Jotting down short notes after every lesson helps teachers contemplate what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve their skills.

Deep, thoughtful reflection is at the heart of the practice for many educators. John Dewey connected learning to the reflection of experience—not just having experience. Despite its importance, classroom teachers struggle to find time for quiet reflection in the whirlwind of the school year. After teaching a full day, grading assignments, providing feedback to students and families, meeting with advisees and colleagues, and then preparing for the next day, it can be a challenge to find the time or head space for reflection. That’s especially true as a new school year gets underway.

But for teachers who create their own project-based learning (PBL) curriculum, as we do here at Science Leadership Academy, a public magnet high school in Philadelphia, iteration and improvement on evolving units and lesson plans is critical.

Capturing as much data as possible during the school day can provide a basis for deeper reflection once the school year ends. I use the summer months to really dig into what worked and what didn’t during the previous year. Key data critical to summer planning include:

Learning: What do the data say about what students learned?
Student experience: What did students think and feel about their experience and what they learned? What do they think could be changed?
Improvement: What curriculum and supporting approaches need to be improved?
Timing: How did the timing of a lesson, project, or unit compare with the plan?

To make this work, data capture must become a simple and seamless routine in each day, week, and unit. Setting too high a standard for the quality and completeness of this process during the school day can lead to frustration and ultimately to failure. To be successful, develop habits that can be followed in the transitions of the day or in brief, evening sessions.

Capture quick notes from each class:

  • What parts of the daily plan were met or delayed?
  • Where should the class pick up next time?
  • Which students need special support?
  • What activities went well or poorly?
  • How did you feel about the experience of your students?

Tools could include a note-taking app like Evernote or OneNote, which are especially good at keeping logs organized. Even a paper journal with every day or class separated can work. Brevity here will lead to consistency.

A paper printout of each week’s roster provides a place to quickly lay out planned timing and then update as the week progresses. A small stack of these for the coming four to six weeks allows for quick planning or replanning and note taking in a way that an online calendar alone can’t match.

In the quest to not lose information, time is not a teacher’s friend. Clarity about what just happened during a day or unit, what went well, what needs improvement, and individual observations of student performance quickly degrades with every hour that passes. To preserve this fidelity, leverage the power of the smartphone’s memo recorder, and get into the habit of creating quick summaries of the outcomes of every project and unit. These recordings can then serve as an accurate time capsule as curriculum is reviewed and replanned each summer.

Use a Google Form at the end of each unit and quarter to provide voice to students. Ask the direct questions that will lead to better learning:

  • How did this unit go for you?
  • What did you learn?
  • What was taught that you feel you didn’t learn?
  • How could I improve this unit in the future? What should go slower or faster? What could I drop or add?
  • What advice would you have for future students?

At the end of each unit, read through all these surveys and make a list of a dozen key takeaways that will be reviewed during deeper reflection time. When a teacher models a process of openness, vulnerability, and a desire to improve, students see another way for them to develop.

Peer or mentor observation is another critical component to reflection. Implement a program where teachers can pair up for two-way observations. A teacher can request that a partner deeply observe and reflect on one or two specific areas of their practice. Use observation protocols that allow for both detailed observations, such as “at 10:05, J. raised her hand but then dropped it quickly,” and thought-provoking queries, such as “I wonder what differences existed in how you and your students perceived the application of the reading.”

These types of observational notes at varied levels of detail provide a rich data source that can help inform later deep thought.

In my practice, I pull all this information together, first alone and then with my partner teacher in multiple sessions over the summer, to review each unit, project, and lesson. This allows us to rethink our curriculum and modify our learning objectives, assessments, projects, and lesson plans for the coming year.

The high-fidelity data we review and the processes that support their capture have allowed me to be in the moment with my students while still gathering the data I will use to improve as an educator in the coming year.