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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


April 25, 2016
Gold Standard PBL: Reflection

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

In our older model for the Essential Elements of PBL, one was “Reflection and Revision.” It had a nifty alliteration, but we changed it for reasons you can read about here, so now in our new model for the Essential Project Design Elements, Reflection is on its own and we also have “Critique and Revision.” I got into a great discussion about this on a recent hangout with two of our National Faculty members, Angela Marzilli and Kevin Armstrong. We were joined by BIE staff member Stanley Richards, who manages our work with Lucas Education Research to study the effectiveness of a project-based AP curriculum.

Angela mentioned that it is sometimes hard to separate reflection from critique and revision, because of course students are reflecting on their work so they can make it better. But she offered a nice distinction: “critique and revision is focused on the product, and reflection is focused on the process.” The process involves how students are learning both content and success skills.

Kevin talked about how, for elementary-age students, he thinks about it as reflecting on their progress as well as purpose. Great example: when kids come home from school and say, “We had fun today, we did Minecraft” which may sound good, but that can’t be all. Without reflection, it’s internalized as “fun” which is fine, but not the point. “They need to reflect on the thinking that was involved, to know the rigor involved. So we have to help frame that for them so they can articulate what that means.”

Stanley, who btw taught math and physics for 14 years at the Envision Schools, mentioned that reflection has to happen throughout the process in a project, not just at the end. “It’s cyclical, so you can have conversations about what you did.”

This conversation reminded me of one of our favorite ideas from John Dewey: “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” So reflection is at a metacognitive level.

You’re going to have to listen to the recorded hangout to get all the details of a very rich discussion, and to hear examples of projects that included reflection. But here are a few highlights about best practices for reflection in PBL:

  1. Start the year with culture-building activities that include reflection, to model what’s going to happen during project work so students can access it later and get in the habit of it. Be very intentional about which aspect of process we’re reflecting on, e.g., just focus on having a collaborative conversation with a partner.
  2. Scaffold the use of reflection for students. Give students regular opportunities to practice, even before the first project and in between projects. Give them clear expectations, feedback on how they’re doing, and show examples. Sentence stems for reflection can be helpful.
  3. Use engaging activities to practice reflection. Kevin described a puzzle-assembling task he does with students that is debriefed with a focus on how they collaborated, the thinking that was involved, and so on – “how much they can learn by reflecting on this experience.” Stanley said he did a similar activity using “Zoom” books that move from a distant view of something to closer-and-closer-up views. Students had to collaborate to figure out the theme that united the images, and reflected on the process during a debrief.
  4. Spend time on reflection. Students know that when a teacher spends time on something, it must be important. Angela emphasized that “It’s Ok if the first time doesn’t go well, it’s easy to think it’s not worth it” – but it is, so “don’t cut it out!”
  5. Use a variety of strategies for reflection. Some can be formal, such as a Tuning Protocol or a project journal, or a written reflection based on criteria in a rubric, or student-led conferences. Informal strategies work well too, such as the “Daily Five” discussions often used at the end of an elementary school day, or sticky notes placed on a poster with “Today I learned… wondered about… struggled with…” prompts. Exit slips can be very useful.
  6. Students have to see the value-add of reflection. It can’t become just another piece of work. It has to be manageable and efficient. For example, one- or two-sentence exit slips are better than paragraphs, so teachers have the time to read them (especially important, we agreed, when secondary teachers may have 100 to read!). And – VERY important to note – teachers have to show students they’re actually reading and using their reflections; share the data you’ve gathered and how you plan to act on it.
  7. Don’t expect kids to reflect too much, too often. Pick one element of, say, collaboration or a learning target to reflect on. Kevin pointed out that any age kid can reflect, even kindergarteners, but teachers have to be thoughtful about how to break it down and limit it.
  8. It’s important for adults to reflect too – with other adults, in front of students. It’s a powerful exemplar. And don’t just model it, actually do it.

I’ve got to stop there, but my guests offered a few final words worth sharing. 

Angela advised teachers to “enjoy reflection with your students – some things will be funny, and sometimes they’ll be a “wow!”

Kevin reiterated that students of all ages can reflect, and if they’re reared in a culture of reflection it’s so valuable. He told a great anecdote about how Junior High School teachers love how the students they get from his school, Katherine Smith, are able to reflect when things are not going well and think about how to improve it.

Stanley said things can come out of reflection that are so affirming for a teacher, and it’s “a privileged time to think about what they’ve learned.” Some of the best reflections, he noted, might come from “the most difficult students, the most jaded high schoolers,” and it affirms the work we do: “they learned!”


Do you have questions, tips, or stories to tell about reflection in the classroom? Please enter them in the comments below.


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