Reflective Practice for Renewing Schools: An Action Guide for Educators


Jennifer York-Barr, William A. Sommers, Gail S. Ghere & Jo Montie

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    We wish to dedicate this book

    To our parents and grandparents—they were our first teachers

    To the teachers who supported us learning during our formative years in school

    To our educator colleagues who have been gracious enough to invite us to learn alongside them now

    And to our children, all of whom are now grown-ups who continue to inspire us by how they show up in the world

    List of Figures, Tables, and Practice Examples

    List of Figures

    List of Tables

    List of Practice Examples


    Making meaning is not a spectator sport. It is an engagement of the mind that transforms the mind. The brain’s capacity and inclination to find patterns of meaning are keys of brain-based learning. Human beings are active, dynamic, self-organizing systems integrating the mind, body, and spirit. Their natural tendency is to organize experiences into greater levels of complexity and diversity. We never really understand something until we can create a model or metaphor derived from our unique personal world. The reality we perceive, feel, see, and hear is influenced by the constructivist processes of reflection. Humans don’t get ideas, they make ideas.

    Furthermore, making meaning is not just an individual operation. The individual interacts collaboratively with others to construct shared knowledge. There is a cycle of internalization of what is socially constructed as shared meaning. Constructive learning, therefore, is viewed as a reciprocal process in that the individual influences the group, and the group influences the individual.

    Children come fully equipped with an insatiable drive to explore, to experiment, and to inquire. Toddlers are in a constant state of exploring everything that they can detect with their hands, eyes, and lips. They live in a state of continuous discovery: dismayed by anomaly, attracted to novelty, compelled to mastery, intrigued by mystery, curious about discrepancy. They derive personal and concrete feedback from their sensory adventures. Their brains are actually being transformed with each new experience.

    Unfortunately, the educational process often is oriented toward controlling rather than learning, rewarding individuals for performing for others rather than cultivating their natural curiosity and impulse to learn. From an early age, a fragmented, compartmentalized curriculum may teach competitiveness and reactiveness. We may be trained to believe that deep learning means knowing accepted truths rather than developing capacities for effective and thoughtful action; acquiring knowledge is for passing tests rather than accumulating wisdom and personal meaning. We may be taught to value certainty rather than doubt, to give quick answers rather than to inquire, and to know which choice is correct rather than to reflect on alternatives. Learning may be perceived to have little or no relevant application beyond the school to everyday living, further inquiry, or knowledge production.

    Schools and classrooms today are busy, active places where students and teachers are pressured to learn more, to learn faster to be more rigorous and to be held accountable for demonstrating to others their achievement of specified standards and mastery of content. For that reason, classrooms are much more present and future oriented than they are past oriented, and it is often easier to discard what has happened and simply move on. Thus children, whose natural tendency is to create personal meaning, may be gradually habituated to think that they are incapable of reflecting and constructing meaning on their own. Eventually, students may become convinced that knowledge is accumulated bits of information and that learning has little to do with their capacity for effective action, their sense of self, and how they exist in their world. Later, as they mature, they may confront learning opportunities with fear rather than mystery and wonder. They seem to feel better when they know rather than when they learn. They defend their biases, beliefs, and storehouses of knowledge rather than inviting the unknown, the creative, and the inspirational into their meaning making. Being certain and closed provides comfort whereas being doubtful, ambiguous, and open causes fear. Life experiences and actions are viewed as separate, unrelated, and isolated events rather than as opportunities for continuous learning. Psychologists refer to this syndrome as an episodic grasp of reality.

    Schools’ and districts’ improvement efforts may also signal an episodic approach. Proudly striving to keep abreast of educational improvement practices, some schools adopt an array of innovations (project-based learning, flipped classrooms, instructional technology, interdisciplinary instruction, STEM/STEAM, mentoring, Common Core State Standards, Personalized Learning, and so forth). Whereas a great deal of time may be spent in planning, limited time is spent in reflecting. As a result, teachers and administrators soon become impervious to integrating all the disparate pieces. In such an intellectually barren school climate, some teachers and administrators understandably grow depressed. Their vivid imagination, altruism, creativity, and intellectual prowess soon succumb to the humdrum, daily routines of unruly students, irrelevant curriculum, impersonal surroundings, and equally disillusioned coworkers. In such an environment, the likelihood that staff members would value reflectivity would be marginal.

    The authors of this richly documented and valuable book provide a brighter vision. They believe that the organization that does not take time to reflect does not have time to improve and that reflective organizations view school improvement from a broader perspective, as a process of revealing and emancipating human and organizational resourcefulness. They make a strong case for the less is more principle and believe that to take the time, to set the tone, and to provide the opportunities for group and individual reflection prove beneficial not only for students but also for entire faculties. The time and effort invested in reflection yield a harvest of greater student learning, higher teacher morale, enhanced feelings of efficacy, and a more collaborative professional community.

    The authors propose that a major, but often overlooked, goal of education should be habitual reflection on one’s actions so as to maximize the autonomous, continual, and lifelong construction of meaning from those experiences. They offer compelling evidence that

    • Reflecting on one’s own work enhances meaning
    • Constructing meaning from experiences enhances the applicability of that knowledge beyond the situation in which it was learned
    • Reflecting on one’s experiences results in insights and complex learning
    • Reflecting on experiences is amplified when done with partners and in group settings
    • Reflecting by individuals is signaled and encouraged when reflection is implicit in the organization’s values, policies, and practices

    Maximizing meaning from life’s experiences requires enhancing and amplifying the human capacities for reflection. To be reflective means to mentally wander through where you have been and try to make some sense out of it. Reflection involves such habits or dispositions as

    • Thinking about thinking or metacognition and conducting an internal dialogue before, during, and after an event
    • Connecting information to previous learning
    • Drawing forth cognitive and emotional information from several sources, such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile
    • Acting on and processing the information—synthesizing, evaluating, self-modifying, goal setting
    • Applying insights to contexts beyond the one in which they were learned

    As individuals, staffs, and organizations reflect on their learning, they gain important information about how they perceive the efficacy of their planning, experimenting, data gathering, assessment, and self-modification. These experiences provide opportunities to practice the habit of continuous growth through reflection. The authors refer to this as the “reflective practice spiral.” Individuals, groups, and schools begin to learn how to become a continuously growing and learning professional community by seizing opportunities to reflect individually, in partnerships, and in group situations within an atmosphere of trust.

    Reflection is not just kid stuff. The authors make a strong case for habitual reflection throughout the learning community—in students, teachers, administrators, and parents—as well as for integrating reflectivity in organizational practices. Because imitation is the most basic form of learning, impressionable students often need to see adults—parents, teachers, and administrators—reflect on their practice. Adults are not only facilitators of meaning making, but also models of reflection. Their role is to help learners approach an event in a thoughtful and strategic way, to help monitor their progress during the experience, and to construct meaning from the content learned as well as from the process of learning it, and then to modify one’s actions and apply those learnings to other contexts and settings. Educators in reflective schools and classrooms seek to ensure that all the inhabitants are fully engaged in the making of meaning, organizing experiences and activities so that stakeholders are the producers of knowledge rather than just the consumers of knowledge.

    If the goal is to engage in deep reflection on one’s work so as to make life experiences meaningful and to acquire the humility of continuous learning, then potent strategies must be employed in all quarters of the organization—for students, teachers, and administrators—and at all levels of the school community—in the classroom, in the school, in the school district, and in the community. Developing habits of continuous growth requires not only the capacity to be self-reflective; time also must be regularly scheduled to reflect on learning. Opportunities must be seized; strategies must be experimented with and evaluated for their productivity. And that is what this book so abundantly furnishes: clear directions for engaging in reflection individually, with partners, and in small and large groups; creative techniques for engaging in meaning making, clever ways to find the time, and practical strategies for deliberately setting an organizational tone of reflectivity.

    We must vow to serve and maintain this natural tendency of humans to inquire and experience, and then, through reflection, find patterns, integrate meaning, and seek additional opportunities to satisfy the human propensity for learning. A goal of education, therefore, should be to recapture, sustain, and liberate the natural, self-organizing, learning tendencies inherent in all human beings: curiosity and wonderment, mystery and adventure, humor and playfulness, connection finding, inventiveness and creativity, continual inquiry, and insatiable learning through reflection.

    The school that commits its resources of time, energy, and talent to reflection makes a clear statement of its valuing of the continuous intellectual growth for all its inhabitants and its desire to make the world a more thoughtful place.

    Arthur L. Costa, EdDGranite Bay, California


    We begin this third edition with a new title, Reflective Practice for Renewing Schools. We substituted renewing for improving. We were searching for a more energetic and empowering term. We were also inspired by John Goodlad who prefers the term renewal to reform. He explains,

    [Reform suggests] somebody is trying to do something to somebody else who it thought to be wrong and who will be reformed if he or she follows these directions. By contrast, in renewal, [insiders] want to change and to do so in the light of knowledge, in the light of inquiry into what is needed. It’s the difference between digging up a garden to replace all the plants with something else and nurturing the garden. (Ferrace, 2002, p. 31)

    As with the first two editions, we are drawn to images of nature, nurture, and growth . . . and bristle from images of fixing inadequacies or remediating deficiencies. Learning environments differ from machines with interchangeable components. Authentic and lasting change is motivated internally and continues to grow in creative workplaces. This book is about tapping internal hopes and desires that inspire continuous learning by educators who, in turn, inspire and nurture continuous learning by today’s young people in schools.

    In the fifteen years since our first edition was published there has been an increasing stream of literature on the topic of reflective practice. Still dominant is literature about reflection in preservice teacher education and ongoing learning improvement for experienced professionals. Adding to this core is literature from the fields of nursing, adult education, and professional development for practicing educators. Emergent emphases include use of technology to support reflection, engaging students in reflective practice, and using reflection to foster cultural proficiency. Further, there are even more accounts of meaningful, ongoing, and collaborative reflective practice among educators in the context of instructional teams, observed schoolwide, among schools, and both districtwide and across districts. Importantly, there is a sharper focus on reflection as a means for advancing teaching and learning practices with the explicit intent of increasing student achievement. We view the expanding literature base on reflective practice, including research on its effectiveness, as a sign of hope and encouragement that more reflection and learning is and can be happening in the lives of educators to the ultimate benefit of students.

    At its core, we believe that reflective practice is about tapping into things deeply human: the desire to learn, to grow, to be in community with others, to contribute, to serve, and to make sense of our time on earth. We believe the vast majority of educators have chosen this most noble of professions in hopes of making a positive difference in the lives and development of young people, consequently making a difference in societal life for years to come. We know this work is enormously challenging given complex contexts of practice, the wide variety of individuals and communities with whom educators engage, and the unrelenting pressure to perform and to be accountable. We believe that effective teaching involves both the hard focus on standards, instruction, and outcomes and the softer focus of relationships, intuition, and emotion. Students remind us that both caring and competence are necessary teacher attributes. Without care, there is no connection to the competence. Without competence, there is no respect.

    We are concerned when structures and cultures in schools impede our natural tendencies to learn, to connect, to create, and to contribute. Working in schools can feel like living in a container, limiting space, time, and access to nutrients. Plants in such environments eventually wither and die. People who work in isolating cultures and who are cut off from essential nutrients also can lose energy and wither. It is way too hard to go it alone as educators. Edward Deming asserted many years ago that much of the reason for moving away from the work and not doing work as well, lies in the culture and the structure of the environment. Fortunately, much has been learned about how to initiate and sustain the process of re-creating culture, structure, expectations, and support such that educators are renewed in their development work with children. We are grateful for the work of Peter Block and Edgar Schein who continue to provide renewed thinking about our cultures and community.

    Reflective practice is at the root of renewed life and energy in schools. Trust is at the root of collaborative cultures that sustain growth. Reflective practice is the vital and largely untapped resource for significant and sustained effectiveness. Experience by itself is not enough. Reflection on experience with subsequent action is the pathway to renewal and continuous improvement. Reflection is a means for examining beliefs, assumptions, and practices. It can lead to encouraging insights about instructional effectiveness. It can also result in the discovery of incongruities between espoused beliefs and actual actions. Either way, the self-awareness gained through reflection can motivate individuals to initiate changes in practice to enhance student learning. Effective implementation of reflective practices requires continuous development of both individual and organizational learning capacities. The hectic pace and rigid structures in many schools makes it difficult to take time out to reflect and learn. The learning demands, however, continue to escalate for both students and staff.

    For readers of this book, our desired outcomes are to understand the positive potential, and perhaps even the necessity of reflective practice to improve teaching and learning in schools; to initiate or extend individual commitments to reflective practice as a way to continuously learn and improve educational practice; and to support implementation of individual and collaborative reflective practices within schools. Implied is the assumption that in order for students to learn well in school, so, too, must the community of educators who encircle them. In the words of Art Costa, who wrote the foreword for all three editions of this book and who is renowned for his work in cognitive coaching, “If we don’t provide intellectually stimulating environments for teachers, why do we think they will provide that for students?”

    This book offers a framework, strategies, and practice examples for thinking and doing as reflective educators. It is organized into eight chapters. In Chapter 1, we define reflective practice, provide a rationale for its potential to improve schools, describe characteristics of reflective educators, and present the reflective practice spiral as the organizing framework for the book. This framework asserts that the place to begin implementation of reflective practices is with oneself. From that base, reflective practice can expand to include colleagues throughout the school and organization. In Chapter 2, we identify and describe fundamental considerations for the design and development of conversations in which reflective practices are embedded. The learning, as always, is in the conversation. Skilled facilitators of reflective practice have learned ways to tailor learning structures, processes, and practices to both invite, and sometimes compel, community members to listen, speak, and learn together. Chapter 2 offers principles of adult learning, including findings from brain research that inform the design of conversational space. Also identified in Chapter 2 are practices for listening, thinking, promoting trust, along with conversational norms that when enacted result in every voice being heard. Chapter 2 closes with a new practice example that offers the short version of a five-year process of growing a more interdependent community of diverse practitioners with the focus of improving equitable opportunities for students who are traditionally at risk for being removed from general education. Chapter 3 is new to the book and specifically focuses on leadership understandings and practices aimed at growing more reflective communities of practice.

    In Chapters 4 through 7, we offer strategies and examples for supporting reflective practices for individuals (Chapter 4), for partners (Chapter 5), for small groups and teams (Chapter 6), and school- and districtwide (Chapter 7). Finally, in Chapter 8, we share lessons learned from our experiences working with educators and schools to implement reflective practices. We also offer ideas and strategies for remaining hopeful about possibilities in our work. At the end of every chapter we include a reflection page for you to write down your own reflection with an aim toward application.

    New to this third edition are greater attention to reflection for fostering equity and cultural competence and for being more mindful about ways our brains work to either be open to learning or to shut down. There are more strategies for individual reflection as a means of continually clarifying, grounding, and refining both purpose and practice. There are new and more robust practice examples, including more administrator and schoolwide examples. And, as mentioned above, there is more attention to ways to lead this work. In the accompanying website at, there are numerous resources that can be easily accessed and printed for use to design and guide reflective practices.

    As with the first two editions, the primary audiences for this book are teacher leaders, staff development specialists, program coordinators, site administrators, and other educators who assume responsibility for renewal, improvement, and staff development in their school communities. Faculty involved in preservice, in-service, and ongoing service in the development of teachers and administrators should also find this book a useful resource as it offers foundations, strategies, and examples for continuous learning and development of the professional educator. To this list, we add “positive deviants” as an intended audience. Since the first edition, when we introduced the concept of positive deviance (grounded in the work of the late Jerry Sternin, an international development specialist for Save Our Children), the term has taken root in some educational circles (described more in Chapter 1). Briefly, positive deviants are individuals who thrive in situations that others do not, and situations where individuals would not necessarily be expected to thrive. In the context of education, positive deviants are those individuals who “Just do it!,” to borrow Nike’s slogan, mindfully and with a deep understanding of context and culture. They are the seemingly innate reflective practitioners. They just continue to reflect and learn and grow, despite what seem to be constraining forces and conditions around them. We intend this book for the positive deviants among us who we hope will feel affirmed and supported in extending their enviable and attainable propensity for growth and renewal. Maybe this book can serve as a boost for those who continue to see possibilities and who do their part, every day, striving to create positive futures. We believe that now more than ever before, educators must continuously and meaningfully reflect on their practice—by themselves, and with their colleagues. We look forward to more learning about reflective practice and the results on learning for years to come. We are convinced of the extraordinary talent, good intentions, and steadfast commitments demonstrated by the vast majority of practicing educators in K–12 schools. We are equally convinced that without significant advances in opportunity and the capacity of individuals and schools to foster continuous renewal and improvement, the demands on educators will exceed their capacity to promote high levels of learning for all students. We offer this book as encouragement and reference for individual and collective efforts to create schools where both students and adults continually learn. We cannot be like the Nike slogan and do it alone. We must go together. A commitment to reflective practice is a journey toward realizing our potential as educators to move beyond humans just doing to become humans being.


    All works with intention to benefit and serve a broader community are grounded in a web of relationships inclusive of the many and varied humans who have touched our lives and shown us, through modeling, what matters most and how to strive to be our best selves at home, in our communities, and through our work with young people and educators whose work both humbles and grounds us. As we all know about ourselves, some days we manage to show up well, other days not so much. We are blessed to have family, colleagues, and friends who encourage us along and love us anyway.

    Family first. Our parents, Jim and Barbara, Bill and Frances, Howard and Kathy, Len and Carol, were our first teachers. And even though not all of them continue to walk with us on earth, their teachings and memories stay with us and guide us still. They taught us to care about our communities and the variety of people within. We are forever grateful for the enduring love and support of our spouses, Dean, Dave, in spirit, and Carl. Our children, Jason, Justin, Sam, Temple, Perry, Erin, Aaron, Chris, Alex, Shannon, Emma, and Amelia . . . they remind us what matters in life and also in the lives of younger people: creating their own lives, contributing their energy and talent to our world, and growing within communities of neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Each of them contributing in his or her own beautiful way.

    This book would not have been possible without the invaluable insights, learning, and examples provided by our friends and colleagues: Barb, Jane, Jenny, Catherine, Shelly, Sharon, Laurie, Donna, Doug, Jeff, Jim, Lisa, Ty, Kari, Tom, Mary, Tim, Jim, Dick, Ron, Jill, Elizabeth, Jennifer, Taylor, Matt, Diane, Skip, and Marney. Without you, there would have been very little authentic learning in practice. We are grateful that you have trusted us enough to enter your community of practice as partners in learning and creating. To Art Costa, we offer our heartfelt thanks for your enduring support of our work and extraordinary insights and modeling of what it means to be a lifelong reflective leader. We extend our appreciation to Pat Wolfe for teaching us about the implications of brain research on learning and how modifying the learning context supports reflective practice. Recognizing that many of the practice examples in this third edition are from within the Saint Paul Public Schools, we wish to acknowledge Superintendent Valeria Silva for her leadership and innovation on behalf of students. Without a doubt, each of you are among the best humans ever, who care about young people more than words can fully express.

    Finally, we could not be more grateful to our Corwin colleagues, Dan, Melanie, Kim, Katie, Janet, and undoubtedly others, who have stood with us and continued to cheer us on, despite some significant challenges that slowed our momentum for this third edition. Each of you is a caring, collaborative, competent partner in every way. We are your fans for life!

    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Michele R. Dean, EdD
    • Coordinator, Ventura County Indian Education Consortium
    • Ventura Unified School District
    • Ventura, CA
    • Cindy Harrison
    • Independent Consultant
    • Broomfield, CO
    • Pat Roy
    • Educational Consultant
    • Learning Forward
    • Madison, VA
    • Donnan Stoicovy
    • Principal
    • Park Forest Elementary School
    • State College, PA

    About the Authors

    Jennifer York-Barr, Professor Emeritus, Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her development, research, and teaching have been grounded in partnerships with educators in schools and school districts. Her early worked focused specifically on creating classroom communities that included students with various exceptionalities. That work grew into a broader focus on growing school communities grounded in conversations that support ongoing reflective practice and learning. She has been honored with several college- and university-level teaching awards and has authored or coauthored more than 100 publications, most of which are focused on instructional collaboration, inclusive schooling, teacher leadership, or professional learning. In 2014, Dr. York-Barr retired from the University of Minnesota, in part because she wanted to finish her career working in partnership with school and school district colleagues.

    William A. Sommers, PhD, continues to be a learner, teacher, principal, author, leadership coach, and consultant. Bill has come out of retirement five times to put theory into practice. He was on the Board of Trustees for five years and president for the National Staff Development Council now called Learning Forward. He is the former executive director for Secondary Curriculum and Professional Learning for Minneapolis Public Schools, and a school administrator for over 30 years. In addition to being an adjunct faculty member at several universities, he has been a program director for an adolescent chemical dependency treatment center and on the board of a halfway house for 20 years. Bill has coauthored eight books and coauthored chapters in several other books. In January 2016, Bill and his colleague Skip Olsen launched a website called that includes educational blogs, new rules, and book reviews. Dr. Sommers has continued to be a leadership coach for over twenty-five years to school administrators, and is a practitioner who integrates theory into leading and facilitating schools.

    Gail S. Ghere, PhD, Special Education Supervisor, Saint Paul Public Schools, received her PhD from University of Minnesota in educational policy and program evaluation. She has a master’s degree in Special Education with practice experience as a related service provider. Over her career, she worked in PreK–12 education in rural, suburban, and urban school districts. She also has served as a program evaluator for K–12 education, higher education, and private foundations. She is the coauthor of several publications on collaboration, program evaluation, and paraprofessional development. Her belief in equitable outcomes and inclusive learning opportunities for students has guided her work throughout her career whether she was working directly with students, supporting adult learning, or developing programs that met the needs of diverse learners.

    Jo Montie, faculty, Special Education Department, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, received her MA in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota (1996) and a BS in Behavioral Disabilities from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (1984) when she started her work in schools as a special education teacher. She has been teaching at the University of St. Thomas since 2003 where she also contributes leadership in the areas of teacher education program development and online teaching and learning. Jo’s over 25 years of teaching and her work in schools continues to stress the need for more collaboration, reflective practice, and greater access and equity for all learners.

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