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What can having an eye test tell you about critical reflection?

by Liam McNicholas on March 15

Are there two scarier words in early education than “critical reflection”?

We know from Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) data that it’s the element of the National Quality Standard (NQS) that is most likely to be “Not Met” during Assessment and R Checks. In talking with educators and leaders, we know it can lead to frustration and confusion. What is it about critical reflection that makes it such a big challenge? How can we rise to the challenge, ‘crack the code’, and make it a part of everyday practice in our ?

Let’s think about why almost 1 in 5 are not meeting the requirements under the NQS for critical reflection. The first challenge is just working out what critical reflection is. It’s a complex concept that can mean different things to different people. At its most basic level, critical reflection is about looking at our work as educators deeply, and seeing what we do from different perspectives.

That leads us to our second challenge – engaging in critical reflection is difficult. Educators work incredibly hard in complex jobs that demand a lot of them physically, emotionally and mentally. It’s a tough ask to turn around at the end of the day and say: “By the way I need to you to think really deeply about what you do and think about some different approaches to and different perspectives on your work”.

It’s important that we acknowledge this. It’s not simply a matter of asking educators to “just do it”. We need to think about how we can support critical reflection in ways that also support educator wellbeing.

The third and final big challenge is how we make critical reflection visible in our services – to put it bluntly, how do we prove to the regulatory authority that we do it when it’s time for Assessment and Rating?

Let’s think about each of those challenges.

It is most important that we understand what critical reflection is – if we don’t understand it, we can’t do it effectively. The way I consider critical reflection is by likening it to when I go to my annual eye test at the optometrist. This might sound like a strange metaphor for my early education practice, but I promise it makes sense!

Earlier I wrote that critical reflection is about seeing things from different perspectives. That can be hard to picture, but it’s exactly what happens when we sit down in the optometrist’s chair and the large lens machine that goes over our face is wheeled towards us. We walk into the office with our normal eyesight, seeing things the way we always see them. Then, different kinds of lenses are placed in front of eyes and we start to see things very differently. Things become fuzzy, or more clear, seem further away, or closer. We notice things we didn’t notice before, and we have to really focus to complete the test. Sometimes, these different lenses help us see that what we thought was 20:20 vision was actually not that good, and we need help to see things more clearly.

That’s what critical reflection is all about. Our eyesight is our view of our work, the centre and how children learn. The lenses are different perspectives, different theories and different ways of thinking about what we do. They make us see things differently than the way we usually do and force us to focus to see things with clarity.

Most people who have eye problems don’t about them. They look out of their eyes every single day and can’t compare their view to someone else’s. If we apply this metaphor to our work in early years, thinking about the way we work with children can be the same – we’re used to a certain way of thinking and being, and it can be difficult to take ourselves out of that. Even if we don’t have eye problems, regular check-ups are important to ensure we’re still healthy.

If we extend the metaphor and view critical reflection as our ‘regular check-ups’ our work as educators can be improved.  When we reflect on what we do by looking at things through different perspectives and approaches our practice benefits. Getting an eye test doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us, it just means we’re taking care of ourselves. Critical reflection is exactly the same. The word critical doesn’t mean “negative”, it just means a deeper approach to reflection. So, when we think about critical reflection like this, we have a way to approach it  with our colleagues and our teams. Instead of just asking people to think about what they might have done better, we can ask them to think about things from a different viewpoint, a different perspective – i.e. through a different lens.

The Early Years Learning Framework has two particularly great questions that can help you explore complex issues of social justice: “Who is advantaged when I work this way?” and “Who is disadvantaged?”

These questions (or lenses) can open up a whole new set of questions and ideas for everyone. Looking through different lenses encourages critical thought, and also makes it safe for everyone. We’re not simply having to be critical of ourselves, but just applying different views to what we do. Those lenses can also help us make critical reflection visible as we work to meet or exceed the National Quality Standard. We can ask those questions in staff meetings and team meetings and take minutes of what people said as they saw things from a different angle.

We can include those questions in documentation – not as extra documentation, but as part of the writing we’re already doing. We can talk about how seeing things differently made us think about what we do, and why we do it that way.

So, don’t see critical reflection as something that’s in the ‘too-hard’ basket. See it as a regular check-up that keeps your practice as an educator healthy. You might be surprised what you see when you look at things in a different way.



Liam McNicholas

Liam is an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, he has advocated for children’s human rights, the need for investment in early childhood education and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care. Liam has a strong personal belief in the right of children to access high-quality education programs that support children holistically to further their own learning, wellbeing and citizenship, and rise above social inequality and injustice.