If you ask a realtor what the most important factor in home sales is, many will say, “location, location, location.” I believe that the most crucial step to learning is reflection. Reflection, reflection, reflection! This is when new skills and knowledge are cemented into place and the learner moves from “renting” the knowledge to “owning” it.
Ask any teacher when they really understood a difficult concept they teach and most will say, “after they have taught it a few times.” Teaching something is by nature a metacognitive activity that requires a great deal of reflection. To effectively teach something, you have to know it, yes, but to get other’s to understand it you have to think about what it takes to understand the concept and how you learned it (or might learn it). These are acts of reflection.
Most young teachers, in my experience, have significant gaps in their content knowledge. This is not for lack of schooling on the subjects, but for lack of application of the knowledge, or simply opportunities to reflect on that knowledge. The act of teaching and the reflection involved in prepping to teach a topic greatly enhances one’s understanding of complex topics. It is in this metacognitive act that the learning finally crystallizes. It is during the act of thinking about your thinking, or knowing how you know that one really, truly knows something.
Looking back on my schooling, and on a majority of my teaching, I find that reflection, however, is woefully lacking—both in my own practice and within the daily activities that I had students complete during class. This has become apparent to me now that I am teaching new subjects at a new level, having moved from teaching high school biology to college level education courses. Boy, have I learned what I don’t know! As I conclude the first term of this new teaching experience, and prepare for the next term, I am becoming quite practiced in the act of reflection simply as a means of survival. My experience is that the really great teachers are constantly engaged in reflection about the content they are teaching and the method of their teaching. It is because of this reflective practice that they continue to learn and improve. So I reflect.
Yet, how often do teachers purposefully have students reflecting on their own learning. Generally, teachers teach something, students complete activities, and then they complete an assessment. The teacher grades the test, paper, or project, and provides feedback. Hopefully feedback that provides a student some useful information for reflection on their learning, but how often does this really happen in the classroom as a regular part of the learning process. Learning is like a cycle. Begin with a question to consider. Construct meaning and understanding of new knowledge. Confirm what you learned through reflection which can lead to new questions and begin the learning process again.
So I challenge my colleagues. What practices do you do as a regular part of your teaching to get students to think about how they know what they now know? This reflective practice not only will increase retention of new content, but is also quite an effective critical-thinking exercise. Reflection, reflection, reflection. It is crucial for the learning that teachers find the time in their curriculum to have students doing this essential part of the learning process.