen & Vasalos, 2010; Korthagen, 2013; Korthagen, 2014) has been shown to have effects regarding both educators as well as students. Educators must therefore first become aware of their perceptions of learning and teaching and regarding ESL and only afterwards can they alter their subjective conceptions and (re)actions as an educator if the deeper levels of self-reflection are applied. The incorporation of video self-reflection within professional development should focus on helping teachers move beyond a superficial level of self-reflection and to use the dissonance experience to reflect on how their practice could enhance student learning (Osipova et al., 2011) and reduce ESL. Self-reflection as an approach to educators’ professional development was recognised as highly valued and engaging but it can also have some disadvantages, such as facilitating stress or rumination or as a process that on a superficial level can lead to complaining instead of searching for ways to improve. In order to reduce these side-effects, several approaches should be combined and as many aspects as possible should be addressed during the professional development process so as to enable educators to develop their own ability to rethink the education process they are providing for students at risk for ESL.

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