George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Cultivating the Habits of Self-Knowledge and Reflection

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Once it’s begun, you can’t fully separate the person from the task. When the artist is painting, the painter and the act of painting become a single "thing." The emerging artwork becomes a part of it all, too. As a teacher, your "self" is embedded within your teaching -- which is how it goes from a job to a craft. The learning results are yours. You probably call those young people in the classroom "your" students.

The same goes for students as well. There is a pleasing kind of string between the eight-year-old playing Minecraft and his or her digital creation. This is the magic of doing.

The Insecurity of Student Performance

But this also presents some problems. The work and the performance of students -- both what they can and can't do -- is a part of who they are, and they are keenly aware of this. Even our language reflects this idea:

  • Did you do your best on your homework? (As opposed to asking, "Was the best work done on the assigned homework?")
  • Are you an A student? (As opposed to asking, "Does this student usually receives A's on his or her report card?")
  • Are you confused? (As opposed to awkward sounding but entirely logical question, "Do you have confusion?")

In other words, it's all very personal.

The Habits of Insecure Students

So it makes sense that students' self-defense mechanisms kick in when they're challenged. This creates all sorts of messes in the classroom that you could spend the entire year chasing down:

  • Lack of apparent curiosity
  • Apathy
  • Refusal to take risks
  • Decreased creativity
  • Defeated tones
  • Scrambles for shortcuts

It just might be that these are all symptoms rather than causes -- that is, symptoms of not wanting to make mistakes, to fail, to be corrected, or to be thought less of by peers. As teachers, though, we tend to regard these behaviors as causes of the mediocre work we sometimes see.

How we feel and think about ourselves matters in learning. Confidence, self-knowledge, interdependence, curiosity and other abstractions of learning are all every bit as critical as reading level and writing strategies.

When students confront new content (a lesson with new ideas), circumstances (a collaborative project with students from another school) or challenges (self-direction in the face of distraction), how they respond may not always be ideal. But as teachers, we do the same thing. We may begin an open-ended unit that attempts to use a learning simulation to allow students to toy with STEM concepts, but the minute things don't work out, we can often retreat into bad habits of our own:

  • Scripted work
  • Negativity
  • Essays as assessment
  • Talktalktalktalktalktalktalk

4 Questions for Self-Knowledge and Reflection

So in the face of a challenge, what do your students "retreat to"? Below are four questions they can use to begin this kind of reflection and self-awareness:

  1. How do I respond when I'm challenged, both inwardly and outwardly?
  2. Which resources and strategies do I tend to favor, and which do I tend to ignore?
  3. What can I do to make myself more aware of my own thinking and emotions?
  4. What happens if I don’t change anything at all?

Promoting Self-Awareness and Metacognition

So if these are the kinds of questions we face as educators, and if this is the reality students face as emerging independent thinkers, how can we begin to promote self-knowledge and reflection in the classroom? And further, how can we establish these actions as habits -- reflexive actions that students initiate on their own with little to no prompting?

Like anything, it is first a matter of visibility -- understand what is necessary, seeing it when it happens, emphasizing and celebrating it, etc. In the classroom, this might be stopping during an especially teachable moment when you sense students struggling -- or responding well -- and having them journal, share thoughts with elbow partners, or somehow reflect on both the challenge and their response.

Secondarily, it is a matter of practice. Anything complex or unnatural requires repetition. The more that students see themselves face major and minor challenges in the classroom, and then see the effects of how they respond, the more conditioned they'll become to responding ideally on their own.

Lastly, there is the possibility of a bit of Zen coaching to students. Help them to separate themselves from their work and related performance. Help them to understand that our lives aren't single decisions, but a vast tapestry of connections, with any single moment, performance or failure barely visible, and only important as it relates to their lives as a whole.

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CaSaundra Moore's picture

As a classroom teacher, I reflect on my lessons pretty often. One thing I recently started to do was have the students in my small group reflect on how they felt the lesson went so I can get an idea of how effective my instructional block was. Insecure students are often resistant to reflect deeply on things that have taken place throughout the lesson. Meanwhile, students with confidence are more open to speak on ideas that they did and did not understand. I notice that insecure students question things that they have already mastered because they lack confidence in their work. One thing I learned from reading this blog is that as adults, we have to be careful about the language we use with children. Often times we subconsciously speak to the children instead of addressing the action of children.

Lia's picture
Middle and high school coordinator, bilingual school, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

As I was teaching my Moral Ed class today to 6th grade, trying to give them a lesson on teamwork by playing a game and then reflecting on it, things didn't go as planned and I had to stop the activity to start reflection before. The students who couldn't collaborate with the game were given the task of writing a letter to thenselves by considering what kept them from participating in their team's work. As a student handed me his letter after one minute laughing, I looked at the paper where nothing was written. I asked him, "Is that how important you are to yourself?", to what he immediately stopped, as did the whole class, and for that moment, I could feel my whole lesson had been taught. It was the most amazing and unexpected moment I could have ever pictured in all my lesson planning, because if there was something I could not see in that student at that moment was an opportunity for self-knowledge and self-reflection. We both learned today!

Sarah's picture

Thank you for speaking on reflection, specifically student reflection. As educators I believe we don't teach that skill often enough. I liked what you said about using the word "you", I believe that is the most important part of reflection.

t_appell's picture

Student engagement is something we are presently focusing on in my school division. Do students feel engaged in their learning? I found it interesting that you pointed out that what we would normally refer to as 'causes' of the challenges in our classroom may, in fact, be the symptoms of students who are not engaged in their learning for the variety of reasons you outlined. As a teacher, I sometimes forget how closely tied my students' successes are to their very identities; that their successes and failures define them to some degree. Your post reminded me that I need to acknowledge the personal nature of my student's achievements and to take care in speaking to them, and others, about their learning. As well, I must be willing to stop my lessons from time to time to allow students to reflect on the challenges they face and the effects that the responses they choose have on their own learning. This reflection is very important to us, as teachers, and so it should be stressed to our students so they can begin to see value in reflecting on their learning.

Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post.

Natalie's picture

At my school we are focusing on developing an understanding of perseverance and making it a daily, intrinsic practice within our students. While all my students can define perseverance, some of my students are struggling with putting it into practice. They are not risk-takers and are afraid to fail. One student in particular will freeze entirely if he is unsure of how to proceed with an assignment, terrified that he will do something incorrectly. Self-reflection in my classroom has always consisted of simply checking in on the learning objective. It has been very quick, impersonal, and public. Reading this post has actually provided me with a moment of reflection. I think that journaling is a fantastic idea. I think this strategy would especially help my student who freezes up in the face of difficulty. It would allow for deeper thinking and self-reflection that would go beyond the content of the lesson, instead focusing on the students themselves and how they reacted to challenges. It is also more personal and private and allows the students to be honest with themselves without fear of judgment. I realize that there is more to self-reflection than pre-scheduled journaling time. I will need to make it an expectation within the classroom and will need to provide opportunities for students to grapple and work through challenges on their own. Hopefully this will help build my students' confidence in themselves. In addition, perhaps my specific struggling student would benefit most from a bit of Zen coaching in order to put things into perspective.

David Hart's picture

Great things to think about! It makes me wonder, what am I doing in my classroom that could make my students feel insecure?
I also like the four reflection questions mentioned. I am planning on using them with my students.

music443X's picture

I really look forward to implanting the four questions posed regarding self-knowledge and reflection. After speaking of reflection in my grad class I was looking for sound questions upon which to reflect. The four questions that are posted really seem to focus on the student as a full learner. Not am I excited to have my students reflect on these questions but for self practice as well. Thank you for sharing.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Rhonda!

It's interesting- we want kids to take ownership and pride in their work, but I wonder if what you are asking is how to make them more objective and feel less "trauma" when criticized? Part of what's happening is purely developmental, part of it is learning, as an adult, to help deliver critique the child can hear and incorporate while developing a growth mindset.

First graders need to feel like trying is important, but also that learning involves making mistakes- teaching them that tests are like experiments- sometimes they are ready and do very well, and sometimes, like riding a bike, you need to practice before you get it perfect. But if they feel that failing and trying again and eventually getting it is the pattern and expectation, then it becomes safe for them to make mistakes- and that is the key to growth mindset and developing enthusiastic learners- helping them learn to take risks, helping to catch them when they fall and find ways to course correct together- that's learning.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Everyone brings up some great points. Thanks for making me think even deeper into this important topic.

Allie- as far as reflection in writing with first graders- I agree this is difficult. I have done things such as have them work with a partner who may be a more fluent writers and they take turns writing down their reflection with each other after discussing them. I know this is not as personal and ideal, but in a safe learning environment I have found this to be successful. I often choose partners not only to aid in the writing, but also for the support factor matching up students who work well together on this sort of task.

I have had students who are not fluent writers record their thoughts on an iPad or iPod touch app so they can reflect at another point in time on how they did or how they planned to make a change.

I have also given them a word bank on the white board or paper consisting of some of the vocabulary words we are working with when reflecting and making a plan for change. Then we often do best guess spelling so the students can focus on the writing of their reflection thoughts. Most important they are getting them down for themselves. Ideally you are able to find time to reflect with them on their thoughts, but just the process of them writing them down helps tremendously.

I also incorporate reflection and goal setting into my CAFE reading conferences with all students. The conferences don't happen often enough, but every couple of weeks I get to sit down during CAFE and have that 1 on 1 time to help students reflect on their reading (and often times we talk about their learning habits or behavior in general- not just about reading.)

The classroom needs to be a really safe culture to allow for kids to be open with each other on their reflections. When I get time I will post another day how we build reflection and self knowledge into our first and second grade classroom.

Graison Lassila's picture

I appreciate the openness and honesty with this conversation. Many times have I felt that maybe it was something I was doing or saying that was frustrating my students and I am glad I am not alone. Often it is some of my most critical thinkers who have the most challenging behaviors, and it makes sense that it is their frustration and not being able to perfect the assignment at hand. Your strategies of having the students not only reflect, but to practice reflection is particularly powerful. I find myself asking the students to reflect, but they need to have the time to practice on their own and make it authentic to them. I plan on using your suggested four questions with my own personal reflection and to model reflecting with my students.

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