Saturday, August 6, 2011

Turning the Lens: The Importance of Self-Reflection

Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him. ~ John Locke

This season, my favourite football team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, has been off to shaky start. Recently, they lost to the fourth place team in the Western Division and now have a 1-5-0 record. To say that this is dismal is an understatement. Jamie Nye’s airport interviews with Coach Marshall and quarterback, Darion Durant, reveal the depth of reflection that is taking place in the Rider organization at this point.
Marshall admits that “everything gets assessed when you are in the situation we’re in right now.”
Durant sums up his interpretation of the Rider offense in the opening six games in one word: “underachievement”. 
In professional sports, reflection is used as an evaluation tool, a tool for reassessing decisions and strategies. The goal of reflection is improvement. The ultimate goal is to win.

Can the same hold true for education?
The Ministry of Education is currently undergoing a massive curriculum renewal, with inquiry learning and student reflection forming the structural framework for content delivery. In the renewed English Language Arts, for example, one of the three goals is Assess and Reflect where student “assess their own language skills; discuss the skills of effective viewers, representers, listeners, speakers, readers, and writers; and set goals for future improvement.”
In the Grade 7 curriculum, Outcome 7.2 requires that students appraise their own and other’s work for “clarity and correctness”. Two of the supporting indicators refer to reflection:
·         Reflect on and assess viewing, listening, and reading experiences; and set goals for improvement.
·         Reflect on, analyze, and assess writing and other representing behaviours, and formulate goals for improvement.

What is Reflection?
To better understand how important reflection is in student learning, it is necessary to explore different definitions of reflection as it pertains to education. Reflection comes from the Latin word reflectere which means “bend back”.
  • For Dewey (1933), “reflection involves an active exploration of experiences to gain new or greater understanding.”
  • Kemmis (1985) views reflection as both a process and a product.
  • Richards (et al, 2002) asserts that reflection is a “process of thinking back on and processing experience, in order to understand the significance of such experience.”
The Benefits of Reflection:
With the push toward reflection and meta-cognition, many are wondering if this is another example of the infamous pendulum, or if there is something more substantial behind this shift.
In Facilitating Reflection: A Manual for Leaders and Educators, authors Julie Reed and Christopher Koliba suggest that reflection allows us to “bend the metaphorical light of their experiences back onto their minds -- to make careful considerations about what their experience were all about …” By looking back on our previous experiences, we can make connections to new experiences and synthesize the two to create new understandings. “The act of reflection, therefore, becomes crucial to their education. It serves as the bridge between experiences and learning.”
"Constructivist teachers encourage students to constantly assess how the activity is helping them gain understanding. By questioning themselves and their strategies, students in the constructivist classroom ideally become "expert learners." This gives them ever-broadening tools to keep learning. With a well-planned classroom environment, the students learn HOW TO LEARN.

You might look at it as a spiral. When they continuously reflect on their experiences, students find their ideas gaining in complexity and power, and they develop increasingly strong abilities to integrate new information. One of the teacher's main roles becomes to encourage this learning and reflection process."
                                - from Concept to Classroom

Reflection through Journals
There are many tools available for teachers who are interested in explored reflection in their own classrooms, including the use of journals. In my own Grade 7 ELA classroom, I used a dual-journaling notebook. Students set aside one part of the notebook as a Personal Journal, where the writing they did was strictly confidential. The other half of the journal was designed as a Dialogue Journal, where the students and I would correspond about topics, and issues current to their lives. I would post a topic and ask students to respond in the journal. Then students would turn in their journals to me and I would reply.
For me, the benefits of the Dialogue Journal were immediately evident. Shy students opened up and shared their feelings and opinions in a way that they would not in the regular classroom. I felt that I was able to build stronger relationships with all my students using this tool. The students also loved the Dialogue Journal and were eager to get their journals back so they could read my comments.
Jan Herrington’s study supports my own classroom experience as to the many benefits of self-reflection through journals, such as:
·         Develops writing skills
·         Allows students to connect with course content
·         Promotes critical thinking and original thinking
·         Offers students new perspectives on their own learning processes (meta-cognition)
·         Permits confidential communication between student and teacher
But reflection is no longer a singular, solitary process. Christopher John’s (1994) model explores the benefits of sharing reflections as a means of building community and the importance of “situatedness.” It seems that technology has opened up journal writing and reflection to a wider audience with the use of blogs.  Regardless of the tool implemented for reflection, this strategy is definitely worth a second look.


  1. What a wonderful post, Jade! You point out, and I agree, that reflection is multifaceted. In fact it is scaffolded. I really appreciate how you have pointed out that reflection is important not just for learners, but also for teachers, and the practical advice on how to reflect is excellent.

    I'm rewriting this because I blew away my previous comment by accident - the esc button jumped up and bit me.

    I wanted to offer one additional thought to the great ideas you have here. I sometimes wonder if reflection happens at the institutional level. The institutions of education ask educators, communities, schools, and divisions to reflect quite often, most regularly on curriculum or assessment changes they are introducing. Nothing wrong with that. Teachers are among the most reflective people I know. If you want to test it, just go to a party with a bunch of them and get them talking about their kids or the administration of the school division. You can't turn off the tap!

    But I wonder if there is enough fundamental reflection happening at the institutional level. Does Sask Ed or Alberta Ed, or even federal institutions supporting education go through the kind of deep reflection they should about the very structure of our systems of learning, and whether they are appropriate given social changes we see all around us.

    I think this is a plague visited on educational technology types. We see so many opportunities, needs, and even dangers emerging from the dramatic changes we see happening. We know that technology, and the larger social change it is part of, is a canary in the coal mine. Big changes are underway in society, and it seems as though our systems of education, at the highest levels, are resisting the change. At least, that's the way it seems to me.

    We've got a big job to do.

  2. Diana Mae BoychukAugust 6, 2011 at 7:05 PM

    The wonderful part of getting older is making connections between current experiences and experiences of the past, many of which may not seem to be related at first glance. When I think of reflecting/reflection, that's the first thing to come to mind; a self-view, so-to-speak.

    The second thing I think about is how that process of making connections builds on the knowledge and understanding that we all have. That's what I love the best about teaching, sharing the process of taking apparently unrelated random things and showing the connections.

    My personal experience as a teacher is very different from most in that my students are simply voices on telephone conference calls, and my 'classroom' is my kitchen. So when you mentioned reflection as a way to build community, my ears really perked up! I have not set up any formal journal communications with my students (yet!), but I have engaged in informal communication with several individuals via email, and in the comments I write on assignments.

    There are challenges in the format because much of the communication is through the mail, but for me, this strategy could certainly be used to increase reflection, learning, meta-cognition, critical thinking and community building.

    Thanks for this, Jade, I am definitely going to add some journal writing to my formative assessment toolbox this year!