March 2022
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Jimalee Sowell, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA


How do we learn to teach? Of course, many of us have received most of our training through university courses. Once we started teaching, we might have also learned about teaching through professional development activities, such as workshops and continuing education courses. Despite our efforts to improve our teaching, there might be distance between our knowledge and teaching practices. In other words, some of our beliefs and practices may not serve us nor the students we teach. At times, however, we might be unaware that some of our practices could be improved. One way we can stay honest about the efficacy of our teaching practices is to continually examine our teaching through reflective practice. Many models of reflective practice in teacher education focus primarily on seeing the self only through the self. The purpose of this article is to suggest a reflective practice carried out through four lenses. The article starts with an explanation of Brookfield’s (2017) Four Lenses of Critical Reflection. The article then provides practical ways to carry out reflection through each of the four lenses.

Four Lenses of Critical Reflection

While reflective models in teacher education have primarily focused on seeing the self only through the self, reflection is rarely only an individual exercise. Reflection is also a communal and social practice (Lipman, 2003). Brookfield (2017) established the Four Lenses of Critical Reflection that involves examining the self through student’s eyes, colleagues’ perceptions, personal experience, and theory. Using these four lenses provides a more holistic view through which to examine our teaching practices than can be attained solely through self-reflection. It may not be possible or even desirable to view every event through all four lenses, but by examining ourselves through different lenses at different times, we can achieve a more nuanced reflective practice. Although these lenses are explained as distinct categories, they are often interrelated. For instance, you might examine a personal experience that you later get feedback on from colleagues, or you might immerse yourself in theory that you later talk over with colleagues in a learning community. The next part of the article provides practical suggestions for carrying out reflection through each of the four lenses.

Students’ Eyes

Since the most important goal of teaching is student learning, feedback from students is the most important type of feedback you can receive (Brookfield, 2017). Student feedback can be gathered through both formal and informal means. Informal feedback happens in the moment as you are teaching. For instance, you might have the sense that students need more practice on a certain topic or skill. You could simply ask students questions: Do you now feel confident using -ed and -ing adjectives? What parts of module two do you still need more work on? For lower-level learners, you might provide statements with yes-no responses: 1. The instructions for the poetry assignment are clear: Yes/No. To make responses anonymous, you can have students close their eyes and raise their hands in response to a given statement: Raise your right hand if you feel you need more practice with tag questions. If you have the necessary technology available, you can also implement a quick poll. Formal feedback, on the other hand, is feedback that is planned. Formal feedback might come in the form of surveys or other forms and might be collected at critical times such as the mid-term period or end of a course. With both informal and formal feedback, anonymous feedback should account for at least some student feedback. Students who are worried that being critical could affect their grade may hesitate to provide honest feedback (Brookfield, 2017).

Colleagues’ Perspectives

Colleagues can be a great source of feedback since they know your context and typically have shared experiences. One way to learn from a colleague or colleagues is through co-teaching and soliciting feedback (Brookfield, 2017). Following a co-taught class, you can discuss with your co-teacher what went well and what could be improved. You can ask your co-teacher for general feedback on your teaching, or you might ask for advice on specific aspects with targeted questions such as Did I give effective instructions? Did I give students enough think-time before eliciting their answers? You can also solicit feedback on teaching artifacts, such as lesson plans and teaching materials. If it is not possible to co-teach, you can get feedback from colleagues by showing them a recording of your class or a snippet from a recorded class.

Another way to obtain colleagues’ perspectives is to form learning communities that meet regularly to discuss current problems, issues, and strategies. Learning communities might meet face-to-face, or they might meet virtually through professional learning networks (PLNs). PLNs are platforms or spaces where teachers can meet and interact with each other. PLNs might be carried out on platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom, Google Hangout, or any other platforms that allows for discussion, support, and problem-solving.

Personal Experience

Examining our personal experiences is critical in developing effective teaching practices. One way to examine our teaching practices is to consider our own experiences as learners (Brookfield, 2017). For instance, thinking about how you felt as a student when asked to provide an answer in front of the entire class can help you consider how to effectively arrange in-class speaking opportunities. If you are aware that being singled out in a class discussion can be humiliating and demotivating, then you will look for ways set up speaking activities for your learners that are motivating and safe. While recognizing that all learners are different and that our personal experiences may not speak for everyone, looking at our teaching practices through our experiences as a student can inform our practices.

Another way to examine the self it through critical incidents. Critical incidents are unexpected events occurring during a lesson that when examined can provide insight for teaching and learning. Jasper (2013) developed the ERA model (experience, reflection, action) for examining critical incidents. The ERA model provides a framework for reflecting on critical incidents by asking key questions regarding the incident: (a). Experience: What was the issue or experience? (b). Reflection: Why did it happen? (c). Action: What action will I take in the future? For example, a student asked for permission to not be required to work with a certain classmate. You refused the request, explaining that we all need to be able to work with a variety of people. Later you realized that maybe the student had a legitimate reason for not wanting to work with a particular student, and you feel you should have talked to the student more to better understand the situation before responding. The ERA model can provide ways of seeing the self through the self that may not be immediate or obvious.


When considering how we can reflect through theory, we might think of Elbow’s (1986) believing and doubting game, whereby we examine theory through both skepticism and belief. On the doubting side, it is important to realize that theory is often just that, theory. It usually takes many years and numerous studies to understand the degree to which a method, technique, or approach is effective in practice. For instance, Krashen and Terrell’s Natural Approach eschewed the explicit teaching of grammar. While this approach was widely popular for many years and remains popular with some followers, a number of empirical studies have shown that explicit grammar instruction is often important for language acquisition. Even a theory that has been validated through multiple studies may not be useful or appropriate in all contexts or teaching situations. On the believing side, theory is approached with openness, with a practitioner experimenting with theories or aspects of theories that might be effective in a particular context. For instance, after learning about the Silent Way in my master’s program, I tried a modified version of it with some of my classes. As I attempted to elicit speech from my students without speaking, my students became frustrated and said, “Teacher, speak.” Ultimately, the Silent Way was not terribly successful in my classes, but it did help me think about the importance of wait time in providing students enough time to formulate responses.

When reflecting through theory, it is important to probe dominate theories for their relevancy in your context. For example, fully implementing communicative language teaching (CLT) in a large class may not be possible. However, examining practice through a CLT lens might prompt a teacher-practitioner into considering how teaching can be carried out in ways that provide ample communicative practice. It is also important to consider a range of theories, as effective practice is often informed be multiple theories rather than a single theory. Imagine, for instance, that a practitioner upholds genre theory as the most appropriate way to teach writing skills. While this practitioner would use genre theory as a guiding principle, this practitioner’s practice might also be informed by expressive pedagogy and process pedagogy.


Reflective practice has long been a critical aspect of teacher education and professional development programs as advancement towards masterful teaching practice involves some level of reflection (Sellers, 2017). While reflection is important in developing effective teaching practices, reflection is often limited to models focused exclusively on self-reflection. In this article, I have presented Brookfield’s Four Lenses of Critical Reflection and provided some ideas for carrying out reflection though each lens. However, methods of implementing reflection through each lens are not limited to my suggestions. Consider how you might incorporate the four lenses in your next teaching semester or module. Map out a plan for how you can reflect through each of the four lenses. Keeping track of your reflections and the insight gained through each one will help you to not only improve your teaching but can also inform your reflective practice.


Brookfield, S.D. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Elbow, P. (1986). Embracing contraries: Explorations in learning and teaching. Oxford University Press.

Jasper, M. (2013). Beginning reflective practice (2nd ed.). Cengage Learning.

Lipman, M. (2003). Thinking in education (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Sellars, M. (2017). Reflective practice for teachers (2nd ed.). Sage.

Jimalee Sowell is a PhD candidate in Composition and Applied Linguistics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include disability studies, teacher education, and second language writing instruction.
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