My Most Important Pedagogical Change of the Year: Encouraging Real Reflection

This is my third year as a gardener. The first was trial and a lot of error. The second was passable. But this year, my garden is pacing nearly a month ahead of last year, despite a colder than average spring. The reason for my increase in yields and growth? Fall preparation.

In my first two years, I stopped when my garden stopped, leaving the dead and dried plant husks to weather the cold and snowy months. But last fall I decided to properly ready my beds for the harsh Michigan winter. With the new school year blossoming, I didn’t exactly have the time to spend in a garden that was no longer producing, but I knew the old gardening adage that fall preparation equaled spring success, and I really wanted a more successful year three. So I found the time to pull plants, install cover crops, and nourish the soil, and this year I couldn’t believe it as my little shoots stormed out of the ground and into the sky.

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The view from my garden

I’ve found the principle that end of season preparation equals increased success the next season to be as true for teachers as it is for gardeners. I’ve learned the hard way that when I just drop everything in my classroom at the end of the year and tell myself I’ll do it during the summer, that never really happens and I come into school scrambling and playing catch-up instead of growing my pedagogy. And in the years when I properly prepared before turning off for the summer, I found the benefits and time saved in the fall to more than make up for the time invested in the spring.

So it is with that eye towards next year that over the next three weeks, I’m going to examine three practices that I hope to do even better next year. To begin, I want to talk about something that made serious waves in my classroom this year and I think holds the potential to completely reshape my teaching next year: Reflection


Reflection is something I’ve long spoken of as a “key” to learning, and I have always had students engage in reflection. But if I’m being honest, until recently, reflection actually played a relatively minor role in my classroom. Of course, I didn’t feel that way at the time; I really though that I was making my students reflect a lot. I always gave students time to read and process each paper I handed back, I often had them write a few lines on what they should work on the next time, and I sometimes had them reflect on their overall skill set. But if I added it all up, students probably reflected no more than five or ten minutes in any given week, and that isn’t exactly a lot. 

In the fall, I wrote a post on reflection after attending a session by the Paper Graders called “Stop Grading, Start Reflecting” at NCTE. In that post I included a quote that I think perfectly sums up why I (and numerous other teachers) tend to have minimal reflection, even when we recognize the important role reflection plays in learning. The quote is from Learning Through Reflection by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick: 

Most classrooms are oriented more to the present and the future than to the past. Such an orientation means that students (and teachers) find it easier to discard what has happened and to move on without taking stock of the seemingly isolated experiences of the past.

That was absolutely me. I understood the value of reflection, but my sight was always set on the horizon. That next lesson or paper was the priority, and so the handful of minutes given to students on occasion to reflect felt like more than enough.

But if we truly want reflection to help students, a couple minutes is not enough. In his wonderful book Why Don’t Students Like School?  Daniel Willingham says that                    “[knowledge] is the residue of thought.” What he means is that unless we are born with exceptional gifts, we only have space to store a fraction of what we encounter on a daily basis. The test for which of the would-be information gets admitted into the halls of memory? It is how much attention we pay to the information. If we don’t spend much time thinking about something, the brain deems it unlikely to matter and thus tends to wipe it from our memory. On the other hand, if we do spend time thinking about something, it is probably worth remembering and thus begins the process of learning.

This is why significant and serious reflection on the part of students is needed. If we only have them nod towards reflection, the odds are that most of their brains will make a quiet calculus that what they are doing doesn’t matter enough to be let into memory and thus the momentary lessons in their short reflections will be gone well before they write their next papers.

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My initial plan to beef up reflection in my classes was to do what the Paper Graders do (see right), which is to have students keep a journal of setbacks and gains that is filled out each week. I quickly found though that this system didn’t quite work for me, as the vast majority of my classes are done on computers and Google Drive and I struggled to find a consistent time for them to fill out their notebooks, as my class time is already pretty packed. Further, I really wanted them to deep-dive into the reflections in an effort to maximize their effectiveness. So instead I had students do a reflection every month that looked like the following:

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A pdf of Growth Reflection #1

It is rare in teaching to find something that make an instant, tangible impact on one’s classroom. Article of the Week did this, switching from summative to formative feedback did this, and these reflections did this. After reflecting for 20 or 30 minutes, students were much more aware of their strengths and growth areas and they suddenly acquired a newfound vocabulary to discuss their writing. Here are just a few examples of the types of things they said:

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Until this point, I could count on one finger the number of times I’d heard students talk about writing in the fashion seen above, but after the reflections, this discourse became the norm with many of the students. These documents also became really useful resources for me to call upon when responding to their work.

My goal for next year is to find a way to further interweave reflection into the heart of my classroom. The deep-dive reflections are a great start, but I have a feeling this is an area with a wealth of untapped potential.

As always, I will keep you posted, and please do the same with your work with reflections; I’d love to hear what other amazing ideas are out there for truly making reflection a core element of the classroom!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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