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by Michael Niehoff
National Faculty

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December 12, 2017
Reflective Practices As Embedded Instructional, Cultural Design

by Michael Niehoff
National Faculty

Reflection is one the Gold Standard Project Design Elements. Educational pioneer John Dewey, whose ideas continue to inform our thinking about PBL, wrote, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Reflective thinking is a part of the critical thinking process, specifically the processes of analyzing and making judgments about what has happened. Dewey (1933) suggested that “reflective thinking is an active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge, of the grounds that support that knowledge, and the further conclusions to which that knowledge leads.”

Throughout a project, students and teachers should reflect on what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and why they’re learning. Reflection can occur both informally and formally. Reflection on the content knowledge and understanding gained helps students solidify what they have learned and think about how it might apply elsewhere, beyond the project. Reflection on success skill development helps students internalize what the skills mean and set goals for further growth. Reflection on the project itself—how it was designed and implemented—helps students decide how they might approach their next project, and helps teachers improve the quality of their PBL practice.

Reflective thinking produces metacognitive processes. This process is most important in prompting learning during complex problem-solving situations because it provides students with an opportunity to step back and think about how they actually solve problems and how a particular set of problem solving strategies is appropriated for achieving their goal.

How can we further embed reflective practices into our PBL pedagogy? Here are a few ideas:

Portfolio Presentations / Defense of Learning
We need to create systems where students have to not only do regular presentations, but also practice reflective learning in regular semester or annual portfolio presentations. These are not only showcasing students’ best work and learning, but also an additional educational experience where they continue to learn at a higher level. If it’s good enough for graduate students and doctoral candidates, it’s good enough for all students.

Many classes, programs and schools have started to have their students do Final Reflective Portfolio Presentations/Defense of Learning in order to capture deeper learning. My former school, Minarets High School, designed a year-end portfolio presentation students do each year entitled the Personal Brand Equity. This culminating project not only requires them to analyze and assess their learning and best work, but also analyze and assess themselves as growing, learning and ever-improving young adults. See some pics of these presentations here.

Reflective Writing / Blogging
Many educators are now realizing that blogging can be the 21st century way of journaling, which has long been used for student reflection. Learners not only document and capture reflective thinking with text, photos, videos and links, but are also able to share their reflections with others around the world. Through vehicles like blogging, students connect to the world and discover their own voice, which is an important goal for many educators. If we are to empower students to take charge or their own learning and perform at high levels, having them publish professionally in the digital environment seems essential.

Digital publishing is a part of our new standards and allows every student to not only have a voice, but to document and brand their work in a continual portfolio environment. In the new economy, it will be more important than ever to be able to demonstrate what you have learned and how you can apply it.

Showcasing and Exhibitions
We know that making project work public serves many purposes, including increasing student engagement and authenticity, and celebrating their work and getting feedback from public audiences. However, it also provides further opportunities for reflection. Typically, before a student takes their work public, they will have an opportunity to gather feedback from peer and teacher critique thus making their work better, but also the product of more metacognition. So, every opportunity students have to showcase and exhibit their work to public audiences—digitally or face-to-face—provides opportunity for reflection.

Creating Reflective Environments
Teachers can make reflective practices part of daily PBL culture and systems. These include peer critique activities and protocols that allow students to see other points of view, and provide regular opportunities for students to re-evaluate their results and conclusions. At times we can create less-structured environments that urge students to explore what they think is important.

The way we facilitate and coach inquiry also provides a means for continuous reflection for our students. We can, through inquiry, embed reflection into daily instruction, project work time, project critique and revision and more, by:

  • Prompting reviews of the learning situation, what is known, what is not yet known, and what has been learned.
  • Providing authentic tasks involving ill-structured data to encourage reflective thinking during learning activities.
  • Prompting students' reflection by asking questions that seek reasons and evidence.
  • Giving some explanations to guide students' thought processes during explorations.
  • Providing enough wait-time for students to reflect when responding to inquiries.

Deeper Learning, More Self-Actualized Students
Regular reflection and reflective practices demand complex, deep mental processes. Reflectiveness allows learners to think about their learning, assimilate it, relate it to other aspects of their experiences, and to change or adapt it. Individuals who are reflective tend to follow up reflective endeavors with further action. Learners will then construct experience more generally, including their thoughts, feelings and connections to others. This requires individuals to reach a level of social maturity that allows them to distance themselves from social pressures, take different perspectives, make independent judgments and take responsibility for their actions—so we could even say that learners become more self-actualized, as a byproduct of continued and consistent reflection.


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