I am a former history major who has taught history for the past 14 years, so it should come as no surprise that I see value in reflection.
Studying history is just that: reflecting on the people of the past, looking at the choices they made, the outcomes, and comparing them to our own choices so that we can better understand ourselves as we make meaning of our own lives. But just as not everyone sees the value in history, not everyone sees the importance of reflection.
In our fast-paced world, where so much emphasis is placed on ideas like “progress” and “new,” it’s no wonder that few people appreciate the pause button that the art of reflection provides. As computers, phones, and TV screens increasingly become extensions of our bodies, it is even more necessary to make time to reflect and to feel. If we’re not reflecting, we’re not feeling, and we rely on rote habits, becoming almost mindless as we move through our lives.
Well ahead of his time, the great education leader John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on the experience.” I couldn’t agree with him more!
For teachers, providing students with opportunities to “think about thinking” can look a lot of different ways:
Discussions offer valuable opportunities for students to talk about how they arrived at an answer, to discuss why they think the way they do, and to learn from their peers. Discussions also offer opportunities to see flaws in thinking.
Interviews provide opportunities to question each other over what has been learned. They also show students how to listen with understanding and build empathy, and strengthen skills like communicating with clarity and precision, and assist in their questioning.
Questions, well designed, provoke higher level thinking, metacognition, and analysis. They force students to think about the “hows” and the “whys” of the issue which generate a deeper understanding.
Logs and journals are writing activities that allow opportunities for reflection and, if re-read at a later date, provide opportunities to reflect on growth and change.
But for our students, reflection must be taught.
It takes time and it requires looking in, instead of out. For many students raised on screens, this idea is new and it’s extremely difficult. Think about what the habit of reflection is competing against (phones and apps, commercial-free music and binge TV) and what it’s asking them to do (be still and quiet and comfortable with yourself).
But getting students to put down the phone, shut off the TV, and become comfortable with quiet, stillness, and their own self has so many benefits:
- Reflection helps students take charge of their own learning. Kids who regularly practice reflection see themselves as an important component to their learning process.
- Students who reflect on their thinking and learning are more empathetic and more easily able to take on the perspectives of others real or imaginary. Reflection forces its participants to reconnect with human emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, disappointment. Constant distraction from devices makes it easy for people to escape these feelings. Reflection reconnects us to our humanity.
- Students who practice reflection absorb more of the material than students who just push through without digesting. When reflection is part of the student’s experience, they make connections between learning experiences.
- Reflection allows teachers to better design their teaching as it reveals how students understood material. Teachers who use reflection as part of the learning process are able to adjust their teaching as gaps appear.
- Reflection gives students the safe space to write, think, talk about how they are learning without the stigma of a grade and thereby gives them more ownership over their learning.
What does this look in the history department at Morgan Park Academy?
In the history classes, we are working on teaching our students how to be cognitive of their learning and practice introspection.
In sixth-grade English and history classes, at the end of a unit, students take a class period to write a reflection over what they learned. They are instructed to “think about how they think,” how they learned, and how they worked for that period of time.
This thoughtful writing activity allows students to pause and consider what they did, what was successful (or not), and what they would do differently next time. It opens the door to goal setting and gives them an opportunity to show how ideas connect. It also allows teachers a window to their mind.
In eighth- and 10th-grade history, we ask students to set a daily goal for themselves. At the end of class each student gives himself a grade on how successful they were at achieving that goal.
This requires students to reflect on how productive they were during that class and gives them both immediate feedback and reinforces the idea that they are the ones in control of their own learning.
Over Thanksgiving — a holiday, I’d point out, that is predicated on reflection — Upper School world history students conducted interviews with family members. This assignment incorporated reflection at multiple points, allowing interviewees to reflect on their lives, students to reflect on their interview, and gave students the opportunity to reflect on the process as a whole. Sixth-grade students and their grandparents over the break reflected on privilege with an activity that used crumpled paper and a trash can.
Activities like these force students to slow down, and to see themselves as active participants of their learning and to be critical of their learning, their work, and their effort. Learning isn’t just something that happens to them. It happens because of them — an important difference.
Reflection is an critical part of the learning process because it requires us to ask difficult questions like, “Where are we going?” and more important, “Is what we’re currently doing working?”
Reflection requires us to examine our methods and their success, and quite often it requires us to stomach their lack of success, which happens more than we’d like to admit.
Not surprisingly, this is another reason why reflection makes us so uncomfortable. But without opportunities to reflect, both in school and in life, we may be moving forward, but we may not even be on the right path?
That’s why I am more committed than ever, as our lives getting busier and busier, to protecting “the pause” in the process of learning — and living.
By Colleen Amberg
Mrs. Amberg teaches English and social studies in the Middle School and is MPA’s curriculum leader for social studies. She also directs global studies for the Middle School.