November 4th, 2011

Making Time for Reflection


We are all so busy. We race from task to task. We attempt to multi-task; dividing and depleting our energies. How many times do we arrive in class breathless with hardly a moment to think about what we have planned for the day? I harbor no illusions that a blog entry is going to change our lives, but I would like to use this one to reiterate the need to make time for reflection, for contemplation about what we do, and how and why we do it. The value of doing so is laid out clearly in a new book, A Teacher’s Reflection Book: Exercises, Stories, Invitations by Jean Koh Peters and Mark Weisberg.

The point these authors make is a simple one: if we want to learn from experience, then we must reflect on it. “Reflection recovers meaning from moments past.” (p. 26) It does so in four ways.

Reflection integrates. It’s a way to take the fragments of a day, a week, a course, several courses, or a whole semester and pull those separate experiences together. What happens in one course on one day may well be connected to what happened another day in another course. What happens with one group of students may be explained by what has happened with other students, but separated by time, space and intervening activity, the links are easily missed.

Reflection takes stock. It “creates a moment for seeing where we’ve been, remembering where we are going, and remembering why we are on the road in the first place.” (p. 27) These are moments which enable us to put some perspective on difficult days, challenging students and less than supportive administrators. They build our sense of the larger picture so we can more easily separate the significant from the insignificant.

Reflection helps continue our learning as well as our teaching. “As teachers we constantly are called on to deliver, to offer, to give. Reflection allows us to receive, to absorb, to take from our experience and that way to continue growing.” (p. 27) Teachers are dedicated to learning, especially to learning more of the content we love and in every field there is so much of that to be learned. We know how to study and learn from the work of others as well as our own. Most of us are less skilled at learning from experience. Its lessons grow out of who we are and how what we know is presented to learners. To learn its lessons, experiences must be confronted openly and honestly.

Finally these authors propose that reflection transcends the constraints of action and peer pressure. Reflection occurs in a private space. In that space what is learned can more easily be defined by the learner. Reflection is about listening to what you have to say.

Sometimes I think we make too big a deal out of reflection. It has to be critical. It has to reveal hidden assumptions and result in big changes. Reflection can be transformative and sometimes we need to use to it search our souls. But other times we just need to slow down, pause and think quietly about what has happened. Experience is there to be learned from and some of its lessons are easy if we just take a few moments and reflect on what we might be learning from this class, these students and our lives at this time.

Reference: Peters, J. K. and Weisberg, M. A Teacher’s Reflection Book: Exercises, Stories, Invitations. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2011.