Reflective learning journals can be a very valuable part of the professional development process. CPD Week explains why, as well as the importance of thinking criticallyword-3523600

Reflective learning journal ideas sheet.doc

Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.
Vilfredo Pareto

In this CPD Week and next, we take a close look at how to keep a professional learning journal, starting with an exploration of what learning journals are and the kind of critical thinking that can transform them into fabulous CPD tools. Now that professional development in schools is so high on the agenda (or getting there at least!) the notion of keeping a learning journal as part of the development process is becoming widely accepted. It is important to have a focus and purpose for the journal, and a clear approach to the kind of critical thinking necessary to make journal-writing a fruitful experience. Here we provide some introductory guidance which you can use yourself and share with your colleagues. You can also click here for your further information and ideas sheet.

Any Harry Potter fans out there may remember a conversation between Harry and Dumbledore about the ‘pensieve’. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by JK Rowling, Dumbledore explains to the young Harry that the stone basin he calls the pensieve is used to hold excess thoughts from one’s mind so that they can be examined at leisure. “It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form”, says Dumbledore.

It’s a great analogy. OK, the pensieve itself remains a figment of the imagination but the principle of ‘downloading’ – in our case into a journal – for the purpose of later examination is a sound one.

Types of learning journal
A learning journal doesn’t need to be a beautifully bound notebook, although it can be helpful to choose something that you enjoy writing in. Journals can be hand-written, typed, spoken, recorded, filmed, drawn, online or on the page; the possibilities are as wide as the range of learning styles of each journalist. The key is to choose the method of recording which format most closely suits your style so that the chances of maintaining the journal are enhanced.

Key principles

  • It helps to think of a learning journal as a tool for reflection. It’s different from the kind of journal that might simply record events in a descriptive sense.
  • When recording in your journal you will be contextualising events and linking them to other events and wider debates in the world of education and in your particular area of expertise.
  • Your journal will be a blend of the micro-details of your working life and the macro-features of the context of education in which you operate. In other words, make links in your reflections which might help you to shed light on your development so far and possibly even help you to determine a path for future development.
  • Aim for your learning journal to have a structure and within that structure create space for reflection and the identification of new and consolidated learning.
  • Look out for evidence of the ways in which both your understanding and your experience of your professional life is being transformed or developed through the process of keeping a reflective learning journal.

Thinking critically
If you’re struggling to grasp fully the concept of critical thinking and how it might best be applied to keeping a professional learning journal, don’t worry; you’re not alone. It’s a vague concept with no clear, agreed definition but for the purposes of your learning journal, think of it as a way of reprocessing.

By using your journal to think critically about events and the learning that can be derived from them, tracking your change and development over time, you may find that you reach certain ‘judgements’ drawing on the evidence that you provide. You’ll probably notice that you start to think more creatively and may even start to use your journal as a way of problem solving. It’s also highly likely that you’ll reflect on emotion in your journal and this in itself may become a tool for development.

The key point to remember here is that critical thinking can lift your reflections from the realms of simple accounts into real and tangible learning which has the potential to transform your future practice.

Concluding thoughts…
There is immense potential for development in keeping a learning journal but it does take a certain amount of commitment before it becomes second nature. Much like taking up a new exercise regime, it can take a while before the feel-good impact kicks in and the habit becomes almost addictive. But if you are just starting out on this particular journey consider it, at the very least, as a space to think. And that just might be the most worthy support you can provide for yourself throughout the course of your career.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008

About the author: Elizabeth Holmes qualified as a teacher at the Institute of Education, London and is the author of several books specialising in the areas of professional development and teacher well-being.