A critical analysis of reflection as a goal for teacher education


Neste artigo, Ken Zeichner, baseando-se em seus vários anos de experiência como formador de educadores, discute o uso do conceito de "reflexão" em programas de formação docente ao redor do mundo, relacionando-o a três temas: 1) até que ponto a formação docente reflexiva resultou em um desenvolvimento real dos professores; 2) contribuiu para diminuir as lacunas na qualidade da educação de estudantes de diferentes perfis étnicos, raciais e sociais e 3) a falta de correspondência entre concepções de formação docente reflexiva, na literatura especializada, e as realidades materiais de trabalho dos professores. Paradigmas dominantes da formação docente reflexiva, nos últimos 25 anos, são também identificados.

Formação de professores; Reflexão; Estados Unidos

In this paper, Ken Zeichner draws upon his many years of experience as a teacher educator and discusses the use of the concept of reflection in teacher education around the world in relation to three issues: 1) the extent to which reflection has resulted in genuine teacher development, 2) contributed to a narrowing of the gaps in educational quality between students of different ethnic, racial and social class backgrounds, and 3) the lack of correspondence between images of teacher reflection in the literature and the material conditions of teachers' work. Dominant trends in reflective teacher education over the last 25 years are also identified.

Teacher education; Reflection; United States


A critical analysis of reflection as a goal for teacher education 1 1 Revised version of a keynote address presented at ENDIPE (Encontro Nacional de Didatica e Pratica de Ensino), Porto Alegre Brazil, April 30, 2008.

Ken Zeichner

University of Wisconsin-Madison, zeichner@wisc.edu


In this paper, Ken Zeichner draws upon his many years of experience as a teacher educator and discusses the use of the concept of reflection in teacher education around the world in relation to three issues: 1) the extent to which reflection has resulted in genuine teacher development, 2) contributed to a narrowing of the gaps in educational quality between students of different ethnic, racial and social class backgrounds, and 3) the lack of correspondence between images of teacher reflection in the literature and the material conditions of teachers' work. Dominant trends in reflective teacher education over the last 25 years are also identified.

Key words: Teacher education. Reflection. United States.


In this paper, I will share my thinking about the focus on teacher reflection in teacher education programs around the world. In doing so, I will reflect back on the last 30 or so years that I have been a university teacher educator, in terms of my reading of the international literature and on how I have observed the idea of teacher reflection being used in teacher education programs in the U.S. and in the many countries that I have had the privilege to visit.

I published my first paper about the idea of reflective practice in teacher education in 1981 in Canada during a time when behavioral psychology was the dominant force in U.S. teacher education (Zeichner, 1981).2 2 For example, see Peck & Tucker (1973). During my time as a teacher education student and as an elementary school teacher in the public schools in the USA, the emphasis was on preparing teachers to behave in certain ways (eg. asking certain kinds of questions) that were assumed to be effective in raising students' standardized test scores. There was no research and no real discussion in teacher education about teacher thinking and with helping teachers understand the rationales underlying the use of different teaching strategies or with helping teachers learn how to exercise their judgment in the classroom to meet the constantly changing learning needs of their students.

A number of things happened that led to a shift from a focus on training teachers to perform certain behaviors to more fully educating teachers to understand the reasons and rationales associated with different practices and with developing teachers' capacities to make intelligent decisions about how to act based on their carefully developed educational goals, on the contexts in which they were working, and on the learning needs of their students. These included the beginning of research on teacher thinking which in the USA was led by Lee Shulman and his colleagues at Michigan State University (eg., Shulman, 1992), the growing influence of cognitive science in education, and the growing acceptance of qualitative forms of research in education (Lagemann, 2000). There is also the belief by some that the emergence of reflective practice as an emphasis in teacher education is linked with efforts of neo-liberal and neo-conservative reformers to exert more subtle and greater control over teachers so that the purpose of public education could more easily be narrowed and more closely linked with the production of workers for the global economy (eg., Smyth, 1992).3 3 The growing influence of neo-liberal policies began to accelerate just prior to the time of the publication of The reflective practitioner in 1983 (Harvey, 2005).

My own involvement with trying to prepare teachers who were more reflective about their practice began in 1976 when I first joined the faculty at the UW-Madison and conducted research on the learning of the student teachers who were in our pre-service teacher education programs. What we learned in our research was that many of our students, although technically competent in the classroom, were largely concerned about moving their pupils through the lessons in a smooth and orderly fashion. They did not think much about why they were doing what they were doing, how what they were teaching represented selections from a larger universe of possibilities, and how the contexts in which they taught encouraged and discouraged certain kinds of practices.

For the most part, our students had no idea of where the curriculum came from and didn't seem to care. Teaching was largely seen as a largely technical process to be directed by either what people in schools or at the university wanted them to do and for the most part our students did not see teaching as a moral and ethical activity over which they had any control (eg., Tabachnick, Popkewitz, & Zeichner, 1979-80).

Our first use of the term "reflective teaching" at the University of Wisconsin represented a vague and general attempt to help our students become more thoughtful about the moral and ethical dimensions of teaching without a particular focus on helping them to reflect on particular things or to reflect in certain ways (Grant & Zeichner, 1984). As pointed out by Tellez (2007), in our early work we spent more time talking about what reflective teaching was not than what it was. Over time, we benefited considerably from the emerging international literature on reflective practice in teaching and teacher education (eg., Grimmett & Erickson, 1988; Calderhead & Gates, 1993; Clift, Houston & Pugach, 1992; LaBoskey, 1994; Loughran, 1996; Rodgers, 2002; Swarts, 1999; Westbury, Hopmann & Riquarts, 2000) and our use of the idea of reflection in our program has developed and changed as we continue to study and critique our own work as teacher educators and the impact of our program on our students. We also have continued to produce work of our own in which our conception of reflective teaching continues to develop and our abilities to foster it continue to improve both in pre-service teacher education (eg., Tabachnick & Zeichner, 1991; Gore & Zeichner, 1991) and in ongoing professional development programs for experienced teachers (Zeichner, 2003).

When Donald Schon published the book The reflective practitioner in 1983 (Schon, 1983), this marked the reemergence of reflective practice as a major issue in North American Teacher Education. The idea of reflective practice has been around for a long time in both western and non-western philosophy, including the great influence that John Dewey's book How we think (Dewey, 1933) had on education in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Following the publication of Schon's book and the massive amount of literature it stimulated on the issue worldwide, and the work of other educators around the world including Paulo Freire in Brazil (Freire,1973), and Jurgen Habermas in Europe ( 1971), teacher educators all over the world began discussing how they were preparing their students to be reflective teachers. Reflective teaching quickly became a slogan that was embraced by teacher educators from every political and ideological perspective to frame and justify what they were doing in their programs and after a time, it began to lose any specific meaning. As Rodgers (2002a) has put it, "In becoming everything to everybody, it has lost its ability to be seen." (p.843 ) Or as Australian scholar John Smyth (1992) has said:

What we are witnessing is a kind of conceptual colonization in which terms like reflection have become such an integral part of the education jargon that not to be using them is to run the real risk of being out of educational fashion. Everybody climbs aboard under the flag of convenience and the term is used to describe anything at all that goes on in teaching. What is not revealed is the theoretical, political and epistemological baggage that people bring with them. (p. 286).


From one perspective, the international movement that developed in teaching and teacher education under the banner of reflection can be seen as a reaction against the view of teachers as technicians who merely carry out what others, removed from the classroom want them to do, and of top-down approaches to educational reform that only involve teachers as passive participants.4 4 Generally, throughout the world there has been a tendency toward the deprofessionalization of teaching although the nature of the changes in teaching and the extent to which teachers' abilities to exercise their judgment in the classroom have been reduced has varied by country (eg., Robertson, 2000; Tatto, 2007).

At a surface level, the reflective practice movement involves recognition that teachers should play active roles in formulating the purposes and ends of their work along with others, and should assume leadership roles in school reform. Reflection also signifies that the development of new knowledge about teaching is not exclusively the role of college and university faculty, recognition that teachers have theories too that can contribute to the development of a common knowledge base about good teaching practices (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993).

The concept of the teacher as a reflective practitioner appears to acknowledge the expertise that is located in the practices of good teachers, what Schon (1983) has called "knowledge-in-action." 5 5 The term "practical theory" has also been used to describe the knowledge that teachers generate through an analysis of their practice. (Handal & Lauvas, 1987). From the perspective of the individual teacher, this means that the process of understanding and improving one's own teaching must start from reflection upon one's own experience, and that the sort of wisdom derived entirely from the experience of others in insufficient.

Reflection as a slogan for educational reform also signifies a recognition that no matter what we do in our teacher education programs and how well we do them, at best we can only prepare teachers to begin teaching. When embracing the concept of reflective teaching, there is often a commitment by teacher educators to help prospective teachers internalize during their initial training, the dispositions and skills to learn from their teaching experience and become better at it throughout their teaching careers (Feiman- Nemser, 2001).

Amid the explosion of interest in the idea of teachers as reflective practitioners, there has also been a great deal of confusion about what exactly is meant in particular cases by the use of the term reflective teaching and whether or not the idea of teachers as reflective practitioners should be supported. Although those who have embraced the slogan of reflection appear to share certain goals and commitments about an active role for teachers in school reform, in reality, one can tell very little about an approach to teaching or teacher education from an expressed commitment to the idea of reflection alone.

Underlying the apparent similarity among those who have embraced the slogan of reflection are vast differences in perspectives about teaching, learning, schooling, and the good society. It came to the point at least a decade ago, where the whole range of beliefs about these things have become incorporated into the discourse about reflective teaching. Everyone, no matter what his or her ideological commitments, has jumped on the bandwagon and is committed to some version of reflective teaching (Calderhead, 1989).

A number of scholars in different parts of the world, including myself, have devoted considerable time to analyzing the different positions on reflective teaching that have emerged (eg., Hatton & Smith, 1995; Zeichner & Liston, 1996; . Some of us have also spent time studying the different pedagogies that teacher educators have employed to promote the different visions of reflective teaching that they are committed to, such as action research, teaching portfolios, journals and autobiographies, teaching cases (both print and electronic), and the mediation of various kinds of school and community field experiences (eg., Bullough, 2008;Richert, 1992; Lyons, 1998; Rodgers, 2002b; Zeichner, 1987) or to ways to assess the quality of reflective teaching (eg., Sumsion & Fleet, 1996; Tse, 2007)

I am not going to discuss in this paper all of the specific versions of reflective teaching and the strategies used to develop them. Instead, I will discuss the idea of reflective practice in teacher education in relation to three issues: (1) the degree to which reflective teacher education has resulted in genuine teacher development; (2) the degree of correspondence between the image of teachers in discussions of reflective teacher education and the material realities of teachers' work; and (3) the degree to which the reflective teaching movement has contributed to a narrowing of the gaps that exist worldwide in the quality of education experienced by students from different ethnic and social class backgrounds.


First is the question of the degree to which reflective teacher education has supported genuine teacher development. Here despite all of the rhetoric surrounding efforts to prepare teachers who are more reflective and analytic about their work, in reality, reflective teacher education has done very little to foster genuine teacher development and to enhance teachers' roles in educational reform. Instead an illusion of teacher development has often been created which has maintained in more subtle ways the subservient position of the teacher.

There are several ways in which reflective teacher education has undermined the frequently expressed emancipatory intent of teacher educators. First, one of the most common uses of the concept of reflection has involved helping teachers reflect about their teaching with the primary aim of better replicating a curriculum or teaching method that research has allegedly found to be effective in raising students' standardized test scores. Here the question in the reflection is how well does my practice conform to what someone wants me to be doing? Sometimes the creative intelligence of the teacher is permitted to intervene to determine the situational appropriateness of employing particular teaching strategies and materials, but often it is not.

There are a number of things missing from this popular kind of reflection about teaching including any sense of how the practical theories of teachers (their knowledge-in action in Schon's language) are to contribute to the process of teacher development.

Ironically, despite Schon's (1983) very articulate rejection of this technical rationality in his book The reflective practitioner, "theory" is still seen by those who use this approach to reside only within universities, and practice to reside only within schools. The problem is framed as merely transferring or applying theories from the university to classroom practice (eg., Zeichner, 1995). The reality that theories are always produced through practices and that practices always reflect particular theoretical commitments is ignored. There are still many instances of this technical rationality approach to reflective practice in teacher education programs around the world today (eg., Boud & Walker, 1998;Valli, 1992) .

Closely related to this persistence of technical rationality under the banner of reflective teaching, is the limitation of the reflective process to consideration of teaching skills and strategies (the means of instruction) and exclusion of reflection upon the ends of education and the moral and ethical aspects of teaching from the teacher's purview. Teachers are denied the opportunity to do anything but fine tune and adjust the means for accomplishing ends determined by others. Teaching becomes merely a technical activity.

A third aspect of the failure of reflective teacher education to promote genuine teacher development is the clear emphasis on focusing teachers' reflections inwardly at their own teaching and students, to the neglect of consideration of the social conditions of schooling that influence the teacher's work within the classroom. This individualist bias makes it less likely that teachers will be able to confront and transform those structural aspects of their work that undermine their accomplishment of their educational goals. The context of teachers' work is to be taken as given. While teachers' primary concerns understandably lie within the classroom and with their students, it is unwise to restrict teachers' attention to these concerns alone. As U.S. philosopher Israel Scheffler has argued:

Teachers cannot restrict their attention to the classroom alone, leaving the larger setting and purposes of schooling to be determined by others. They must take active responsibility for the goals to which they are committed and for the social setting in which these goals may prosper. If they are not to be mere agents of the state, of the military, of the media, of the experts and bureaucrats, they need to determine their own agency through a critical and continual evaluation of the purposes, the consequences, and the social context of their calling. (p. 11).

We must be careful here that teachers' involvement in matters beyond the boundaries of their classrooms does not make excessive demands on their time, energy and expertise, diverting their attention from their core mission with students. In some circumstances, creating more opportunities for teachers to participate in school-wide decisions about curriculum, staffing, instruction and so on, can intensify their work beyond the bounds of reasonableness and make it more difficult for them to accomplish their primary task of educating students. It does not have to be this way, but care needs to be taken that teacher empowerment does not undermine teachers' capacities.

A fourth and closely related aspect of much of the work on reflective teaching is the focus on facilitating reflection by individual teachers who are to think by themselves about their work. There is still very little emphasis on reflection as a social practice that takes place within communities of teachers who support and sustain each other's growth. The challenge and support gained through social interaction is important in helping us clarify what we believe and in gaining the courage to pursue our beliefs. More research in the last decade using a socio-cultural lens has focused on the importance of communities of practice in teacher learning (eg., Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001; Little, 2002; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006 ), but the emphasis is still on individual teacher reflection in many places.

One consequence of the focus on individual teacher reflection and the lack of attention by many to the social context of teaching in teacher development has been that teachers come to see their problems as their own, unrelated to those of other teachers or to the structures of schooling. Thus we saw the widespread use of such terms as "teacher burnout" which directed the attention of teachers away from a critical analysis of schools and the structures of teachers' work to a preoccupation with their own individual failures. A group of activist teachers in the Boston area argued some time ago that:

Teachers must begin to turn the investigation of schools away from scapegoating individual teachers, students, parents, and administrators, toward a system-wide approach. Teachers must recognize how the structure of schools controls their work and deeply affects their relationships with their fellow teachers, their students, and their student' families Only with this knowledge can they grow into wisdom and help others to grow. (Freedman, Jackson, & Boles, 1983, p. 299).

In summary, when we examine the ways in which the concept of reflection has been used in teacher education we find four themes that undermine the potential for genuine teacher development: (1) a focus on helping teachers to better replicate practices suggested by research conducted by others and a neglect of preparing teachers to exercise their judgment with regard to the use of these practices; (2) a means-end thinking which limits the substance of teachers' reflections to technical questions of teaching techniques and ignores analysis of the ends toward which they are directed; (3) an emphasis on facilitating teachers' reflections about their own teaching while ignoring the social and institutional context in which teaching takes place; and (4) an emphasis on helping teachers' to reflect individually. All of these things create a situation where there is merely the illusion of teacher development of teacher empowerment.

It is not inevitable that efforts to foster teacher reflection will reinforce and strengthen the subservient position of teachers. There are examples in a number of countries of efforts by teacher educators to encourage the reflection of student teachers which focus on the ends as well as the means of teaching, which include attention to the social conditions of schooling as well as to teaching, and which emphasize reflection as a social practice within communities of teachers. These examples support the genuine development and empowerment of teachers to play important roles in school reform (eg., See Villegas-Reimers, 2003).

One example of this work is a focus on helping prospective teachers understand the reasons and rationales that underlie different choices that have been made in the classrooms in which they have completed their field experiences, to encourage their cooperating teachers talk with them about their thinking about what they do and would like to do, and to talk about how they have adapted instruction to meet the varied needs of their learners (eg., Feiman-Nemser & Beasley, 2007). Even when student teachers are not able to act on the results of their analyses student teachers are able to gain a level of awareness that helps them see possibilities, that helps them see that what is, is not inevitable and that it reflects particular biases.

All of this is good. I want to argue though that even if teacher development is genuine and not a fraud, that there is another consideration that needs to be taken into account in examining reflection in teacher education. Reflective teacher education which fosters genuine teacher development should only be supported in my view if it is connected to the struggle for greater social justice and contributes to the narrowing of the gaps in the quality of education available to students from different backgrounds in every country of the world. Just as the case with teacher reflection, teacher development and empowerment should not be viewed as ends in themselves.


Even when reflection is used as a vehicle for genuine teacher development, it is often seen as an end in itself, unconnected to broader questions about education in democratic societies. It is often stated or implied that if teachers reflect about what they do they will necessarily be better teachers.

Kemmis (1985) has argued that reflection is inevitably a political act that either hastens or defers the realization of a more humane, just and decent society. All teaching actions have a variety of consequences which include (1) personal consequences- the effects of teaching on students' social and emotional development and social relationships; (2) academic consequences- the effects of teaching on students' intellectual development; and (3) political consequences- the cumulative effects of school experience on students' life chances. In my view, reflective teacher education needs to address all of these dimensions, and it should not be supported unless it makes a contribution to the making of a better society for everyone's children.

What does this mean in practical terms for those of us who prepare teachers? First, we need to recognize that reflection by itself means very little. All teachers are reflective in some sense. It is important to consider what we want teachers to reflect about and how. A number of different conceptual frameworks have been developed over the years in several countries to describe different ways to define the focus and quality of reflection. Connecting teacher reflection to the struggle for social justice that exists in all countries today does not mean only focusing on the political aspects of teaching. Teachers need to know the academic subject matter they are responsible for teaching and how to transform it to connect with what students' already know to promote greater understanding. They need to know how to learn about their students-what they know and can do, and the cultural resources that they bring to the classroom. Teachers also need to know how to explain complex concepts, lead discussions, how to assess student learning, manage a classroom and many other things. Connecting teacher reflection to the struggle for social justice means that in addition to making sure that teachers have the content and pedagogical background needed to teach in a way that promotes student understanding (rejecting a transmission model of teaching that merely promotes rote repetition), we need to ensure that teachers know how to make decisions on a daily basis that do not unnecessarily limit the life chances of their pupils, that they make decisions in their work with greater awareness of the potential political consequences of the different choices that they make.

While education actions by teachers within schools obviously cannot solve societal problems by themselves, they can contribute to the building of more just and decent societies. The most important point is that teaching can never be neutral. Teachers must act with greater political clarity about whose interests are served by their daily actions. They may not be able to change some aspects of the situation at present, but at least they will be aware of what is happening.


In summary, in this paper I have attempted to briefly identify some of the dominant trends over the last 30 years in both the rhetoric and practice surrounding the concept of reflection in teacher education. Today, 25 years after the publication of Donald Schon's The reflective Practitioner, there is still much work going on in teacher education all over the world that is focused on the idea of preparing reflective teachers. Recent research has shown the importance of carefully structuring and scaffolding the reflections of student teachers through such things as the development of reflective tasks rather than just telling student teachers to go off and reflect with little guidance (eg., Orland-Barak & Yinon, 2007 ). Models of student teacher supervision have shifted to focus more directly on fostering teacher learning and reflection than on the summative assessment emphasis in the past (Pajak, 2000). Research has also shown the importance of teacher educators modeling the kind of thoughtfulness and praxis that they expect from their student teachers (Loughran, 1996). In recent years, the rational approach to reflection largely based within the USA on the work of John Dewey has been challenged by a variety of scholars like Fred Kothhagen in the Netherlands who have focused more in the spiritual and intuitive aspects of refection and teacher learning (eg., Korthagen & Vasalos, 2005; Tremmel, 1993) 6 6 It should be noted that the role of emotions and imagination in reflection by teachers has been a topic of discussion for many years (eg., Hullfish & Smith, 1961). . There has also been a wide consensus among scholars that stage theories of teacher reflection that seek to help student teachers transcend reflection about technical issues of teaching so that they can focus exclusively on the social and political aspects of teaching are misguided (eg., Fendler, 2003; Zeichner, 1996).7 7 This criticism does not necessarily apply to developmental frameworks of teacher reflection that encourage a progression toward more competence in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty ( Moon 1999).

Despite all of these and other developments in the work on teacher reflection, there is still much conceptual confusion in my view about what people actually mean by the term reflection-whether they are attempting to promote a genuine kind of teacher learning that moves beyond the compliant implementation of external directives, and even if the teacher learning aimed for is genuine, whether there is a link in their efforts to struggles within and outside of education to bring about a world with greater social justice for everyone.

In recent years, deprofesionalization of the work of teachers has intensified in many countries throughout the world in response to pressures from neo-liberal and neo-conservative policies and the very idea of public education is in doubt in many places (eg., Compton & Weiner, 2008; Smyth et.al. 2000). Given the political and economic situation in much of the world today it is very easy for teacher reflection to merely become a tool to more subtlety controlling teachers. The real challenge for us is to work against the grain and make our work in teacher education contribute to a lessening of these destructive tendencies and to connect what we do in our teacher education classrooms to struggles of educators and citizens everywhere to move us closer to a world where everyone's children has access to the means and conditions that will help them lead productive and rewarding lives. It is my belief that unless we make our work part of this broader struggle, reflective teacher education is not worthy of our support.

Unfortunately in my view, most of the rhetoric about reflection in teacher education today, even after all of the critiques, fails to incorporate the kind of social and political analysis that is necessary to see and then to challenge the structures that continue to undermine the achievement of our noblest goals as educators. I am optimistic though that teacher educators will rise up to the challenge and ensure that the goal of reflection in teacher education does not help to unconsciously reproduce the status quo. The goal of working for social justice is a fundamental part of the work of teacher educators in democratic societies and we should never compromise on anything that will help us make progress toward its realization.

As U.S. education philosopher Maxine Greene (1979) has said:

The concern of teacher educators must remain normative, critical, and even political. Neither the teachers colleges nor the schools can legislate democracy. But something can be done to empower teachers to reflect upon their own life situations, to speak out in their own ways about the lacks that must be repaired, the possibilities to be acted upon in the name of what they deem to be decent, humane and just. (p. 71).


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  • 1
    Revised version of a keynote address presented at ENDIPE (Encontro Nacional de Didatica e Pratica de Ensino), Porto Alegre Brazil, April 30, 2008.
  • 2
    For example, see Peck & Tucker (1973).
  • 3
    The growing influence of neo-liberal policies began to accelerate just prior to the time of the publication of
    The reflective practitioner in 1983 (Harvey, 2005).
  • 4
    Generally, throughout the world there has been a tendency toward the deprofessionalization of teaching although the nature of the changes in teaching and the extent to which teachers' abilities to exercise their judgment in the classroom have been reduced has varied by country (eg., Robertson, 2000; Tatto, 2007).
  • 5
    The term "practical theory" has also been used to describe the knowledge that teachers generate through an analysis of their practice. (Handal & Lauvas, 1987).
  • 6
    It should be noted that the role of emotions and imagination in reflection by teachers has been a topic of discussion for many years (eg., Hullfish & Smith, 1961).
  • 7
    This criticism does not necessarily apply to developmental frameworks of teacher reflection that encourage a progression toward more competence in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty ( Moon 1999).

Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    31 Mar 2009
  • Date of issue
    Aug 2008


  • Received
    May 2008
  • Accepted
    July 2008
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