Improving reflective and critical thinking on a postgraduate taught programme

Before I worked at the university I worked in a Further Education college in Manchester in Wythenshawe, one of the largest council house estates in Europe. It was a bit of a shock to find myself at the foot of Arthur’s Seat and my first introduction to post-structuralism made me take up smoking again, temporarily. But I found my previous teaching experience in FE, adult education and secondary schools in inner city Manchester prepared me well for the challenge of postgraduate teaching.

Most of my teaching here is in deaf education, preparing Scottish teachers to work with a wide range of deaf learners who are mainly in mainstream schools. The Government stipulates these teachers must attain minimum competences, which are framed as a set of skills in audiology, understanding language development, and collaborative working. It’s compulsory for teachers to get the postgraduate diploma, and a few are quite hesitant about aiming for master’s level. As a tutor team we try to go beyond this narrow training brief to explore wider issues.


The challenge of deaf education is that it is riven with different perspectives; when teachers of deaf children work with a wide range of deaf children, they have to shift perspectives and look at issues from several viewpoints at once. They need to be able to assess the situation and act to improve it to match the needs of their students, for example setting up a system to get radio aids checked and maintained regularly, though nobody they meet in the local authority understands why this is so important. They have to be able to challenge widely held beliefs – what is inclusion for a rural sign language user who attends the local school? They must be able to assess language development in babies and children, getting parents and teachers on board to put in place language enrichment activities. They should be able to sign fluently – but announcing you are a teacher of deaf children in a Deaf Centre often means nobody will sign with them; they need to understand why.

These are what could be called Masterly skills. Getting students to have confidence in their own multiple perspectives takes time. I’m going to write about two such ways which might also work with your students, to help them synthesise theory and practice and approach complex tasks more confidently. One came out of a joint programme with other universities to develop critical thinking skills with teachers of deaf children (Swanwick et al, 2014) and the other from introducing a placement course on the PGT programme.

A debate is now a regular part of the 10-credit Deaf Studies course to try to build confidence in arguing, justifying and looking at topics with multiple perspectives. Taught by Deaf academic Dr Audrey Cameron, who uses sign language interpreters funded by Access to Work in the classroom, the students learn how to work with the interpreters incidentally. The debate topic is set in advance in the course handbook and students have to read to prepare. This year’s debate was on the motion: ‘This house believes the British Sign Language Act will improve choices and outcomes for deaf children’. Students were often put in a group which they didn’t actually support. Presenting with formal speeches proposing, seconding, supporting and challenging, builds their skills in argument. The judge is usually a respected member of the Deaf community, this year Lilian Lawson OBE who led the implementation of the BSL Act, also an alumna of this university.

The critical thinking skills we particularly want them to focus on the debate are:

willingness – being open to enquiry and adapting practice, commitment to experimentation as a learning process

lenses – having the ability to recognise and engage with different perspectives, to create synthesis and multiple perspectives

metacognition – being able to identify and reconceptualise abstract ideas through synthesis of theory and practice

communication – articulating and presenting ideas that synthesise theory and practice

Students evaluate this experience very positively. Just as in the online Sources of Knowledge course, which this student group also take, they see other students’ argumentation and language strategies. Observing successful argument supports and challenges everyone in the class.

The final 20-credit course in the Postgraduate Diploma is a placement, 20 days in the student’s own workplace with deaf learners and 15 days in a contrasting setting. They receive two visits from a university tutor and have two more observations of practice on each placement from their work-based mentor. The placement files include weekly critical reviews where the students choose topics related to issues which have arisen during the week and critically reflect on them in a referenced piece of work. Feedback on the internal placement file provides formative assessment for their final external placement portfolio. I’ve been impressed by the way these students tackle the critical review. They use reading from across the programme to discuss a dilemma or an issue which has wider ramifications for their work.

The critical thinking skills I am particularly keen for them to focus on in the placement files are:

unknown – tolerance of uncertainty, prepared to get it wrong and accept there are unknowns

self – ability to develop personal lines of enquiry with self awareness, and critically assess instinct / intuition

metacognition – identify and reconceptualise abstract ideas through synthesis of theory and practice

teacher as researcher – seeing oneself as a member of the wider research community

This course is introduced entirely online with a video, where they meet the placement tutors, well known and expert teachers of deaf children from across Scotland. The course handbook has detailed examples of the sort of critical review we want to see. Placement files are also evidence of investigation as they follow particular deaf learners, evaluating the documentary evidence about the child critically and of course confidentially.

It’s sad that these teachers can’t usually stay to complete the MEd, because their employers only pay fees for them to achieve the postgraduate diploma. But when some do carry on to the MEd level these two courses usually have made quite an impact on their criticality and prepared them for the investigation they will do for the dissertation.

If you’d like to talk about using the ideas in our paper on critical thinking skills, introduce the seven skills we identified, or discuss how to introduce a placement course at PGT level, feel free to get in touch. I’ll pick your brains too.

About the author

rachel o'Neill

Rachel O’Neill is a Lecturer at the Moray House School of Education.  She is the Director for the MSc in Inclusive and Special Education and the MEd in Additional Support for Learning. She can be contacted on


Swanwick, R., Kitchen, R., Jarvis, J, McCracken, W. & O’Neill, R. (2014) Following Alice: theories of critical thinking and reflective practice in action at postgraduate level, Teaching in Higher Education, 19 (2): 156 – 169.

DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2013.836099



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