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Systematic Review: The Effectiveness of Reflective Supervision

Systematic Review: The Effectiveness of Reflective Supervision

Abstract

Reflective practice is increasingly becoming an important requirement for effective school leadership. School principals and supervisors need to adopt reflective practices to be able to deal with the numerous challenges facing schools. Given the well-known significance of reflective practices in school leadership, this systematic review has the main aim of exploring the effectiveness of reflective supervision, including its role with respect to the development of supervision practices. This research is motivated by the fact that a detailed understanding of the reflective practices in school principalship and supervision is still lacking. The specific objectives of this systematic review include examining the modals of reflective supervision, determining the methods used to practice reflective supervision, and exploring the attitudes of supervisors, principals, and teachers towards reflective supervision. The experiential learning theory developed by Kolb David will act as the theoretical framework for examining reflective supervision practices among school principals and supervisors.

Keywords: reflective practice, reflective supervision, school leadership, experiential learning.

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Introduction

            Nearly a century ago, John Dewey, a renowned educational reformer, emphasized the importance of reflective practice in education (Cordeiro & Cunningham, 2012). Dewey maintained that progressive educators needed to hone their reflective practices, which the researcher viewed as carefully, persistently, and actively considering any belief or knowledge and their respective conclusions (Bush & Glover, 2014). The ideas of John Dewey regarding reflective thinking have been widely embraced among the educators who are reform-minded as well as those who are interested in school-improvement initiatives (English, 2011). In an era where standards-based reform together with accountability strategies are a key to saving public education, reflective practices are a valuable tool in addressing and thinking about the challenges that schools face. Cordeiro & Cunningham (2012) express concern that the use of exceedingly prescriptive and simplistic thinking approaches to address educational challenges are failing to consider the fact that meaningful change is inevitably difficult, slow, and local (English, 2011). In the past few years, practitioner-driven inquiry has been emphasized in various professions, and educators can borrow a leaf to discover workable school improvement solutions (Watson, Neilsen Gatti, Cox, Harrison, & Hennes, 2014); therefore, school principals and supervisors are best positioned to embrace reflective practices.

            Reflective educators are not content that all the solutions to problems facing their schools. Instead, they constantly search new information and are persistently challenging their assumptions and practices (Dalgıç & Bakioğlu, 2014). During the process, the encounter novel dilemmas that compel them to iteratively plan, act, observe, and then reflect (Bush & Glover, 2014). The usefulness of reflective practice as a tool for achieving educational improvement has been emphasized in the literature (Dalgıç & Bakioğlu, 2014; Hallinger & Heck, 2010). Reflective practice in education is based on the fundamental assumption that critically examining one’s work helps in guiding a future direction (Hallinger & Heck, 2010). At the most fundamental level, reflective practice represents a thinking approach regarding educational matters, which is characterized by rational decision-making as well as assuming responsibility for one’s decisions (Hallinger & Heck, 2010). A reflective process comprises a number of elements including recognizing an educational challenge responding to the challenge by acknowledging both the distinctive attributes of the specific situation and likenesses to other circumstances; framing and then reframing the challenge or dilemma; experimenting with the challenge with the aim of discovering the outcomes and implications associated with multiple solutions; and examining the unintended and intended outcomes of the solution that has been implemented followed by evaluating the desirability of its consequences (English, 2011). However, given that the school principals and supervisors are becoming overwhelmed with administrative duties and that they have limited opportunities to engage in discussions and meaningful exchange with other school staff, they might be tempted to be rash in making decisions and changing things because of the perceived slowness of reflective practice (Tomlin, Weatherston, & Pavkov, 2014). Reflective practice entails more than just taking time to think about something; instead, reflective practice as an instrument for school improvement takes experience and time to develop (Sebastian & Allensworth, 2012). Overall, despite the significance and relevance of reflective practice in education, its use by school principals and supervisors is limited. To this end, this study seeks to explore the effectiveness of reflective practices in school supervision.

Importance of the Problem

Presently, school principals and supervisors are overburdened by day-to-day administrative responsibilities resulting in limited opportunities to engage in meaningful exchange and discussion with other stakeholders (Ersozlu, 2016). The challenge for school principals and supervisors is further compounded by the fact that, across the globe, schools are facing numerous problems, such as the increase in multi-program classes; mainstream integration of special students; declining levels of student achievement; budget cuts; the adoption of emerging educational technology; increasing student attrition rates; negative student attitudes, such as disrespect and apathy; declining teacher performance levels; problems with parental involvement; and the changes in instructional focus among other several issues (Lynch, 2012). Therefore, it is important for school principals and supervisors to continually adapt to the need for endless educational reforms.

In such an environment, reflective supervision has been hailed as one of the approaches that school principals and supervisors can adopt to address a great number of challenges that schools are currently facing. As Leithwood & Hallinger (2012) explain, the majority of the decisions made by principals are routine to an extent that such decisions are made and implemented automatically. Moreover, despite evolving situations, school principals and supervisors are more likely to make decisions based on a quick review of the current situation and revisiting what worked in similar situations in the past (Bristol, Esnard, & Brown, 2015). However, school supervision requires making intricate decisions regarding complex problems that can escalate to unmanageable levels if not addressed (Bush & Glover, 2014). This poses the need for a different thinking approach for school principals to make tough choices by engaging in reflecting practice. Effective school principals are those who adapt their thinking based on the reflection level required in a given situation (Morrison, 2012). Because of their reflection ability, effective school principals are knowledgeable of the actions to undertake and the underlying reasons.

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There is a widespread agreement that reflective practices results in professional development and enhances accountability and practice (Bristol, Esnard, & Brown, 2015; Dalgıç & Bakioğlu, 2014). The findings of numerous studies have substantiated the importance of reflective practice in school supervision and leadership (Hallinger & Heck, 2010; Kennedy & Smith, 2013). By adopting reflective supervision practices, school principals and supervisors can be able to assess their surroundings and then respond accordingly (English, 2011). The effects of reflective school leadership have been vastly examined in the literature. Ersozlu (2016) links  reflective practice to effective school leadership, which further results in school improvement. The authors defined effective principals as the leaders who are focused on transforming their schools and pointed out that effective leadership is important in facilitating successful change and development within schools through the promotion of high expectations, motivating teachers, and increasing the quality of teaching and learning (Ersozlu, 2016). Another research by Kennedy & Smith (2013) provides evidence to show that the use of reflection among school principals resulted in improvement in student performance by influencing classroom practices. Therefore, without reflective practice, reactions by school principals and supervisors tend to be knee-jerk, usually resulting in an unsustainable quick fix to a complex problem, which might further lead to disastrous outcomes for the schools. Given the established importance of reflective practices, this systematic review has the main aim of exploring the effectiveness of reflective supervision including its role with respect to the development of supervision practices.

Research Objectives

            The primary objective of this research study is to explore the effectiveness of reflective supervision practices. This research will provide insights that could help school supervisors to understand what reflective supervision entails. This research also seeks to examine the importance of reflective supervision in enhancing supervision practices among school principals and supervisors. This systematic review will explore concepts associated with reflective practices to enable school principals and supervisors to better articulate and perform their supervision practices. Thus, the findings presented in this study will help school principals to advance their knowhow and knowledge with respect to reflective supervision practices.

Research Gap

            Vast research has been conducted on school principalship, which has been established to be a core requirement for school improvement (Bristol, Esnard, & Brown, 2015; Dalgıç & Bakioğlu, 2014). The bulk of extant research on school principalship emphasizes the transformational role of principals and the leadership attributes of school principals, including their focus on transforming schools. Whereas reflective practice is an important aspect that is requires for school improvement (English, 2011), there is little literature on school leadership focusing on reflective practice in school settings. As a result, a detailed understanding of the reflective practices in school principalship and supervision is still lacking, which is the gap in the literature that this research seeks to address by examining the modals and methods used to practice reflective supervision, including the attitudes of teachers, principals, and supervisors towards reflective practice.  

Research Questions

            To achieve the aforementioned research objectives, the following research questions will be used:

  1. What are the modals of reflective supervision?
  2. What are the methods used to practice reflective supervision?
  3. What are the attitudes of supervisors, principals, and teachers towards reflective supervision?

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Theoretical Background

            The theoretical framework for this research is the experiential learning developed by David Kolb. Experiential learning refers to a learning process that entails experience (Kolb, 2014). In particular, it involves learning by reflecting on one’s actions. It is commonly used to denote “leaning via doing,” which is akin to combining theory and practice or thought and action to create a cycle wherein action provides input to reflection, after which the subsequent action is guided by reflection (Kolb, 2014).  

Kolb’s experiential learning theory has had the most significant influence among adult learning researches. This theory consists of two parts, including abstract conceptualization and concrete experience, and outlines four steps of learning (Kolb, 2014). The first step is concrete experience, followed by reflective observation, then abstract conceptualization, and lastly, active experimentation. The concrete experience stage is characterized by doing something or encountering a new experience or re-interpreting the prevailing experience. Reflective observation involves reviewing and reflecting on the experience to determine if any inconsistencies exist between understanding and experience (Kolb, 2014). Abstract conceptualization is typified by the development of a novel idea based on the reflection or modifying an idea that is already existing. In the active experimentation step, the idea is applied and the results assessed (Kolb, 2014). Thus, effective experiential learning undergoes four interactive stages including experience, reflection, conceptualization, and testing. This theory puts emphasis on the internal cognitive processes of the learner and posits that learning entails acquiring abstract concepts that the learner can apply in diverse contexts. In this theory, new experiences help in developing novel concepts (Kolb, 2014). Therefore, learning is characterized by the creation of knowledge as a result of how one’s experience is transformed.

School supervision practices can be characterized and examined through the lens of the experiential learning theory. As a result, school principals and supervisors adopting reflective supervision practices are expected to exhibit some attributes. Firstly, it is expected that reflective supervisors and principles will show extreme focus on their work, constant development of their insights and developing their professional practice, as well as that of their colleagues (Bush & Glover, 2014). Secondly, reflective principals offer useful solutions to facilitate and implement change. This is particular important for the testing stage of experiential learning. In addition, these principals should demonstrate motivational, affective and cognitive aspects of personal reflection. By having reflective awareness, these principals and supervisors should be observant of their surroundings to develop new experiences that are essential for the reflection phase of experiential learning (Ersozlu, 2016). Another important attribute of reflective supervision is uncovering implicit questions. Inner contradictions help in broadening one’s perspective and yielding different alternatives. In this respect, the reflective individual becomes open and aware; hence, they are more observant. Reflective individuals also show continued growth and recognition of their personal weaknesses and strengths (Ersozlu, 2016). By developing reflective practice, supervisors and principals will place greater emphasis on making decisions that are based on reality, originality, and investigation. Reflective practitioners also constantly examine the current knowledge and their knowledge deficiencies through continuous scrutiny of their present practices (Ersozlu, 2016). In general, reflective supervision is expected to be distinguished by constant change and improvement.

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