The Power of Reflection for Deep Learning

John Dewey once remarked that we do not learn from experience, but rather we learn by reflecting on experience. I have spent time asking gifted and advanced students about their experiences in school. A common theme I have heard over the last few years is a lament for pause to ponder. Students have regularly described school as busy and hurried. One even remarked that teachers are afraid to just let us sit quietly and think about stuff. I bristled. Teachers are not afraid of anything—well maybe pink eye. But the more I thought about that comment, the more true it sounded. Teachers have been swept up into the tidal wave of engagement, the educational power march of doing, doing, doing. We hook, we snook, we dance and sing at the altar of active, engaged learning. There may be more than a little truth to the teacher’s fear that the moment you have a roomful of students quietly thinking about John Donne’s poetic meditations, Principal Swag swings by and asks what you are doing to get the students engaged.

Those student comments have lead me to think more about reflective educational practices. School may be a busy place with little room for reflection and contemplation. These really bright students lamented the vanished silence that once paved the way for voices of reason and imagination. So I wonder, what happens when we intentionally include time and opportunity for reflection. Isn’t reflection still engaging? Perhaps to some, quiet reflection does not seem as engaging as two-stepping math facts or spinning a beat to the Bill of Rights. But honestly, the majority of actual intellectual work is done in still, quiet moments. Thinking flourishes in reflection. Ideas are constructed in reflection. In fact, a pedagogy of reflection produces deep learning, creativity, and conceptual connections.

Teaching with Reflection Techniques

Reflection is similar to the process of decision making. Careful, deliberate decisions are typically valued over those that are impulsive. In the same way reflective learning generally yields deeper and more complex understandings than does impulsive learning. There are three components to teaching for deep learning using reflection techniques. First, teachers need to intentionally build in time for reflection. Second, teachers need to guide and prompt reflection, and third, teachers need to model reflection.

Teachers ought to set the ground rules for reflective time and strictly honor them. For instance, reflection is still and quiet. When reflection becomes part of the learning process, it demands moments that are still and quiet. These expectations must be clearly communicated and the teacher should model the reflective posture as well. Think of intellectual reflection as a skill that needs developing, and assume you will need to teach students to do it successfully. In the first step—building in time for reflection—teachers should clearly indicated the beginning and ending of the reflection. Younger students will reflect for shorter periods of time than older students, and over time with consistent practice and expectations, all students will improve their reflective thinking.

Reflection techniques may be used before learning, during learning, and after learning. As you might expect, different purposes are associated with when you ask students to reflect. Reflection before learning activates prior knowledge and experiences. Before learning reflection may help students dust off previous knowledge constructions and prepare themselves for expanding conceptions. Before learning you might prompt students, “For the next five minutes, reflect on everything you know about erosion.” Or perhaps you are about to teach Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” you might say, “For ten minutes, reflect on the greatest examples of revenge you have heard.”  In addition to activating prior learning, before learning reflection might also create interest or motivation for the learning activities that are to come. I mean, who doesn’t love a revenge story?

During learning you might prompt students to reflect as a way of mid-point summary or concept clarification. When you engage in during-learning reflections, you can focus students on the big picture—the potential to transfer these concepts beyond the classroom. For instance, you might prompt students to reflect for five minutes on why you are learning ____ (e.g., fractions, American history, properties of matter, participial phrases). You could ask students to reflect for three minutes on how concepts of action/reaction might be useful in the future. In other words, you can use during learning reflection to alert students to connections between learning in school and applications in life. Properties of matter do have an application, right?

The second step of teaching with reflection has the teacher guiding and prompting student reflection. Over time, students will develop reflection skills and the disposition to lead their own reflection. In the beginning, reflection will take prompting and guiding. Some basics of prompting include telling them the length of the reflection time and providing a specific prompt to guide the reflection. Reflection times will vary based on students’ development and experience using reflection techniques. My basic guidelines are 1-2 minutes in primary grades, 2-3 minutes in intermediate grades, 3-6 minutes in middle school, and perhaps as high as 10 to 20 minutes in high school. These are guidelines, and teachers may vary them depending on circumstances. You may be able to increase the length of reflection time throughout the year as students develop the habit with practice.

Reflection prompts can be general or curriculum specific. Curriculum specific prompts directly relate to the concepts or topics that are being studied. For instance, you may ask them to reflection on how they have changed their perspective on ambition after reading Macbeth. You could prompt them to reflect on the concept of friendship after reading Charlotte’s Web. After a study of solving equations, you might ask students to reflect on the ways that they might use linear equations to make critical decisions.

I like to think directionally about general reflection prompts—backward, forward, inward, outward. Backward reflection requires students to look back and reflect on the learning experiences they have just completed. For instance, you might ask them to reflection the ways that they have improved during this unit. Similarly, you might ask what they knew at the beginning and what they know now. You might ask how they have improved as mathematicians or as writers during the study. Backward reflection requires students to look back at the experience and reflect on how they improved. Forward reflection on the other hand asks students to look to ways they might improve in future studies. You might ask them to reflect on one thing they would like to improve in the next unit. You could say, “For the next five minutes reflect on one or two goals you will set for yourself for the next time.” They could reflect on ways they will need more help to learn how to do this work (math, writing, etc.).

Inward reflection prompts require students to think about themselves and their learning experiences. For instance during inward reflection, you might ask students to reflect on what they found satisfying and frustrating during this work. Inward reflection might as students to reflection on ways the study of world cultures helps them learn about themselves. Outward reflection teaches students to think about their work from the perspectives of others. In other words, how would those on the outside looking in describe your work? Outward reflection prompts includes statements like, “If you were the teacher, what comments would you make on this paper/project/exam?” or “What grade would you give yourself on this activity? Outward reflection might also ask student to compare their work to other students, “How is your project similar and different from other student projects?”

Lastly, teachers need to model reflection. When you designate reflection time in class, reflect along with students. Regularly talk about how you reflected on your lesson plans, your assignments for the students, your understanding of books or concepts in the curriculum. Demonstrate that reflection is a valuable skills that you use regularly to improve your performance or understanding.

Reflection techniques can be combined with idea notebooks and journal writing. As students reflect, have them write down their ideas and connections. You can also allocate time for students to share some of their reflections with others. Reflection is a teaching technique that slows down the activities so that learning can catch up and take hold. Used regularly, reflection can deepen student learning, and reflection improves metacognition and skills of self-direction and independence. Now, take a moment and reflect on how you can include these techniques into your practices.

Todd KettlerComment