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4 minute read

Four things that won’t spark student reflection – and one that will

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on September 24, 2015
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In the fall of my third year of teaching, I developed an acute love-hate relationship with math.

The love? I took in a series of incredible math PD sessions (the best of my career) put on by the Galileo Educational Network. They left me smitten with the idea of taking students beyond the drive to find the right answers and teaching them to actually reflect on the relationship between the numbers and the workings of life.

The hate? I’d try to put this new approach into practice and, almost every time, my attempts to teach reflection fell flat. I blamed the PD for being unrealistic (though as a participant I still loved it), and found myself returning to skills and drills to manage my large, rambunctious class. It took a comment from my teaching partner to change my path. He pointed out that though I was trying to innovate, the format was the same – me dictating the problem to solve, dictating the approach, dictating the required reflection. Students had no more ownership than when they were completing pages of long division.

It prompted me to take a deeper dive into my own practice and sparked some bigger changes. And now the memory has me thinking – what other common approaches to teaching reflection immediately doom us to failure? Here’s my top four:


1. Require every student reflection to be written down

Putting thoughts into writing can be challenging. I remember one student – a passionate history buff – who could detail the strategy behind every World War II troop movement but acted like putting any idea to paper was akin to pulling teeth. 

Know that it can be just as effective for students to reflect in other ways. Let them video interview each other. Use a speech-to-text app on a tablet to kick-start a first draft. Choose technology solutions that make it easy for students to express themselves with sketches or images. Sometimes it’s necessary to focus on writing skills – but when it’s not, find another way for students to show their thinking.


2. Send the message that tests are what counts

Students are savvy – they know that one sure way to see what really matters in school is to look at what counts on their report card. So even if lip service is paid to the importance of reflection, they’ll notice if standardized tests are all anyone’s talking about.

Show students that it’s not just tests that count. Share student reflections with parents using a digital portfolio or LMS so they can see that correct answers aren’t the only valued outcome of learning. Model how to reflect deeply but also give clear feedback when student commentary only scratches the surface. 


3. Be unwilling to give up control

I made a fundamental mistake when I was trying to bring reflection to my math class – I tried to change how my students learned without changing how I taught. Simply inserting “reflection time” into an otherwise traditional teaching approach undermines authenticity. And if students aren’t being real in their reflections, it’s a waste of time.

So hand over the reins to your students sometimes. Incorporating self-directed learning doesn’t have to be a radical change that happens all at once. But forward progress is important – and your students will notice. 


4. Make sure reflection happens when you say it happens

When was the last time you paused to reflect on your teaching? Was it while lying awake at night? In the shower? Waiting for your kids to finish soccer practice? Opportunities for reflection can occur at any time, and we do our kids a huge disservice if we schedule their contemplation like it’s a gym class. 

That’s not to say we shouldn’t set aside some time dedicated to reflection. But the greater expectation should be that students reflect in the moment. If scheduled intervals in class are the only chance they get to stop and record their thoughts, the practice will never become ingrained. And learning to reflect ultimately means learning to do it naturally, without anyone forcing it to happen.

These four things won’t work. But there is one thing you can start doing tomorrow to bring reflection into any classroom:

Reflection in the classroom

Model the reflection you seek from your students

It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, putting out one small fire after another without taking time to really consider what’s happening in your classroom. But if you want students to develop their reflection skills, it’s vital that you carve out some time to hone your own.

Try to use all the skills that you want your students to employ. Articulate your thoughts about your own practice, in a blog, on Twitter or in a journal. Find a great PD session or a webinar that changes your thinking. Get an outside perspective – when I was struggling with my math class, a fresh opinion made all the difference.

Then let your students see behind the curtain, at least a little bit. Be honest about some of your struggles and how you’re working through them. Sharing your own reflective process is one of the most powerful ways to get students interested in theirs.

 

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