Professional Development for Learning Advisors: Facilitating the Intentional Reflective Dialogue

Satoko Kato, Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages, Tokyo, Japan

Kato, S. (2012). Professional development for learning advisors: Facilitating the intentional reflective dialogue. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 3(1), 74-92.

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This paper describes a study which explored how intentional reflective dialogue with an interlocutor can deepen Learning Advisors’ (advisors’) reflective learning in terms of their own professional development (PD). As one of the key roles of advisors in self-directed language learning is to activate learners’ reflective learning processes, it is worthwhile for advisors to experience reflective learning process for themselves as a part of a PD program. Eight advisors, with experience ranging from one to three years, participated in this study. Each had two interviews with the interlocutor (the author). Although most of the advisors often self-reflect and have conversations regarding advising with colleagues, the reflective dialogue which was intentionally structured for training purposes resulted in advisors being engaged in a different type of self-reflective approach. The results of the study showed there are potential benefits for developing a continuing PD program for experienced advisors by introducing the reflective dialogue.

Keywords: reflective dialogue, continuing professional development, training, learning advisor, self-access center

Advising and Self-Access

Self-access language learning (SALL) promoted through self-access centers (SACs) has been given due attention during the past decade, and this has been evidenced by an increasing number of research papers, journals, articles, books, and conferences. Definitions of the functions and roles of SACs vary between institutions. However, Gardner and Miller (1999) emphasize that SACs consist of a number of elements, such as providing resources (learning materials, activities, technology), people (teachers, counselors, staff), and systems (facility management, learner/staff training, goal-setting, assessment) to support learners’ individualized learning. In addition, SACs encourage learners’ development through needs analysis and reflection on learning (Gardner & Miller, 1999, pp. 8-11). Sekiya, Mynard and Cooker (2010) state that “the promotion of learner autonomy within a self-access centre needs to be carefully supported through one or more of the following: learning philosophy, learner development, an advising service, opportunities for individualization, opportunities for interaction and negotiation in the target language, and materials design” (p. 237).

Among the above mentioned major elements of SACs, the study described in this paper focuses on the advising service provided by Learning Advisors (advisors) whose aim is to promote self-access learning at SACs. The paper attempts to establish a rationale for an ongoing professional development (PD) program for advisors.

Ongoing PD for Advisors

The advisor’s job can sometimes be misunderstood and seen as a way to simply provide learning tips to learners, such as teaching learners how to increase vocabulary effectively or telling learners how to get better scores on tests. This implies that a teacher can naturally become an advisor without receiving proper training. However, the main job of an advisor is to empower learners and to help them to become more capable of taking charge of their own language learning as defined by Holec (1981). Mozzon-McPherson (2001) suggests that the central role of an advisor is as follows:

“advisers provide ‘a frame’, a set of conditions within which learners can have or hold the responsibility of some or all the decisions concerning aspects of their learning, from stating their aims to determining their objectives to defining the contents, selecting methods and techniques and finally evaluating the process and the knowledge.” (p. 180)

Providing learners with such support and raising their awareness of cognitive and metacognitive learning processes involves a set of unique skills (Kelly, 1996; Riley, 1997). In order to explore and cater for each learner’s needs in one-to-one advising sessions, advisors may have to incorporate skills and knowledge from a wider background such as the fields of counseling, life coaching, mentoring, and teaching. Therefore, in order to function effectively as an advisor and to continue to develop as an advisor, one needs to go through proper training. Gardner and Miller (1999) focus on the importance of advisor training and suggest that “counseling is not a static technique that can be learned and then applied. Staff development in counselling needs to be an ongoing process” (p. 189).

Nevertheless, there is a lack of empirical research and well-established PD programs for advisors. Mozzon-McPherson (2001) highlights the necessity of providing appropriate staff development programs to ensure a “reorientation of the teacher and their discourse which can in fact be ‘compatible with’ and supportive of the radical notion of learner autonomy” (p. 17).

Initial Training Program: Preparing for the New Profession

In general, one of the biggest challenges the majority of advisors may face when they start this new profession is likely to be the shift in direction of the idea of “control”. This challenge seems to be greater especially if one has teaching experience prior to becoming an advisor. However, regardless of prior professional experiences, it is essential that every advisor receives initial training to learn about what this profession entails.

The author has worked as a learning advisor at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS), a university providing programs in foreign languages, and is currently working at Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages (KIFL), a two-year vocational school with an intensive focus on language learning. Both institutions are located in Japan and have established SACs. Since these two SACs are run by the same parent organization, the Sano Educational Foundation with more than forty years of experience in providing educational services in language learning in Japan, the advisors working at KUIS and KIFL share a similar philosophy and approach to the practice of advising in language learning. A new advisor at both institutions participates in an initial training program which includes, but is not limited to the following: philosophical background, basics of advising, and self-reflection.

First of all, a new advisor must learn the history and background of the institution/center and to understand the definitions of learner autonomy and the aims of the advising service provided at that particular institution/center. Therefore, the new advisor has to attend orientations and presentations on self-directed language learning and advising.

Secondly, new advisors are asked to read articles and books on advising, listen to other advisors’ recorded sessions, participate in discussions and role-plays, and receive feedback from senior advisors. The intention of this portion of the training is for new advisors to learn the theories of advising, focus on advising skills and strategies and become aware of how the discourse of advising is different from discourse used in classroom teaching.

Thirdly, advisors are required to participate in a formal PD program in their first year at the institution. The advisors are encouraged to self-reflect by critically listening to their own recorded sessions while focusing on certain issues in advising. This approach to PD aims to raise the metacognitive awareness of the advisor’s own learning process, and to enable them to benefit from feedback from senior advisors.

The initial training and formal PD program provides not only skill-based training but also focuses heavily on concept-based training. Kodate and Foale (forthcoming) described the above mentioned PD program and researched the advisors’ perceptions of the program and how the community of practice explored by Wenger (1998) is relevant to the development of advisors. Kodate and Foale’s research concluded that such a community of practice would complement the existing formal institutional PD program through members sharing practices and establishing a collective identity.

Indeed, the full benefits of the PD program can only be achieved by having a holistic approach. Taking into account the above discussed research, the study described later in this paper highlights the importance of developing an appropriate continuing PD program for experienced advisors who participated in the initial PD program in an early stage in their careers. From experience of working as a dedicated full-time learning advisor for six years and coordinating advisor training programs, the author believes that no matter how experienced an advisor may be, ongoing training needs to be provided to ensure continuous professional growth.

Ongoing Professional Learning through Reflection  

There is always a risk that once advisors establish their own style of advising, they may not challenge themselves to try different advising styles. Advisors might use similar advising approaches, give the same advice repeatedly based on their established assumptions, or recommend the same material repeatedly without investigating other areas. This is where fossilization and stagnation can occur. In order to avoid such situations, the author suggests the introduction of an intentionally structured reflective dialogue with a colleague or a senior advisor as a part of the continuing PD program.

In order to facilitate advisors’ ongoing learning from practice, advisors need to explore themselves as advisors through the process of reflection. The term reflection has been defined by many researchers. Dewey’s (1933) definition of reflection is “that which involves active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it and the further consequences to which it leads” (p. 9). According to Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985), effective learning will not be achieved without reflection. Schön (1983) is recognized as one of the leading researchers on reflection for enhancing professions by identifying two types of reflection: reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. He suggests that the knowledge professionals have is expressed easily through their actions, but articulating the procedures that underline their practice is not easy.

Boyd and Fales (1983) define reflection as the “process of creating and clarifying the meaning of experience (present or past) in terms of self (self in relation to self and self in relation to the world)” (p. 101), and they investigate how the process of reflection facilitates professional development. They repeatedly interviewed practicing counselors in an ongoing clinical training program and observed how their reflection progressed. Boyd and Fales stipulate that reflection may bring about “a changed conceptual perspective” (p.100) which would be beneficial for “professional learning from experience, personal growth, and for all the helping professions, both in professionals’ own continuing learning and in facilitating the learning and growth of their clients” (p.114-115).

Based on the previous research and on her own experience as an advisor, the author believes that advisors may potentially benefit from going through the process of deep reflection by themselves in order to facilitate their learners’ reflective process.

Reflection through Dialogue

Research on professional development emphasizes the critical roles of reflective learning (Boyd & Fales, 1983; Schön, 1983). Brockbank and McGill (2006) focus on methods of reflection and how they are achieved. They especially focus on reflective dialogue. Brockbank and McGill argue that “while intrapersonal reflection is effective and may offer opportunities for deep learning, which may or may not be shared with another, it is ultimately not enough to promote transformatory learning” (p. 53). The process of self-reflection has the benefit of offering opportunities for deep learning and there is no doubt that self-reflection is at the center of any type of professional development. However, as Brockbank and McGill describe, self-reflection is not enough to promote transformatory learning as learning is limited to the insight of individuals and observing oneself critically is difficult. Dialogue with others offers possibilities to restructure one’s established assumptions and beliefs which can lead one to develop further as a professional.

Since the role of advisors is to activate learners’ reflective processes in language learning through a one-to-one dialogue, it is essential for advisors to focus on promoting a one-to-one reflective dialogue as part of the advisors’ PD process. Brockbank, McGill and Beech (2002) note that an intentional dialogue is different from an ordinary dialogue in a way that “dialogue does occur naturally between people, but for effective reflective learning, intentional dialogue is necessary” (p. 23) and “reflection-with-others, or dialogue, offers the power of challenge and different perspectives to the learner, and ultimately the potential for double-loop learning” (p. 21). Single-loop learning refers to learning where existing values, beliefs, and ways of learning are unchanged. Double-loop learning refers to learning where existing values, beliefs, and ways of learning are challenged and where learning for transformation takes place. Brockbank and McGill (2006) suggest that “double loop learning, in questioning ‘taken-for-granteds’ (tfgs) has the potential to bring about a profound shift in underlying values by cracking their paradigms or ‘ways of seeing the world’ (p. 33). Argyris and Schön (1974) emphasize the necessity of double-loop learning which involves careful reflection not only on actions but also on the outcomes these actions are aiming at. They described it as follows: “In single-loop learning, we learn to maintain the field of constancy by learning to design actions that satisfy existing governing variables. In double-loop learning, we learn to change the field of constancy itself” (p.19).

The Study: Facilitating the Intentional Reflective Dialogue


This study sheds light on facilitating reflective dialogue between an advisor and an interlocutor (the author), which is intentionally structured for training purposes, in order to develop an effective ongoing PD for advisors. To observe whether double-loop learning (Argyris & Schön , 1974; Brockbank & McGill, 2006) is occurring within the intentional reflective dialogue, the effectiveness of the dialogues were analyzed based on: 1) Whether advisors were critically reflecting on their goals, beliefs, values, conceptual framework, and 2) Whether advisors were identifying discrepancies between their beliefs and their actual behavior.  Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, a post- interview questionnaire, and a self-reflective journal which was kept by the author (interviewer) throughout the study.


Eight advisors from the overseas and Japan with experience of advising ranging fromone to three years working in SACs, participated in this study. Six of them were from Kanda University of International Studies and two of them were from Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages. All eight advisors participated in the initial PD program with a supervisor, a trainer, or senior colleagues. The advisors were asked to have a one-to-one intentional reflective dialogue with the author to explore whether the intentional reflective dialogue deepened their reflections and enhanced their learning.

Interview procedures

A one-to-one interview was held twice with each advisor, the total interview time being 13.5 hours. All the interviews were recorded, partially transcribed, and analyzed. A questionnaire was administered after the second interview. In addition, the interviewer kept a self-reflective journal to reflect on the dialogues conducted for the 16 interviews. In the first interview, an advising tool (the Wheel of Learning Advising (WLA), see Figure 1) was used to help advisors reflect not only on a particular session (or sessions) with a student but also to reflect critically on themselves more generally as advisors. Questions regarding advisors’ values and beliefs of advising in language learning were asked in order to investigate the notion of “who you are” as an advisor (see Appendix). The advisors analyzed their past and current situations in order to engage themselves in a deeper level of reflection. The advisors were not only asked to share their beliefs and values, but their existing beliefs and values were also challenged. Towards the end of the interviews, the advisors were encouraged to share their future visions and establish action plans which they considered to be beneficial for their development.

In order to ensure that the tone of the interviews was semi-formal, the interviewer prepared questions which advisors might not usually encounter in a casual dialogue. Examples of questions were: “What would your ideal learning advisor be like?”, “If that is your ideal advisor, can you use a metaphor to describe where you are at now?”, “You repeatedly used xxx (the words depends on each advisor) in our conversation. What does it mean to you?” (see Appendix). This attempt at semi-formality was made as all of the participants were the author’s ex- or current colleagues and an overly casual conversation might have prevented advisors from engaging in a deeper level of reflection.

The second interview was held three months later, and the advisors were shown the WLA which they had drawn three months previously in order to reflect on their progress. Whereas there was a major focus on finding the existing values, beliefs, and hidden issues in the first interview, the dialogues in the second interview were more organic and with less structure. In fact, it was the second interview where more experience sharing and discussions occurred between the interviewee and interviewer, and where a deeper level of advisors’ engagement could be observed.

 Data Collection

A tool for reflection: The Wheel of Learning Advising (WLA)

Kato & Sugawara (2009) introduced a tool for advising, the Wheel of Language Learning (WLL) based on the original idea derived from the field of life coaching (Whitworth, Kimsey-House, & Sandahl, 2007). It is beneficial for several reasons: 1) Visual support helps learners to experience deeper reflective processes. Serving as a visual tool, the WLL has advantages over text-based tools not only for visual learners but for other types of learners (Yamashita & Kato, forthcoming). 2) It provides learners with more opportunities to take a broader view of learning by identifying how each area in the WLL is linked, and 3) The WLL enables learners to talk actively and naturally and to take control of the dialogue with an advisor.

The WLL was adapted to create the WLA and this was used for this study. The WLA consists of six areas and advisors were asked to indicate their level of satisfaction in each area by drawing lines (see Figure 1). They were then asked to self-analyze the reasons for the levels. The participants of this study were asked to complete the WLA in both interviews to see their progresses visually.

Figure 1. Wheel of Learning Advising (WLA)

Self-reflective journal

The interviewer kept a self-reflective journal for the 16 interviews conducted. This served as a productive tool to foster the interviewer’s own reflective thinking from a wider perspective on the interviewing process and analyzing the dynamics between the interviewer and interviewee. The following points were covered in each entry: 1) The overall impression of the interview, 2) The critical moment in the interview, 3) Words repeatedly used by the interviewee (to highlight the hidden issues), and 4) Self-evaluation (to reflect on whether the interviewer was able to conduct the intentional reflective dialogue effectively).

Post-interview questionnaire

A post-interview questionnaire was administered to the eight advisors. The aim of the questionnaire was to obtain written feedback from advisors and aid a more thorough understanding of the research area. The author prepared four open-ended questions which advisors were asked to reflect on (see Table 1). Written reflections on the interviews helped the advisors to deepen their perspectives (this aspect will be discussed later in the paper).

Table 1. Questions included in the Post-interview Questionnaire

Data Analysis

Degrees of reflection

Methods for distinguishing the types and degrees of reflection varies. In this study, data were analyzed based on the concept of Argyris & Schön’s (1974) ‘single-loop’ and ‘double-loop’ learning. There was a variation in the depth and the quality of reflection among advisors. The advisors with less experience were likely to focus on advising skills and techniques such as active listening skills and questioning skills where single-loop learning could be mainly observed. Many of them were worried about not knowing a variety of learning strategies and resources to recommend to students. Thus, the future action plans these advisors created were related to gaining knowledge on such skills, strategies, and techniques. Moreover, one less-experienced advisor had difficulties in reflecting on herself critically which prohibited her from benefitting from the double-loop learning process. Although recall was not very difficult, it was difficult for the interviewer to transform the recollection process into a deeper reflection level where the values and real issues may have been hidden. This experience indicated that the interviewer needed to be aware of the developmental phases of each advisor in order to provide guidance on conducting the intentional reflective dialogue.

On the other hand, the advisors with more experience needed less guidance and were likely to reach a deeper level of reflection during the interviews. Many of them challenged their existing values and beliefs and in these situations double-loop learning could be observed. In such cases, the interviewer intentionally allowed time for reflection, with periods of silence, therefore, these interviews with more experienced advisors tended to be longer and much deeper. Some advisors were able to identify discrepancies between their beliefs and their actual behavior. During the interviews, some advisors examined their fear of failure and incorrect practice. For example, one advisor confessed that she tended to guide students not to choose some materials which she thought were not worth trying. She admitted that she did not want to put herself at a risk of being called an unprofessional advisor by letting her students try those materials. She questioned herself during the interview whether she was making the decisions for her students or for herself. Other advisors also explored their weaknesses as a practitioner by focusing on their identities, open-mindedness, and existing assumptions which were based on their own values. Through the intentional reflective dialogue, these advisors tried to renegotiate themselves or even re-challenge themselves.

Although less-experienced practitioners were primarily focusing on adjusting themselves to the new profession, the experienced advisors had a broader view and talked about their career path as an educator showing their interests and concerns with working as an advisor. However, regardless of the levels of experience, awareness-raising occurred through the intentional reflective dialogues. Below are some advisors’ comments collected through the post-interview questionnaire administered to the advisors.

“I often reflect on and talk about my advising sessions with my colleagues, but I realized doing this kind of semi-formal session (intentional dialogue) will bring me to a deeper level of reflection that I can’t usually reach.”

“For me, conversation is vital for reflection. I do it internally as well, but not nearly to the same degree. Ideally, I’d like a chance to talk one-on-one with a variety of advisors, and occasional group sessions.”

“Through the dialogue, I could find more about myself as an advisor. I self-reflect a lot and I was assuming that I have already clarified my thoughts well. But I realized the power of verbalizing my thoughts. Communicating with someone like you and getting feedback helps me to build up my strengths as an advisor.”

 Although most of the advisors usually self-reflect and have conversations about advising with colleagues, it seems that the reflective dialogue which was intentionally structured for training purposes engaged the advisors in a different type of reflective approach and brought advisors to the level that cannot usually be reached by individual self-reflection.


The importance of having an “intentional” dialogue

The results of the feedback obtained from the interviews and the questionnaire administered to the advisors following the interviews were positive and the approach of introducing the intentional reflective dialogue was effective for encouraging advisors to engage in a deeper level of transformative learning. The two research questions of this study could be answered as follows. Firstly, the intentional reflective dialogue tends to allow advisors to reflect critically and explore themselves differently in a way which might not take place in an internal dialogue or in casual workplace conversations. It seems to provide advisors with an opportunity to reflect on themselves holistically and challenge their existing values. Secondly, some advisors were able to identify discrepancies between their beliefs and their actual behavior where advisors were noticeably open with their thoughts and feelings. Boyd and Fales (1983) call this openness stage “trust of self to discover” (p. 109). The author believes that the intentional reflective dialogue enables both parties to discover more about each other and this establishes a stronger rapport.

However, the depth and quality of reflection varied among advisors and not all advisors were able to critically reflect on their goals, beliefs, values, and conceptual framework or to identify discrepancies between their beliefs and their actual behavior.  Further research needs to be conducted to explore ways to provide an effective reflective dialogue designed to cater for each advisor’s developmental phase.

The unpredicted benefits

Although the original aim of this study was to develop an effective PD program for advisors through facilitating the intentional reflective dialogue, in fact, it was the interviewer who received the most effective training through the whole interviewing process. This is because the interviewer had to: 1) Utilize questioning and listening skills needed to facilitate advisors’ reflection, 2) Be able to structure the interviewing process to ensure that issue(s) were addressed and the advisors were challenged to take their learning one-step further, 3) Negotiate the power balance, and 4) Engage in a transformative learning process. By conducting the interviews and becoming involved in the advisors’ own transformative learning, the author believes that this whole interviewing process itself could serve as a complete training program necessary for advisors who have completed the initial PD program.

The self-reflective journal kept by the interviewer also indicated that the interviewer had to challenge her own existing values and beliefs as an advisor as the interviewees were themselves challenged by the author during the interviews. Much self-questioning occurred while keeping the journal and transformative learning could be observed. Moreover, in terms of skills, it became clear that the following interviewing skills (which can be considered to be a set of skills used in advising sessions) were intensively used in each session: Building rapport, active listening, metaviewing, linking, restating, questioning, empathizing, summarizing, challenging, intuiting, reflecting, goal-setting, giving feedback, asking for accountability (Kelly, 1996; Whitworth et al, 2007). In general, it is unlikely that an advisor will use all of the above skills intensively in one session with a student. However, as the interviewees in this study were highly reflective practitioners, the interviewer had to incorporate many of the advising skills in one session. As such, each interview was energy-consuming and intense for the interviewer, perhaps resulting in a more powerful experience than for the interviewee.


The cases discussed in this study represent an attempt to introduce an intentionally structured reflective dialogue for advisors’ professional development. Since the training focusing on experienced advisors is, after all, still in the early stages, the results and findings of this study are yet inconclusive and further research needs to be conducted. This could result in the production of a set of guidelines for conducting intentional reflective dialogue, which could include suggested procedures, purposes, strategies, and tools. By preparing such guidelines together with workshops and follow-up discussion forums among colleagues, it is hoped that advisors will be able to develop professionally by strengthening their skill-based and philosophical-based background.  This study indicates that incorporating intentional reflective dialogue of this nature into a structured program could serve as an effective continuing PD activity.

Notes on the contributor

Satoko Kato holds a Master’s degree (TESOL) from the Columbia University Graduate School of Education. She has worked as a learning advisor at Kanda University of International Studies and now holds the same position with Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages. Her area of expertise is the development of learner autonomy through providing courses and conducting one-to-one advising. She is currently engaged in establishing training courses for advisors.


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Appendix (see PDF version)