Getting better at what you do as a music tutor: using reflective practice

Ije Amaechi, a Hertfordshire music tutor and workshop leader, explains how she uses reflective practice as a tool for improving the way she works. She outlines what it is, how it helps, and how to set up a critical reflection group for tutors.

I’ve always kept a diary or journal and have generally been quite a reflective person. I’m an avid believer in sharing ideas, problems and thoughts to not only feel clearer in your mind, but to improve in certain areas in your life. 

Reflection is important, because it encourages us to think deeper about things, taking thoughts beyond our internal world and onto paper, or into a conversation with a friend or colleague. Sometimes we need another opinion or perspective, or we need to talk through something to figure out what we truly think and want to do next. Most of us do this with our friends, family or mentor or in a journal and find this an essential part of decision-making and processing, so why not do it with our colleagues?

As inclusion tutors at Hertfordshire Music Service, we meet every half term for critical reflection sessions.These sessions are informal, which allows for the openness, honesty, trust and good communication that’s imperative for these kinds of meetings. We have time to report individually and discuss any challenges we’ve had and want advice for and then later discuss the projects in a wider context.

What is reflective practice?

Reflective practice helps us make meaning from experience and transform our insights into practical strategies to improve the way we work. At the most basic level it’s a process of Do, Review, Improve, as described in the Youth Music Quality Framework.

 In more detail, it involves:

  • learning to pay attention – listening to ourselves 
  • considering and questioning our own assumptions 
  • noticing patterns 
  • changing what we see 
  • changing the way we see. 

We can and should do this alone as part of our daily habits and practices, but it’s very powerful when we have regular, structured, space and time to do this with others.

Why is it important to reflect with others?

Reflecting on your own practice in front of (and with?) others gives you a chance to discuss and be questioned about what does and doesn’t work for you and your learners. 

It encourages you to ask for advice directly, but also to be inspired by aspects of other people’s practice.

It’s beneficial for tutors to hear what works for their colleagues and how children and young people react to certain activities, some that they may not have heard before, like certain games or a particular song that a group of children loved learning. It’s learning from the real life experience of other tutors and their lessons.

Sometimes people make mistakes, an activity doesn’t get the engagement hoped for, or a young person misbehaves and another teacher needs calling in to the classroom to help manage the situation. These challenges can occur at no fault of the tutor, yet can leave the tutor feeling disappointed and upset, perhaps with the need to seek support. Critical reflection lets you talk about these difficult moments with trusted peers and allows you to seek comfort in their support, advice and listening ears. Tutors have commented on the ‘safe space’ that critical reflection meetings provide and have said how much this space and time is appreciated and valued. 

Reflective practice also puts children and young people in the centre. It is about child-centred learning and how we can encourage and facilitate youth voice. We are reflecting on our practice so that we can improve our delivery, content and impact, inspired by them, by drawing out youth voice. Did you ask the young people what music they listen to? Did you ask what song they want to sing next?  What did they feel about the session you’ve just finished? What would they like to do in the next session? It’s important to reflect on whether you’ve encouraged youth voice in your lesson and how the young people responded to it. When children and young people are involved in decision-making, sharing their opinions and knowing that their voice is listened to and valued, they tend to be more engaged and excited to participate in a lesson that they know is for them and influenced by them. 

How do you start? How do you learn the skill or habit of reflective practice?  

After one of your workshops or lessons, record your thoughts into your phone’s voice recorder. Ask yourself:

  • What went well? What didn’t? 
  • Why do you think that is? 
  • Did anything stand out in that lesson? 
  • What could you do differently or the same next time? 
  • Is there something you should take with you into the next lesson? 
  • Are there any quotes you want to capture that tell you something meaningful or that you want to tell your organisation or the school?
  • What kind of reactions did you receive for certain activities? Which was best received? 
  • What are you taking away from this process?

Soon, you may notice patterns or notice that a certain group or individual reacts positively to an activity, routine or something you said – sometimes small things like this can have a massive impact in how well the session goes and how much the cyp ( perhaps use ‘children or young people’ in full?)  engage and enjoy it. Reflective practice helps you to be more alert to these.

You can start with as little as a minute the first time, then each week should get easier. It doesn’t have to be shown to anyone at first and can be a way of checking in and making sure that you’re making the most of the sessions and are aware of what has happened or what was said, without it all being in your head.

Alternatively, you could write your thoughts down in a notebook, but you want to try and do this soon after the lesson so that your memory is clear and fresh. 

You could reflect straight after and again a day later in case you’ve thought of something useful to add, which can be taken to a critical reflection session with colleagues. 

How do you run a critical reflection group? Advice for managers and tutors

  1. Find out from colleagues if they would find such a session useful – show them this blog to explain more. The minimum you need is two! If you work or freelance regularly for an organisation, ask your contact there or your line manager if they’d be willing to set aside some time, and a place, where you can run the group. Ideally you will be paid for this time, as it’s part of your CPD. How often this happens is up to you – we run ours once a term.
  1. Give the tutors a heads up on what to think about before the session (see above in ‘how do you start?’). Tutors could also bring any particular challenges they have overcome in their sessions or any challenges that are still present, where a solution has not yet been found. The group can help the tutor think about possible solutions by asking open questions, clarifying questions and encouraging thought on what to do next. It is important to have open discussion and to help the tutor think about their own ideas, rather than others coming up with whole answers for them. It can be helpful to use reflective questioning for discussions like this. Examples of questions to ask are:
  • How do you feel about this situation? 
  • What could you do differently? 
  • What/who could help you with this problem? E.g. more support from the school, teacher or learning new behaviour management techniques.
  • What are you trying to achieve?
  1. Some people find it harder to think on their feet, especially if it’s a new group or new way of sharing that they’re not used to. It is vital that everyone can share and take up similar time to do so, for efficiency of the meeting and so that no one is talking for twenty minutes and one person for two. You want to have balance within the group and expectations that are adhered to, so be sure to discuss this at the start and have someone on timekeeping duties.
  1. Make sure that everyone understands why you’re taking part in critical reflection. This includes the benefits for the tutor, the young people and the organisation. It’s always better if people feel positive and understand why sharing and being part of such a group is important for these different reasons and not just a tick box exercise. 
  1. Make sure that everyone understands that critical reflection is not only for venting or sharing, but also for listening and offering support. This is just as significant as the former, for that safe space to manifest. Everyone needs to feel valued, which happens from being listened to, heard and respected. Advice can be given in non-condescending ways and everyone should appreciate that people have different ways of doing things. 
  1. Make it somewhat informal (and fun!) Why not throw some music-making in there? Let people know it’s a space to feel comfortable to share in a way they may not be used to in a work setting. This is especially important if the group is unfamiliar with each other. You may need to find ways to create this if it doesn’t happen naturally straight away. 

FURTHER INFORMATION & RESOURCES

[VIDEO & BLOG] Video and blog about nurture groups: How can music services help prevent school and social exclusion? 

[PODCAST] How we use reflective practice: a podcast about reflective practice featuring Ije, Victoria and Ross from Hertfordshire Music Service

Hertfordshire Music Service is a founder member of the Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England (AMIE). Its MusicNet East Changing Tracks programme helps music services to become more inclusive by providing a peer network, resources and tools, and funding for action research on the barriers and drivers to inclusion.  Visit the AMIE Musical Inclusion Resource Hub for tools and guidance, blogs, videos, case studies and more, to help you break down barriers to music-making.

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