Recording your learning experiences can provide fresh insights. Kelly Christey of Westlands School, Sittingbourne, describes the initial problems and subsequent benefits of keeping such a journal and her tutor, Kit Field of Canterbury Christ Church University, explains why his students on the MA in Leadership and Management for Learning are asked to keep them

Think of one learning experience you have had at work this week. Now answer yourself these questions…

  • Did you consciously recognise it as a learning experience when it happened… or afterwards… or just now?
  • Did you spend time thinking about the learning experience after it happened? Did you think about what you had learned from it or what implications it may have on your practice?
  • What did you do as a result of this experience? Did you research or read into the area concerned? Did you discuss it with colleagues? Did you apply your learning elsewhere?
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Learning such as this qualifies as experiential learning because it is ‘education that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life’ (Smith, 2001). Furthermore, it is learning that is achieved through reflection upon everyday experience and is the way that most of us do our learning.

As a new teacher, in only my second year of teaching, a learning journal seems a sensible idea to record the learning experiences I have had in the early stages of my career. Logically, the early stages of any career would play host to a large number of learning experiences as one settles into the ways of a job and learns some practical lessons which cannot be learned without hands-on experience. Whilst a learning journal seems particularly appropriate to my current career position, learning experiences occur at all stages of a career but are perhaps less apparent. The difficult part is recognising a learning experience and putting such an experience to good use.

For me, in beginning a reflective learning journal, I had to make a conscious effort to recognise my own learning experiences; to make a normally subconscious process much more deliberate. My initial reaction to the task of writing a reflective learning journal was ‘Blast!’ Well, perhaps that wasn’t the exact word that I used but it was certainly a curse of some sort. I was overwhelmed by the thought that reflecting upon all my learning experiences and matching these to theory would be a chore, would be time consuming. I didn’t recognise it as a beneficial piece of work.

My feelings towards a reflective learning journal were in themselves a developing process. When I began writing the first few entries into the journal my feelings were a confused mixture. I could not determine whether reflecting upon my learning felt a natural process that I went through on an everyday basis but was now putting onto paper or whether it was a forced process that I was adhering to as a requirement of the course. I think at the outset I was forcing myself to think about my learning in a way I had not knowingly done before.

However, once I had ‘taught’ myself to recognise my learning experiences, the journal became a more natural process. I was simply writing something that I had thought about in my head already – I was penning a subconscious process. And as I became more used to this I began to feel as though I could extend my thinking by writing. I had to write it down for the purposes of the course anyway but at the same time I found a channel through which to develop my thinking. In some cases I could vent some pent-up aggression and in others I managed to find a way to improve my practice just by spending the extra time thinking about it. I felt that perhaps this would be a beneficial experience after all. Perhaps there was a point to my ranting and raving!

As part of the criteria for a reflective learning journal, it was necessary to relate theory to practice. Why? What are the possible benefits to such an inclusion?

In my personal opinion, having to read around the experiences I had been through was never an unpleasant task. Recently out of university I am used to reading a large amount of material and enjoy reading new material that is relevant to me. The benefit of linking theory to my learning experiences was that the reading was relevant to me and the situations I was facing. I was reading into areas that interested me and which were helpful to my own development making the process seem more pertinent.

As a new leader, I found that reading around the subject of leadership and management of learning, in an attempt to fulfil my role as successfully as possible, was wholly beneficial to me. Not only did it provide theory to which I could link my own learning experiences, but it began to offer solutions to problems I was having. I found new ideas that I could implement in my classroom to improve my leadership of pupil learning.

A particular learning experience that I included in my journal regarded the success of using a range of teaching strategies with a bottom set, but in particular in using more kinaesthetic methods. In reading about learning styles and leadership of learning, my finding that kinaesthetic teaching methods were more effective in securing concentration and in helping pupils recall work was well supported. In finding that theory supported my findings I was inspired to develop this theme even further and had thus highlighted a route for my own professional development. Following this decision I began a process of searching for and collating a variety of practical activities that I put into a pack and distributed to staff in the department. In this instance I had been able to use my learning experience and supporting theory to improve my practice and share this with others.

The developmental pattern highlighted by my learning experience above is supported by Kolb’s theory of experiential learning where it is suggested that the learning process often begins with a person carrying out a particular action and then seeing the effect of the action in this situation.

Linking established theory to practice helped to confirm ideas I have had about my profession, about leading and managing learning. It has also highlighted theory that is contrary to my ideas encouraging me to investigate further. In confirming some of my findings, linking research to my practice has made me feel that my thinking is on track with established educational thinking, which has been particularly reassuring to me as a new teacher.

In relating theory to my practice the main problem I encountered was where to begin? Some previous discussion and research defining the characteristics of a leader and a manager was very useful in focusing my reading. Identifying the different leadership and management facets of my role helped to put my learning experiences into different categories. I could then search for renowned writers on these themes in journals and books. For example, I felt that my role as a leader included:

  • leadership of pupils’ learning
  • leadership of colleagues
  • sharing good practice
  • management of resources
  • management of behaviour
  • being led/managed by more senior colleagues.

Entries in my journal seemed to take one of two forms. Some learning experiences inspired me to read on the theme to find ways forward, possible solutions to problems or support for my ideas. One such example was based upon the decision by the headteacher to ban pupils from the school buildings at lunchtime on several days because of problems with litter. The calm and quiet I experienced as a result of this was extremely beneficial to my own teaching. I felt refreshed and refocused for the afternoon lessons and had been able to concentrate on work I needed to do. I was then inspired to read into this and see if there was any research to support the benefits of reduced noise on productivity, effectiveness, learning and staff morale. According to experiential learning, this experience started with a concrete experience which was then reflected upon and from which new ideas were formed and then tested in my practice.

On the other hand, some entries into the journal were brought about by reading. My reading around the theme of leadership and management actually highlighted learning experiences that I had encountered without recognising them as tangible learning situations.

For instance, in reading work by Gronn, Bottery and Spillane concerning distributed leadership I began to recognise facets of this in my own department at school and recognised that whilst on the surface the roles in the department were distributed, the tasks that went with these roles had not been.

This has inspired me to read further and to find whether this situation is common or beneficial to a successful department. In this instance I had begun at the ‘forming abstract concepts’ stage of Kolb’s model, but still then continued in the circle in trying to apply the learning to my practice and reflecting upon the success of this.

In reflecting, now, upon my reflective learning journal I see it in a positive light. The advantages for me have been that:

  • reflection on my learning has helped me to step back and put experiences and developments into perspective
  • it has made me recognise my capacity for and enjoyment of learning
  • I have realised that reflection is only one part of a learning experience-forming ideas and testing these are part of the learning process
  • it has helped me to identify support for and criticism of ideas I have had and ways in which I can take my learning forward
  • it has given me a greater understanding of my own learning process, which has made me feel more in touch with leading learning of others in my classroom. If I can be in control of my own learning experiences I feel more qualified to be in charge of guiding the learning experiences of others; both pupils and colleagues.

I would be keen to continue this learning journal where time will allow. I have certainly found that I give more time to reflecting upon and discussing my learning even if this is not in written form. Whilst many of my learning experiences have evolved from different starting points, following them through as part of a learning process, or cycle as Kolb suggests, has provided a number of benefits.

Being a reflective teacher has had implications for my practice and my professional development as a result of two main changes:

  • making a conscious effort to acknowledge my learning experiences
  • reading about aspects of leadership and management that are relevant to my role
  • …two small changes, numerous benefits.

This article has been adapted from a previous version published in The Enquirer Summer 2006
(see: professional-development/celsi/cantarnet-journals.asp)

References Smith, MK (2001), ‘David A. Kolb on experiential learning’, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education.

Once I had ‘taught’ myself to recognise my learning experiences, the journal became a more natural process.

Kelly’s reflective journal fits into an emerging approach developed within Canterbury Christ Church University’s MA in Leadership and Management for Learning. It is our aim to assist professionals to make sense of their professional experience, and in so doing to challenge assumptions and current orthodoxies. We also aim to provide learning tools which can be of professional use beyond the confines of academic Masters level study. The emphasis on evaluating impact has had a major impact on our approach. We have recognised the relationship between outcomes and effects, and initial intentions. We also recognise that learning and development, although not incidental, may result despite best intentions.

Causality is always a problem. If we wait until after the completion of a course of study, and then consider what has happened as an outcome of that study, we can lay no claims to being a major force behind the impact.

If, however, we track thinking and development, as they happen, the direct results are more distinguishable. Only the participant herself can provide the links and reasoning.

Traditional academic essays do serve the purpose of demonstrating the fulfillment of the prescribed learning outcomes. A reflective journal, like that presented by Kelly, serves those and many more purposes. They reinforce learning, and begin to provide a meta-analysis which is meaningful to Kelly herself and those with whom she works. We hope, therefore, that the journal is meaningful to Kelly, to us as the assessment body, to close colleagues, and indeed through wider dissemination to fellow professionals.

Kit Field, Canterbury Christchurch University