Thursday, 8 March 2012

The importance of reflecting for, in, and on learning

How often do you take time out to reflect on the day's activities? Sometimes I find I haven't had time to think back about anything until the moment my head hits the pillow.

Well our students are just the same, only more often than not, they are not as experienced at understanding themselves and their actions. This is true not only of their day-to-day lives, but also in reflecting on their learning. And regardless of our teaching philosophies, whether we espouse Social Constructivist approaches or 'newer' models such as 'Connectivism' or 'Connected Learning', students can still attend lectures and lab sessions but not necessarily situate that learning in the wider context, or consider its practical application. Learners do not necessarily, and certainly not automatically, realise their tacit understanding, or engage in deep and meaningful learning.

Engaging learners in critical and transformative reflection therefore, is a key skill across many disciplines (see Schon, 1987; Driscoll, 1994; Brookfield, 1995; Fry,, 1999; Johns, 2005; Biggs and Tang, 2007). The various models of reflection (which will seem common in teacher training or in healthcare),  encourage learners to reflect on solid experiences, but we can quite easily adapt these or create new models to encourage reflection on various topics. For example, I recently created a set of Heuristics (strictly speaking that's for (software) Evaluation), but they supported learner's reflection on coursework, and required them to score each Heuristic with either 0, 1 or 2 points. What's good here, is that the scores are not being assessed, but the reflections. To make this really 'transformational', I could get students to do this reflection before assessments, in order to enable 'feedforward' into other coursework pieces (see, I'm reflecting on my teaching whilst blogging about reflection).

You see, reflection is often emphasised in the vocations I mentioned above, but as far as I am concerned, everyone in every discipline should be reflective practitioners in order to continually improve in whatever job they do.

The technology to support such critical and transformational learning, is in abundance; generally the VLE (whether that's Moodle, WebCT, Blackboard, Sakai, or some other platform) offers a range of tools such as discussion forums, blogs, wikis and private journals. And if those tools aren't suited, free tools on the web might solve the problem - you can use BloggerWordpress or Posterous to create free blogs, and the likes of PBWorks to create wikis. Or even use YouTube as a way to record thoughts and reflections and share with peers (or even a global audience - I do this regularly; not in relation to learning, but rather my beloved Everton FC). None of these are technically difficult at all. No, really!

It is important to recognise however, that the technology is not the key player in encouraging reflection, meta-cognition or deep learning. It's probably the least important. Rather, we need to introduce learners to the concept of reflection beyond a basic recount of a situation, and provide a structure for them to engage thoughtfully. Technology comes in to support these processes and encourage learners to capture reflections anytime, anywhere. More open methods of sharing such reflections - think YouTube, Vimeo, or online Communities of Practice - enables learners to become creators of knowledge as well.

This concept of reflection, leading on to the construction and sharing of knowledge, reminds me of a quote from John Seeley Brown's recent keynote - Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner in the 21st Century - at the Digital Media and Learning (DML) 2012 conference;
"In a world of constant flux learning has as much to do with creating the new as learning the old and hence the tacit starts to take on increasing importance."
For me, taking the time to think about where we are, what we're doing, and how things could be different (better?) is critical to enhance learning and contribute to the creation of new knowledge.

What methods do you employ to encourage students to take stock of learning, sit back and reflect? What technologies do you use to support and encourage this?

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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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