16 October 2017

What does it mean to be a reflective learner?

Recently at assembly I discussed with the boys what it is to be a reflective learner. Returning from a break and entering the final term of this academic year we all have an opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved. I would like to think that this would be an automatic consideration within the academic domain, but might also apply to one's progress within the co-curricular programme; which team or position do I play, was this my goal? Have I contributed within an ensemble or mastered a piece of music as I had hoped? Did I actually take the opportunity to be involved in Debating or Chess?

Learning to be reflective is, in its simplest form, taking the time to think about what you did and how effective was this practice. It is closely linked to the concept of learning from experience, in that you think about what you did, and what happened, and decide from that what you would do differently next time.

Thinking about what has happened is a natural part of being human, however, there is a difference between casual 'thinking' and 'reflective practice'. That is, reflective practice requires a conscious effort to think about events and develop insights into them. It may also require us to change behaviour and, in some cases, break bad habits. Psychologists tell us that it takes 21 days to establish (or break) a habit. This is where the conscious effort comes into reflective practice.

Self-reflection is a particularly important skill in learning and when receiving feedback in assessments as it provides an opportunity to review, reflect and apply change to those practices which are not supplying the desired outcomes.

So, what can be done to help develop the critical, constructive and creative thinking that is necessary for reflective practice?

Neil Thompson, in his book People Skills, suggests that there are six steps:

  1. Read - read around the topics you are learning about or want to learn about and develop
  2. Ask - ask others about the way they do things and why
  3. Watch - watch what is going on around you
  4. Feel - pay attention to your emotions, what prompts them, and how you deal with negative ones
  5. Talk - share your views and experiences with others
  6. Think - learn to value time spent thinking about your work

Therefore, it is not just the thinking that is important. One needs to develop an understanding of the theory and others' practice too, and explore ideas with others. You may also notice that these steps align very nicely with the International Baccalaureate Approaches to Learning which are a part of the teaching and learning programme at Scotch College.

Further to this, it supports the notion that reflective practice can be a shared activity. Some social psychologists suggest that learning only occurs when thought is put into language, either written or spoken and has implications for reflective practice. That is, thoughts not clearly articulated may not endure.

Yogi Bhajan - yogi and spiritual teacher who introduced Kundalini Yoga to the United States maybe said it best when he said,

"If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it." Sharing and taking the time to teach another gives you that opportunity. So even if there is a competitive component to performance in your subjects you could be improving your performance by assisting others.

Being a reflective learner and taking the time to actively reflect on your practice is a tool for improving your learning, both in relation to your school work and life experiences. Although it will take time to adopt and maintain the techniques, especially when you suffer a disappointment, taking the time to reflect upon your practices and seek guidance from others will ultimately produce greater outcomes in the future.

Mr Dean Shadgett
Head of Senior School