Using Systemic Modelling to Support Student Teachers to Learn through Reflection
Teacher Educators agree that it’s important for students to be able to reflect on their practice. Reflection enables them to make the most of their teaching and learning experiences. It allows them to develop personal and professional self-awareness so they are able to identify areas for development. A key issue is to help them understand how to reflect, what to reflect on and when to engage in the process that leads to high quality reflection and learning. Systemic Modelling and clean questions are tools that give student teachers the ‘how’ of reflection.
Clean questions were originally developed by David Grove, a psychotherapist from New Zealand supported by his partner Cei Davies-Linn, for use in therapy. These simple questions ask for information without bringing in the questioner’s assumptions. They contain no content other than what has been said directly or implied logically by the interviewee. They can ask about the attributes of what is being said, the location, the sequence, the behavioural evidence and finally they can be used to ask for an autogenic (self-generated) metaphor for someone’s experience.
How clean questions can be used to enhance reflection in education
Teaching Mentor: How was your first teaching session?
Trainee Teacher: I felt confident.
Mentor: What kind of confident?
Trainee Teacher: I made eye contact with each child.
Mentor: Is there anything else about making eye contact?
Trainee Teacher: I settle down when I feel like I’ve made a connection with the pupils.
Teaching Mentor: What didn’t go so well for you?
Trainee Teacher: I kept losing the class’s attention.
Mentor: What did you see or hear that let you know you lost their attention?
Trainee Teacher: The children on two tables kept talking to each other instead of doing the learning task.
Mentor: What happened just before they began talking?
Trainee Teacher: I was explaining a point to another child.
What clean questions do is accept and reflect back the experience of the trainee and then invite them to keep their attention on their language and thoughts so they can find out more about them. Note that the mentor doesn’t change the trainee teacher’s words or offer any other ideas during this process.
Developing a way to use clean questions for group reflection
We took clean questions and the principles that go with them and applied them for use with groups in educational and business settings. We wanted to develop a process that allowed groups to learn from one another, to explore differences between their approaches as developmental opportunities. We wanted an approach that would move away from categorising experiences as good or bad and instead view them all as opportunities for reflection, development and improvement.
In learning and education settings she wanted observations and learning conversations to be collaborative between teacher educators and trainee teachers and to encourage teachers to avoid going into contempt with themselves and with their students and to develop an attitude of curiosity and enquiry throughout their teaching and learning.
We called the process she developed ‘Systemic Modelling’. Systemic Modelling is about using clean questions to enquire into our own and one another’s expectations, our experiences in-the-moment and our reflections after an event. It’s about setting an intention before an event, deciding on the actions to take in order to achieve that intention and then engaging in reflection afterwards.
The ideas of high quality listening, acceptance and extending understanding are inherent to clean questions. To these, we added some further tools for enabling colleagues to enquire into one another’s experience, and for learning how to adapt one another’s strategies in order to extend their own practice. The group establishes an overall outcome for their work together and then uses engaging exercises and simple tools to encourage the development of autogenic metaphor models and to explore the differences between them.
For example we might ask a group of student teachers to find out from one another about how they learn at their best and how that impacts their teaching. Answers and questions could be like these:
Trainee Teacher A: When you’re learning at your best, you’re like what?
Trainee Teacher B: I’m like a marathon runner.
Trainee Teacher A: What kind of marathon runner?
Trainee Teacher B: I set myself a big goal far away and that guides all the training I put in. I don’t have to learn quickly but I like to know all my learning will add up in the end.
Trainee Teacher A: Is there anything else about a big goal?
Trainee Teacher B: I’m never thinking about this class or that essay. They’re just little training sessions. My attention is always on being a fantastic teacher in 5 years time.
Trainee Teacher B: What about you? When you’re learning at your best, you’re like what?
Trainee Teacher A: I’m like a dog in a new forest.
Trainee Teacher B: Is there anything else about you when you’re like a dog?
Trainee Teacher A: Yes I like to go here and there and then back here again sniffing around.
Trainee Teacher B: And then what happens when you go here and there and back here?
Trainee Teacher A: I like to learn a bit of this and a bit of that. I get bored easily. That’s why I have lots of little shifts when I’m teaching. It isn’t for the children, it’s to keep my own interest.
Case Study: Liverpool John Moores University
We have used Systemic Modelling in many learning environments from primary schools to universities, including with the Sports Development department at Liverpool John Moores University.
The staff wanted to develop a ‘learning to learn’ course for their students. They wanted the students to be more reflective and reflexive. They started by asking one another clean questions to find out whether they were reflective and reflexive. Did they give feedback to one another? Did they ask clarifying questions? Did they set outcomes and try out new behaviours? When they said they didn’t, we decided to start by finding out what changes were required so that the teacher educators were able to engage in the valuable processes they wanted their students to emulate.
The staff team learned clean questions and the Systemic Modelling tools and together we studied students who had done really well at University – not necessarily that they had received the best scores but that they had fulfilled their potential.
We uncovered themes that were important to them, using clean questions to ensure we were not putting our assumptions onto the students. Together with staff we took these themes and created a student programme that encouraged the students to use clean questions and metaphors for developing their self-awareness around these themes:
Examples of these themes are:
- When I’m learning at my best, I’m like what?
- When I’m getting angry (or another negative state) I’m like what?
- Making good decisions is like what?
- Things that motivate or inspire me are …
- Times when I’ve overcome a failure or a setback are …
The students use clean questions to develop their own experience of each of these themes and then use the questions within their groups to develop an awareness of how the other students experience them. Following this, they take the learning from each of these reflective sessions and the students and staff engage in a change cycle of Outcome, Action and Feedback, which we call Clean Set Up, Developmental Task and Clean Feedback. This allows them to become reflexive and to regularly put their reflection straight into action.
As a result, the students began to work more effectively in groups, to challenge one another and to support one another to achieve their goals. The staff reported that students came less to them with minor study problems as they were sorting them out at a peer level. Although it is not possible to make a causal link, the student attainment changed during the application of the approach.
Prior to the programme, on average 49% of students attained the top 2 grades. Once it had been running for three years, this figure rose to 73% and this improvement was still sustained three years later. In one mixed-ability tutorial group every student achieved a 1st class honours degree through peer coaching.
Sarah Nixon, Senior Lecturer in Sports Development says,
“The project has completely changed the way I think, the way all of us think. I don’t do all of it. For example I don’t run a Clean Set Up in a staff meeting but I always do it with my students at the start of the term and I do it myself before a difficult meeting or a piece of work. It hasn’t always been easy and maybe if I’d known how far the journey would be, I’d never have started. But it’s revolutionised the way we do things, the way we talk to each other and also what we aspire to get from our students. It’s not that we don’t go into drama, or play victim, or bitch about people. We do still do that, but we also think differently and challenge each other. Instead of keeping the drama going, we start thinking about what we would like to have happen instead and what we could put in place to get it.”
This is a practice that is desirable at all levels within education. It’s good for lecturers, students, teachers and pupils.
To learn more about the programme at Liverpool John Moores University, you can:
- Read Chapter 7 of From Contempt to Curiosity
- Visit https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resource/pdp-inspiring-capability.
- Watch https://youtu.be/10GOifpeFE0.
If you’d like to train with us to use Systemic Modelling to facilitate groups of all kinds, start by joining our Clean for Teams workshop.
If you’d like us to work with you and your team / class / students to develop an in-house course, please contact us.
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