Saturday, 7 June 2014

Reflecting on reflections

Reflecting is hard, really hard! It requires an honesty with yourself, an ability to take a step back from what you've done (that you have a personal attachment to) and to think deeply about how successful you've been. Ideally it should also involve some diagnosis on why you have/haven't been successful, and what you might do differently the next time you face a similar situation.

Good reflection is really high order thinking
If you consider where the skills required or the type of thinking for reflection lie in Bloom's taxonomy then it's the top end, high order thinking. You have to analyse and evaluate your performance, and then create ideas on how to improve.
Picture from's_taxonomy
Some people don't particularly like Blooms and might want to lob rocks at anything that refers to it. If you'd prefer to use an alternative taxonomy like SOLO (see here) then we're still talking the higher end Relational and Extended Abstract type of thinking. Anyone involved in reflection needs to make links between various areas of understanding, and ideally extend this into a what if situation for the future. Basically use whatever taxonomy of thinking you like and reflection/metacognition is right at the top in terms of difficulty.

The reason I am talking about this is that one of the things I keep seeing on twitter and also in observation feedback, work scrutiny evaluations and so on or are comments about poor quality self assessment & reflections from students.

Sometimes this is a teacher getting frustrated when students asked to reflect just end up writing comments like "I understood it," "I didn't get it" or "I did ok." Other times it is someone reviewing books that might suggest that the student's reflections don't indicate that they know what they need to do to improve.

It often crops up, and one of the ways I most often hear about it is when someone is first trying out RAG123 marking (Not heard of RAG123? - see here, here and then any of these). This structure for marking gives so many opportunities for self assessment and dialogue that the teacher sees lots of relatively poor reflective comments in one go and finds it frustrating.

Now having thought about the type of thinking required for good reflection is it a real surprise that a lot of students struggle? To ask a group to reflect is pushing them to a really high level of thought. Asking the question is completely valid, it's good to pose high order questions, but we really shouldn't be surprised if we get low order answers even from very able students, and particularly from weaker students. Some may not yet have the cognitive capacity to make a high quality response, for others it might be a straight vocabulary/literacy issue - students can't talk about something coherently unless they have the appropriate words at their disposal.

Is it just students?
The truth is that many adults struggle to reflect well. Some people struggle to see how good things actually were because they get hung up on the bad things. Others struggle to see the bad bits because they are distracted by the good bits. Even then many will struggle to do the diagnosis side and look for ways to improve. It's difficult to recognise flaws in yourself, and often even harder to come up with an alternative method that will improve things. If we all found it easy then the role of coaches and mentors would be redundant.

As part of thinking about how well our students are reflecting perhaps we should all take a little time to think about how good we are at reflecting on our own practice? How honest are we with ourselves? How objective are we? How constructive are we in terms of making and applying changes as a result of our reflections?

Don't stop just because it's difficult
Vitally just because students struggle to reflect in a coherent or high order way doesn't mean we should stop asking them to reflect. But we shouldn't be foolish enough to expect a spectacularly insightful self assessment from students the first time they try it. As with any cognitive process we should give them support to help them to structure their reflections. This support is the same kind of scaffolding that may be needed for any other learning:

Model it: Show them some examples of good reflection. Perhaps even demonstrate it in front of the class by reflecting on the lesson you've just taught?
Give a foothold: Sentences are easier to finish than to start - perhaps give them a sentence starter, or a choice of sentence starters - the improvement in quality is massive (See this post for some ideas on this)
Give feedback on the reflections: As part of responding to the reflections in marking dialogue give guidance on how they could improve their reflections and not just their work.
Give time for them to improve: A given group of students that have never self assessed before shouldn't be expected to do it perfectly, but we should expect them to get better at it given time and guidance.

As ever I'd be keen to know your thoughts, your experiences and if you've got any other suggestions....

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