Reflecting for learning

May 2018
Reflection Dialogue

Bert leads us through some new reflections on reflection which, on reflection, do indeed bear some reflection!

There are a lot of interesting conceptualisations about reflection (‘what is reflection?’) and good quality methodologies to facilitate reflection (‘how to let learners reflect?’). Think about John Dewey (reflective thinking), Donald Schön (reflection in action), David Kolb (reflection in the experiential learning circle), Jack Mezirow (critical reflection) or Fred Korthagen (core  reflection) among many others. So, what is there still to develop and write about reflection in educational processes? This was the starting question for REFLECT, an Erasmus+ project run for two years by four organisations from formal and four from non-formal education. 

Within REFLECT we did not want to invent another conceptualisation nor a strict methodology, but rather take a step backwards from the different reflective practices of the 8 partner organisations and have a look at some of the conditions that foster reflection, whatever one’s definition or methodology is about. Therefore, we focused on the atmospherein a learning group and the relationship between educator and learners as two important fertilisers to let reflection grow more naturally and spontaneously. One could say we focused on the ‘backside’ of reflective processes, on those more psychological aspects which an educator cannot control nor direct fully (as he or she is depending on the learners to help co-create them), but which are essential to get the hoped for learning results. 

From the moment when people meet, there’s a certain feel, a certain atmosphere related to the way how they are together, how they interact and talk with each other (or not) … This is a tangible phenomenon: you can sense the group’s climate so-to-speak the moment you enter the room. Obviously, this is also the case for learning groups in both formal and non-formal education. Well, it IS possible, we found, to ‘influence’ this atmosphere in such a way that it becomes beneficial for reflection. Or to be more precise, it’s possible to co-create what we have been calling ‘the reflective atmosphere’. And we use the word ‘co-creation’ very consciously here, since educator and learners participate alike in this co-creation. However, it’s quintessential to realise that this reflective atmosphere cannot be ‘constructed’ by any tricks, methods or teaching didactics applied by the educator, but can only be developed slowly and authentically within the learning group by both educator and learners by taking care of some crucial conditions for deep learning. 

In total Reflect discerned 10 of these conditions which foster the reflective atmosphere. They are as follows: 

Letter 1: Raising awareness within learners to ‘own’ their learning in a personally meaningful way

To be clear, this ‘owning up’ has no connotation of guilt, in the sense of ‘being responsible for something which went wrong’. It has, simply put, to do with the way in which learners make the reflection their own, i.e. connecting it to what they feel to be important for their learning process. Therefore, it’s important for the educator to find out what evokes their attention and energy concerning the learning topic, and what makes sense for them personally, here-and-now in their learning process. For sure this will differ between individual learners, and so will the exact point within the timeline of the course when they find out about it. This kind of differentiation very much fosters the creation of the reflective atmosphere as learners experience the openness to be personally involved, to share their questions and at least partly co-decide with the educator which content is important to reflect upon.

Owning competences

Letter 2: A reciprocal relationship between educator and learners

The reflective atmosphere benefits from a less hierarchical, more ‘two-and-more-ways-relationship’ between educator and learners in which they areequally important to each other (i.e. equally important concerning the possibility to decide what's important for the learning process). However, this equivalence does not assume that they have equal roles to play in the learning process (in general it can be said that the educator is mainly facilitating the learning process, the learner is mainly involved in learning). We believe such relationships can only be built on a base of mutual trust, openness, empathy, transparency, dialogue and feedback between educator and learners. These are big words that are easily written down, but really have to be put into practice one way or another, as they are quintessential qualities which help to develop the reflective atmosphere within the learning group.  For one thing, these qualities let learners experience how the educator is receptive to their ideas and feelings (as well as the other learners of course).

Letter 3: Co-creating the reflective process

Educator and learners are dependent on each other and interconnected in a very fundamental way, in order to create the reflective atmosphere. In a certain way, they need continually to fine-tune to each other.  So, if the educator sets the appropriate reflective tone, learners will tune into it and start mirroring it back, resulting in an increase of the qualities, attitude and attention needed for reflection.  As a result learners gently model themselves as well as being modelled by the reflective atmosphere into a similar reflexive presence.

CoCreate Dialogue


Letter 4: Keeping up the steering paradox of intrinsic learning processes 

The steering paradox of the intrinsic learning processes consists of the following: the educator needs to steer the learner to the point where the learner steers himself. She cannot take over the steering control, nor can she let go of it completely as she is (co-)responsible for the learning process of her learners within the educational context. It’s a balancing act between steering and not-steering, controlling and not-controlling.

So finally, balancing the steering paradox is about finding a common ground between educator and learners about the reason and goal to meet.



Letter 5: Directing the reflective attention of learners

Reflection is a different way of creating knowledge compared to logical thinking. For one thing, it processes (at least partly) information unconsciously in contrast to logical thinking that processes information consciously. So it’s of the utmost importance for the educator to allow these unconscious processes to start functioning. She can do so by directing the reflective attention in the learners’ mind. They should not focus on chasing quick, logical and/or problem-solving answers, but rather slow down and take time to question the assignment or question thoroughly from a deep, personal level: “what’s my personal ‘right answer’?”Most of the time, this answer will not be clear from the very beginning (‘it’s not a quick yes or no’), but will rather unravel itself through enquiry during the learning process.So directing the reflective attention is essentially asking learners to start questioning and considering that-which-is-at-stake more broadly and from different perspectives.


Letter 6: Slowing down and valuing moments of not-knowing

In this respect it is interesting to mention that the word ‘attention’ is connected with the French verb attendre, which means ‘waiting’. Two remarks need to be made here. Firstly, it’s important for the educator not to close down this process of questioning too soon by providing definitive statements or interpretations. “Exploration is stifled when participants or the leader jump in with hard and fast answers,” Ringer mentions (2008). “When there appears to be only one answer to any question, no further space exists for curiosity or enquiry, with a consequent loss of the reflective space. Therefore, any person who consistently makes definitive statements about what is true in the group will potentially close down the reflective space. In particular, leaders who respond to the group’s implicit request to tell them what is going on, will reduce the room in the group for open reflection and enquiry. Thus, leaders who provides too much information or interpretation too soon will reduce the reflective space in the group ”. Secondly, reflection-as-a-kind-of-waiting also implies that one should value moments of not being sure and not-knowing. In this sense, talking about Socrates’ maieutics, the Dutch author Jos Kessels (2006) is accentuating how “in a certain way you need to lose your mind… in the conversations of Socrates this not-knowing – the moment of indecision, the recognition and experience of your own ignorance - is a condition to gain genuine insight.” This not-knowing helps, according to Kessels, learners to progressively unfold a good quality dialogue with themselves, constructing ‘poetic arguments’ (quite different from ‘logical reasons’ as you can imagine).

Reflection Process


Letter 7: Deepening the questioning progressively

Questioning is obviously an important tool for educators to direct the reflective attention of learners. However, deepening your questioning is not that much about asking continually more and more complicated and sophisticated questions. Rather, it’s about exploring more in depth how learners look at that-which-is-at-stake. As a consequence, we take to heart the advice by Jeff Clement (2015) for building a reflective space: don’t bother too much with good or bad questions, but rather use your interest in learners as the motor of your questioning. Be curious to know about how they see, think, feel about that-which-is-stake and let your interest and curiosity guide you spontaneously to your next question. In this way your questioning will be explorative and process-oriented. Principally the effect will be that learners start questioning thoroughly that-which-is-at-stake, to really start dialoguing with their internal and external ‘companions’ by taking some distance from their first thoughts and feelings. In doing so they will naturally start building the space to reflect within (simultaneously individual and collective). That’s the reason why we propose to let their attention become reflective in a more spontaneous way, i.e. not by instructing or imposing, but by directing it to deepen their learning process. In this respect, the receipt of an answer is as essential as questioning itself: take learners’ answers for what they are. Avoid (always) judging them as being right or wrong, but understand them as possibilities to tune into the ‘stance’ where learners are in their learning process.


Letter8: Remembering reflection cannot be imposed, only kindly invited

If the educator wants the learners to learn intrinsically, she cannot impose her learning agenda on them. She can only ‘invite’ them in all possible ways to be personally and intrinsically involved in the learning process (and for sure this ‘invitation’ should sometimes be a firm one, a kick start so the speak). At the end it’s always up to the learner to acknowledge the invitation (or not), after which the educator can continue to facilitate the learning process from that point onwards.


Letter 9: Considering reflection as a broad, deepening and holistic process

In both formal and non-formal education reflection is sometimes organised as answering standardised questions after a  practical course, internship or activity. Typical questions can be: ‘how have you executed the task and what have you learned?’, ‘what went well/poorly?’, ‘what can you do differently and better?’. Within this framework reflection is understood in a very narrow functional way. Generally speaking: you describe a problem, think logically about it and then you’ll find a good answer to solve the problem (or when there is no problem, how to get even better). According to REFLECT reflection is not just about ‘solving problems and becoming better’. It’s also about gaining insight into oneself and the world, like concerning one’s personal assumptions and reaction habits, the overall context in which one finds oneself (be it at school or in an organisation), the linking between theoretical knowledge and reality etc. So in this respect reflection is essentially about raising awareness (in the broadest possible meaning), both for personal and professional development. As such we don’t believe in standardised Q&A’s implying merely logical thinking. Rather we want to advocate a broad perspective on reflection connecting thinking with feeling, values, intuition and experience. This is needed if reflection wants to foster deep personal learning.

Reflection usually actually


Letter 10: Being careful how to assess reflection (or not at all)

Within REFLECT we’re proposing to align assessment with the ideas of process-directivity, owning up and a dialogic relationship between educator and learners. Therefore, we firstly propose a shift from a one-way-directed assessment to a two-ways-directed assessment: it’s not just the educator who takes an objective distance to evaluate the learner, rather educator and learners have a dialogue to explore the learning process together. Doing so, they continue the equal relationship they have built up during the course (instead of falling back to a top-down relationship in the former way of assessing). It’s important to underline at this point, the purpose of this dialogue is not to convince one another about the ‘objective truth’ of what is learned, but rather to develop a kind of inter-subjective judgement by allowing to be mutually influenced by each other. This requests an openness from both educator and learner. Secondly, we also propose that the focus of assessment should first and foremost be put on the reflective process leading to the content instead of the content itself (e.g. as being right or wrong). This implies a shift from what is called summative (result-oriented) to formative (process-oriented) assessment. Arguing how assessment of the result cannot be separated from assessment of the process in arts education, Susan Orr states convincingly in this respect how "it is essential that you know something about who that person is and what they are trying to do, what they think they’re doing in order to measure the quality of what they’ve done." The same is true for reflection, so we think. Therefore, the educator directs her attention towards the intensity by which learners engage themselves in the reflection; the attention they give to that-which-is-at-stake and the way they personally own the reflected knowledge, skills or attitude. She does so to explore (rather than to objectively measure) the quality and depth of the personal learning processes, more than the content as a measurable result (to put it very much in black and white terms!).


 Reflexive presence (and its six qualities)


In June 2013 philosopher Onora O’Neill held an interesting TED-talk on the issue of trust in the public life, entitled ‘what we don’t understand about trust’. Her approach is quintessentially inter-subjective: trust is a quality which cannot be obliged nor asked for, but can only develop in a genuine relationship between people. So, she states how trust can only grow when people show their trustworthiness, when they behave in such way that others are convinced that they can give their trust to him or her. So, O’Neill proclaims how she “would aim to have more trust in the trustworthybut not in the untrustworthy.(…) Intelligently placed and intelligently refused trustis the proper aim.(…) That means that what matters in the first placeis not trust but trustworthiness.It's judging how trustworthy people arein particular respects.And I think that judgment requires us to look at three things.Are they competent? Are they honest? Are they reliable?And if we find that a person is competentin the relevant matters,and reliable and honest,we'll have a pretty good reason to trust them,because they'll be trustworthy.But if, on the other hand, they're unreliable, we might not.”[1]

What does all of this mean for qualities such as trust, openness, empathy, transparency, curiosity and attentiveness which are as quintessential to the educational context as trust in public life about which O’Neill talks? How do you, as an educator, foster those qualities within learners? According to REFLECT it’s best not to ask for them directly, nor to ‘oblige’ learners to ‘be’ trusting or open. In many cases it will not work and you will only get the superficial appearance of trust or openness. Rather apply an indirect approach: ‘be’ yourself the qualities you hope to see within your learners as we wrote in the tenth letter on REFLECT’s principles. Learners will at a certain point start mirroring these qualities, attitude and attention back to the educator. This mirroring does not imply that they should exactly copy the educator (in the sense of replicating one-on-one her ideas, qualities and actions, please not!), but rather that they have themselves ‘modelled’ by a specific kind of mimicry, comparable indeed to a chameleon adapting to the colours of the environment. And please notice the passive construction of the previous sentence: ‘have themselves modelled’ indicates that this is generally more an unconscious process of adapting. One could say that learners become influenced by her particular way of being present as educator. And at a certain point they start taking it over, transforming it meanwhile into a personal way of being present. All of this points to the co-creative logic of the reflective atmosphere: ‘what you give is what you get’. And this is not the end, because at a certain point educators become influenced by the particular presences of their learners. In this way educator and learners are getting essentially interdependent and interconnected. They are engaged in a kind of dynamic interplay which enables them to steer together the learning process in the direction needed for the aims of the learning course. 


We defined this particular way of being of the educator as a ‘reflexive presence’.Here, ‘reflexive’ has two meanings. Firstly it means ‘marked by or capable of reflection’. It refers to the ability of the educator to hold a space for learners to reflect about that-which-is-at-stake. The second meaning of the word brings us to social theories. Secondly, ‘reflexive’ refers to a circular relationship between cause and effect: the cause leads to an effect which become the cause of another effect and so it goes on. In this respect the dictionary defines ‘reflexivity’ as ‘directed or turned back on themselves’. So, concluding the tenth letter, we stated how the ‘reflexive presence’ indicates how the educator not only is capable to hold the space and reflect himself, but as well as how this affects the overall atmosphere in the learning group and the individual learners. If the educator sets the appropriate reflective tone, learners will tune into it and start mirroring it back, resulting in an increase of the qualities, attitude and attention needed for reflection. As a result, learners model themselves as well as are being modelled gently into a similar reflective presence. This brings us to the final conclusion: it’s not just about having the appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes in order to facilitate reflection process (although they are very well needed of course), it’s as well - and maybe even essentially as well - about the inner readiness as educator to connect with your learners in a reflexive way in order to possibly raise their inner readiness to reflect.

You can find all the documents related to the REFLECT project here:

Image Credits: 
Torben Grocholi; Coline Robin

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