Saturday, 14 June 2014

Don't Just Stand There, Reflect on Something!

"Don't just do something, stand there!" 

That could just as easily have been the title of this post, except I wanted to get the critical word 'REFLECT' in there somewhere. The point is, in the midst of the frenetic pace that is our typical school today, it is rare occasion that anyone actually makes time to stop. Stop and think.

Reflection has to be one the hardest things to encourage students to do well, and yet, if we are serious about our students retaining what they learn, cultivating the self awareness that is at the heart of the UWCSEA Profile it's something we not only cannot afford to ignore, but something we need to make a regular, essential element of our classroom practice.

A common objection when this subject comes up is something along the lines of,

'I would if I could, if I had time' 

But as the research highlighted in this post highlights, the fact is, if you want the time you invest in teaching your students to really matter, if your students are going to have any hope of retaining, long term,  what they learn in your classroom, then

... you can't afford to ignore making time for your students to reflect on their learning

Why? Because they only learn by thinking about what they have learned.

The conversation about what kids need to know and to be able to do by the end of high school has gradually shifted over the past several years to emphasize not just rigorous content goals, but also less tangible skills, such as creative thinking, problem-solving and collaboration. That shift has brought schools that are practicing “deeper learning” into focus.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been a big supporter of this work, defining deeper learning as a model that focuses on critical thinking, communication, collaboration, academic mindsets and learning how to learn, all through rigorous content. New research conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) has found that the deeper learning model does have positive learning outcomes for students, regardless of their background.

“One of the things that we saw in these schools was that the teachers and students themselves were constantly engaged in thinking about what students were learning, and the students were reflecting on their learning and trying to improve it.”

Learning by thinking

Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance: a team of researchers from HEC Paris, Harvard Business School, and the University of North Carolina describe what they call the first empirical test of the effect of reflection on learning. By “reflection,” they mean taking time after a lesson to synthesize, abstract, or articulate the important points.

Participants completed a math brain teaser under time pressure and wrote about what strategy they used or might use in the future to solve the problem. This group did 18 percent better in a second-round test than their control-group counterparts, who were not given time to reflect. In the field study, groups of newly-hired customer-service agents undergoing job training were compared. Some were given 15 minutes at the end of each training day to reflect on the main things they had learned and write about at least two lessons. Those given time to think and reflect scored 23 percent better on their end-of-training assessment than those who were not. And these improvements weren't temporary—researchers found they lasted over time.

This study sheds more light on this practice than ever, and what follows is my attempt to sum up their findings as succinctly as I can.

Emphases and content [inside brackets] are mine.

You can access the original paper here.

Research on learning has primarily focused on the role of doing (experience) in fostering progress over time. In this paper, we propose that one of the critical components of learning is reflection, or the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience. Drawing on dual-process theory, we focus on the reflective dimension of the learning process and propose that learning can be augmented by deliberately focusing on thinking about what one has been doing. [...] We find a performance differential when comparing learning-by-doing alone to learning-by-doing coupled with reflection. Further, we hypothesize and find that the effect of reflection on learning is mediated by greater perceived self-efficacy. Together, our results shed light on the role of reflection as a powerful mechanism behind learning. (Abstract)

Individual learning can be augmented when individuals can not only “do” but also “think” about what they have been doing. In doing so, we depart from previous work equating direct learning with only learning-by-doing and introduce the construct of “learning-by-thinking”—i.e., learning that comes from reflection and articulation of the key lessons learned from experience. (p 4)

Reflection— is the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience. Reflecting on what has been learned makes experience more productive.

Reflection builds one's confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning. [Or appreciating ones own capacity, efficacy, achievements; eg, I am good at/better at ...] (p 5)

The automatic, unconscious process of learning generated by “doing” becomes more effective if deliberately coupled with the controlled, conscious attempt at learning by “thinking.” In doing so, we extend literature claiming that the capacity to reflect on action is necessary for practitioners to learn (Schön, 1983) [from surface to deep] (p 6)

It's not enough to just think about it, you have to express it, share it.

The process of transforming tacit into codified knowledge requires a cognitive investment that generates a deeper understanding of this knowledge. 

We contribute to this literature by providing empirical evidence of the benefits associated with knowledge codification and uncovering the mechanisms behind them. Our findings suggest that the benefits of codification are not affected whether its purpose is for self-reflection or for sharing know-how with others. [Whether it is a private diary, or whether it is a public journal, like a blog.]

The automatic, unconscious process of learning generated from experience is coupled with the controlled, conscious attempt at learning by reflection. (p 8)

The automatic, unconscious process of learning generated by doing can become more effective if deliberately coupled with controlled, conscious attempts at learning-by-thinking. In particular, we expect individuals to perform significantly better on subsequent tasks when they think about what they learned from the task they completed. (p 9)

Theories of knowledge codification (Cowan, David, and Foray, 2000; Nonaka, 1994; Nonaka and Von Krogh, 2009) shed light on another potential benefit to the knowledge holder of sharing knowledge. Those theories suggest that,

... the reflection effort needed to create the insights to be shared with a counterpart may end up generating a deeper understanding of the problem space itself. 

This deeper understanding benefits the knowledge holder in terms of improved problem-solving capacity. In particular, we would expect the improvement in problem-solving capacity generated by reflection aimed at sharing to be greater than the improvement generated by reflection alone. In other words, one can expect performance to increase the most when reflection and sharing, i.e., thinking and teaching, are coupled. This line of argument should be familiar to those who teach and subscribe to the adage that one learns the most on a subject by being forced to teach it. (p 10)

Though reflection entails the high opportunity cost of one's time, we argue and show that reflecting after completing tasks is no idle pursuit: it can powerfully enhance the learning process.

Learning, we find, can be augmented if one deliberately focuses on thinking about what one has been doing. In addition to showing a significant performance differential when comparing learning-by-doing alone to learning-by-doing coupled with reflection, we also demonstrate that the effect of reflection on learning is mediated by greater self-efficacy. (p 26)

Individual learning can be augmented when individuals can not only “do” but also “think” about what they have been doing.

Learning Journals

Our results also have important practical implications. In our field study we showed that taking time away from training [teaching] and reallocating that time to reflection actually improved individual performance. Companies [Schools] often use tools such as learning journals as a way to encourage reflection in training [teaching] and regular operations. Our personal experience is that individuals of all ages may not treat these exercises with much seriousness; however, our findings suggest that they should. Our study highlights that it may be possible to train [teach] and learn “smarter”, not “harder” (p 27)

Individual learning is enhanced by deliberately focusing on thinking about what one has been doing. 

Together, our results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey:

“We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.” 

Self-aware - Reflection

Practical pointers

So how does this look in our Learning Journals? As we use Google Sites as our learning platform, I've posted examples/models on our Google Site here

Reflection inline on a site page

Reflection as an ongoing journal within folder

In fact any file that is stored within Google Drive allows the ability to comment, and even have a reflective/feedback dialogue with within Drive:

Here's a slideshow of some possibilities to make this simple, and therefore easy to build into regular lessons:

Further Reading

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard
Getting into the Habit of Reflection
Purposeful Reflection
Learning Through Reflection

Or if you prefer, here are my annotated versions:


Di Stefano G, Gino F, Pisano GP, & Staats BR (2014). Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper, (14-093), 14-093. Chicago

Murdoch K (2005). Take a Moment: 40 frameworks for reflective thinking. Seastar Education Consulting.

Schön D (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books.