Reflection – a critical step in learning


I have a new transfer student in my chemistry class.  Yesterday, I overheard her talking to her classmates about her previous science class.  She said something along the lines of,

“we did a lot of experiments where we had to design our own experiment and write lab reports about it.  We didn’t really learn anything, though.”

Hearing this, I had a couple of thoughts:

The first was that this teacher may have had his or her students doing experiments for the sake of learning “THE Scientific Method.”  I was often guilty of this during my first couple of years of teaching.  Kids would to inane experiments like testing which type of bubble gum had the longest lasting flavor.  Afterwards, both they and I felt like they hadn’t learned much.

The second was that, even if they were doing experiments based around rigorous content, they probably were missing out of the key step of reflection!

Reflection is a critical step in the learning process. It is also one of the most overlooked steps. At the culmination of any learning experience, students should reflect on that experience. This enhances metacognition and helps to “lock in” learning.

I like to have my students reflect on a variety of things at the end of a project or inquiry experience. I ask them to reflective questions, such as:

  • What did you learn about content? (this is usually specific to the main topic of the project or inquiry experience)
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What did you learn about doing a project? (this is sometimes specific to they type of product but not always)
  • If you had it to do over, what would you have done differently?

Why is reflection so important?

One of the biggest reasons that I have noticed is that when I shortchange reflection, I sometimes hear comments like,

“we did all of that work and I didn’t learn anything,” or, “that project was boring because we didn’t really learn any science.”

Conversely, when we spend adequate time reflecting on the content, process, product and their effort, students tend to say (or write) comments like,

“I can’t believe how much I learned from this project. It was really hard and at first I thought I couldn’t do it. Now I know I can!”

When they spend time elaborating what they have learned, I find that I can tell a LOT about their learning just by reading their reflections. They refer to content learned and how and why they learned it is ways that leave no doubt that they now own that knowledge.

That’s what all teachers want right?

Photo used under cc license from the flickr stream of Jim Moran

Socratic seminars in science class

I love socratic seminars.  I have done several in the past few years and, every time I do one, I say, “I need to do more of these!”  The students learn so much from these rich discussions, both about the topic and about civil discourse.  Socratic seminars help to set up a positive culture in the classroom, as well as fostering Habits of Mind (Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Listening With Understanding and Empathy).

What is a socratic seminar?

A socratic seminar is an informal group discussion where the teacher acts as a facilitator (ideally by only asking questions – and the less, the better) while the students have a discussion.  The discussion can center around a piece of reading, a current news issue, an idea or ideal, or just an engaging question.  The key, though, really is the engagement.  The topic has to be one that students want to talk about – preferably argue about.

a great place for a socratic seminar?

a good place for a socratic seminar?

How do you do a socratic seminar?

From the teacher side of things, I like to plan a few key questions to ask about the topic of discussion (I may or may not ask all of them).  The students will have some background knowledge prior to the seminar – could be from a text that they read, a video that they watched, a lab, whatever.  I like to have the students bring their chairs into a large circle (you might have to clear space for this – or do it outside; outdoor socratic seminars rock!).  You then set the ground rules for the discussion (no interrupting, be respectful, no side conversations, etc.) and ask the BIG QUESTION – the main topic of the discussion.

What is it like?

When it’s working, the students are arguing respectfully, agreeing and disagreeing, building on each others’ points, and referring to prior knowledge or creating new knowledge collectively.  Once in a while, I remind students of protocols or norms if they get too fired up.  Occasionally, I throw out another question to keep the conversation going or steer it back on task.  I do my best to resist the urge to state my knowledge or opinions on a matter – even if they are begging for it.  It’s not about me!

Okay, I get it.  But, in SCIENCE class???

What better way to help students to understand the process of science than to get them arguing?  The key is to teach them to challenge each others’ claims respectfully (How do you know that? What is your evidence? Where did your evidence come from? Is it dependable evidence?)

How do I start?

You start by doing three of them.  With the same class.  Relatively close together.  Not one or two.

Yes, three.  One for you to screw up and for them to be confused.  A second one for you to facilitate better and for them to still be confused.  A third to get a decent feel for how this should really go.

Habits of Mind

I recently made an awesome discovery: “Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind” edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick.

The most amazing thing about this book is the way that it takes something so important and makes you feel like you should have seen it all along… like it was right in front of your face and you just didn’t see it.

I am an extremely firm believer in the concept that intelligence is not fixed.  In other words, students can get “smarter.”  Intelligence is not an innate trait that we either do or do not have.  In fact, I tell my students all the time that as they learn something new, they are actually getting smarter because their brain is changing to adapt to this new information.

Costa and Callick make this argument very eloquently right off the bat in Chapter 1:

When people view their intelligence as a fixed and unchangeable entity, they strive to obtain positive evaluations of their ability and to avoid displaying evidence of inadequate ability. They believe their intelligence is demonstrated in task performance: they either have or lack ability. This negative self-concept influences effort. Effort and ability are negatively related in determining achievement, and having to expend great effort with a task is taken as a sign of low ability.

We have all seen this exact phenomenon in our classrooms with students at all developmental levels and all levels of achievement.  The point is that we need to convince our students that their intelligence can change, both positively and negatively.  As teachers, school personnel, coaches, parents, etc., we must view ourselves as intelligence mentors.

We need to develop learning goals that reflect the belief that ability is a continuously expandable repertoire of skills, and that through a person’s efforts, intelligence grows incrementally.

What happens when we help students and children to make this shift?

When people think of their intelligence as something that grows incrementally, they are more likely to invest the energy to learn something new or to increase their understanding and mastery of tasks.

How do we do it?

Children develop cognitive strategies and effort based beliefs about their intelligence – the habits of mind associated with higher-order learning – when they continually are pressed to raise questions, accept challenges, find solutions that are not immediately apparent, explain concepts, justify their reasonings, and seek information. When we hold children accountable for this kind of intelligent behavior, they take it as a signal that we think they are smart, and they come to accept this judgment.

The beauty of the Habits of Mind is that they work across all curricular areas and at all grade levels.  This is not content specific, nor is it specific to one type of instruction.  I personally see a very strong fit between the Habits and Project Based Learning but that is partly due to my own personal bias.  All teachers in all schools in all contexts can help their students to become more intelligent by explicitly teaching them how intelligent people think.

How can you integrate the Habits of Mind into your school, classroom, home, or curriculum?