Why critical reflection is the best approach to solving 21st Century learning hiccups

Most of the time, our classes run smoothly as planned and we feel elated to have contributed to student learning. However, there are equally not-so-good moments when a discussion does not go anywhere, when a group can’t seem to work together, when the grades were unexpected, or when not all that many students were paying attention. When we experience such moments, do we wallow in grief or critically reflect on how to improve our practices?

When things don’t go as planned or turn out as expected, the first response tends to be emotional—anger, embarrassment, frustration, disappointment. After riding the emotional wave, it’s easy to just let the tide go out. But when things go awry, those are times when critical reflection can offer insights that lead to learning. The truth is that cultivating accurate self-assessment is a challenge, whether you’re a student or the teacher. Objectivity is often hard when the analysis focuses on what happened and your role in it. Some folks never do find their way to that place where they can accurately see what happened, how they contributed to it, and what perhaps they should have done differently. And yet, being able to honestly confront reality makes it possible to learn from experience, whether good or bad.

Part of the needed perceptive analysis comes with maturity, which is why so many of our younger students don’t have it. Most of them default to blame—the teacher, the textbook, fellow classmates, the course, the department, the school—almost anybody or anything but not themselves. A few teachers have been known to do the same—blame the students, the department, course evaluations, research requirements, low pay or large classes. Many factors do influence what happens in any situation, but routinely leaving oneself out of the equation is not a mature, growth-promoting response.

Is the ability to confront oneself a skill? Can it be learned? Can it be taught? I’d say yes to all, and I also think teachers can play a significant role in helping students develop the ability to accurately assess what happened and their part in it. This can be accomplished by raising the question, providing space for reflection, and following up with written responses or conversation. For example, students could be asked to consider an important incident that occurred within a group and write briefly describing what happened. They can answer questions like these: What did you do as this event unfolded? Would you do the same thing if something like this happened in another group? Are there other actions you could have taken? Would any of those actions improve what happened?

A version of this could involve any number of class activities and events. For example, consider one of those days when the discussion never got off the ground. What happened? Why did it happen? How do we keep it from happening again? With the teacher exhibiting this kind of response, the conversation may help students see that when a discussion is “boring” and they’re not participating, they are part of the problem. When students would complain to me that someone in the group wasn’t participating, I’d turn it around to them. Yes, that group member is part of the problem, but what could you be doing differently? Did you or anyone else in the group invite the person to share his or her opinion?

This doesn’t always have to be negative. Some students (and teachers) have trouble giving themselves credit for making a difference, for seeing what needs to be done and stepping up to the plate. Small assignments and short discussions that regularly ask what happened help all of us become keen observers who pay attention to what’s happening and understand that whatever we do or don’t do plays a role in the outcome.

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