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Let It Marinate: The Importance of Reflection and Closing

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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I am one of those people who regularly figures out exactly what to say after the moment has passed. I will be deep in conversation with someone, sharing thoughts and bouncing around ideas. Yet, as the thoughts swirl, I'll have an unsettled feeling. Often it is not until some time later, when the ideas have marinated, that I realize what matters most to me and how to say it. I find that the flow of learning for many of my students matches my personal need for intellectual reflection.

A Classroom Example

Recently, we spent a chunk of one of my world history classes discussing an excerpt from The Power of Myth, a conversation that Joseph Campbell had with Bill Moyers about enduring myths and the human condition. The students read the text during the previous class and had done a writing exercise that helped them begin to explore some of the different ideas contained in the dialogue.

The discussion was interesting but felt aimless. Some students were interested in the idea of learning deeper messages by reading the myths of others. Others were struck by Campbell's idea that we are all imperfect. For many, it was unclear if they found anything of meaning in the reading. The body language in the classroom was mixed. Some students turned to face whoever was speaking and eagerly responded, often referring to the text in front of them. Others were slouched in their chairs rarely looking at the text or at the speakers.

Students knew that this was the beginning of our religion unit and had spent time earlier in the week attempting to create a definition of religion, yet if felt as if no one knew how to successfully put these different pieces together into larger, coherent ideas with greater meaning. As teacher, I felt unsure about our status in this early part of our unit.

As the discussion slowed down and the clock began approaching the end of the period, I asked everyone to jot down a one-sentence final thought. After two silent minutes, we started in one corner of the room and quickly whipped around as, one after another, students shared final thoughts from the reading and/or discussion. It quickly became clear that a lot more deep and rich thinking had happened than I previously realized. "Religions are glorified myths," said a student who had been quiet all period. "We all need ways to find meaning in our lives," offered a young man who had previously seemed to find very little meaning in the discussion.

Deepening Learning

In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire reinforces the idea that reflection is an essential part of learning and of becoming an agent of change in the world:

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed -- even in part -- the other immediately suffers . . .

Freire also reminds us that this process (that he has named concientizacion) involves a true exchange of ideas:

If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity. And since dialogue is the encounter in which the united reflection and action of the dialoguers are addressed to the world which is to be transformed and humanized, this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person's "depositing" ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be "consumed" by the discussants.

The end of a class period may often feel like a time to slow down and regroup before another set of students arrives. An alternate view is that these last moments, which usually occur when ideas have had a chance to marinate, can be a time when quiet thinkers finally articulate their ideas and move toward Freire's idea of concientizacion. In these moments, students can deepen their own learning, and entire groups can share ideas and make meaning of content. Additionally, the time when a large piece of work is submitted is an important opportunity for students to articulate their own learning and self-evaluate in order to improve learning and the quality of their work for the future.

Closings and Reflective Activities

There are many different ways to integrate closings and reflective activities into classroom practice. Depending on the circumstances, closings and reflective activities can be quickly jotted down and shared out loud, or they can be larger writing assignments that are submitted with projects or posted as an introduction to blog posts of student work.

The following is a list of different reflection and closing prompts:

  • Share one thing you learned.
  • Share a question for future investigation.
  • Respond with a word.
  • What worked? What didn’t work?
  • What is one part of your work that you are proud of?
  • How would you do this differently next time?

School is generally not structured in a way that easily accommodates ambiguity and differentiation. While this presents a challenge, the strategic integration of meaningful closings and reflection into classroom practice gives students multiple avenues for engaging with complex ideas and allows more students to find broader meaning in their work. Additionally, these activities help teachers to more deeply understand and adapt to the intellectual processes of our students.

In what different ways do you structure reflection and closings in your classroom?

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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Lincoln Marquis's picture
Lincoln Marquis
Culinary Arts grades 10-12 @Louisa County High School piedmont area of VA

L'esprit de l'escalier - "...can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs"

sean's picture

Interesting point. In Susan Cain's book "Quite" she discusses how in education we focus on extroverts. Introverts need a chance to synthesize information and then often do not share their ideas with a large group. But, they are smart. Perhaps the end of the class is the time that we can get them to show their stuff.
Breaks for a moment of reflection during a class is a great too. Say every 10-15 minutes take 30 seconds for a few to recap.

Candle's picture
ESL Teacher

As an introvert, I also have to let ideas percolate before I can formulate and articulate my responses, so I understand what you are going through, Mr. Block. I'm sure there are many students who also need time to let topics "marinate." Reflective practice is a great idea for both instructors and students.

Many graduate programs expect students to reflect on themselves and their practices. The theory behind this is that reflections might help students connect what they learn to their own work environment and possibly make a change for the better.

Reflecting before a discussion, or activating schema, is important because it helps students to be mentally prepared for the topic, and it allows them to check if they have connections to the topic. Informal reflections at the end of a discussion via writing can help students check their understanding, especially for English language learners who may have trouble articulating their ideas orally due to vocabulary or word choice issues. They need time to formulate ideas and allowing them to put down their thoughts on paper might lower their affective filters. But the instructor must be clear that the reflection is ungraded and that students need to only focus on the ideas not the language. The reflections can help teacher gauge their student understanding of the topic.

Nancy, I've used reflective activities in my classroom, and they work well when it's focused and not too general. I often use my students' reflections to modify my lessons, too.

Jennifer's picture
Parent of 1 elem, 2 middle and 2 high school public school students in MD

Our local public schools use a great program called Touchstones that totally supports this. Taking time to really think and reflect about a topic or a text, and to listen to others while they do the same, is so important for our kids (and adults!) to do. I want my kids to thrive in spite of, and because of, ambiguity and differentiation. Thanks for the great article!

Suzanne Acord, PhD's picture
Suzanne Acord, PhD
High school history teacher and PD provider in Houston, Texas.

Love the fact that you linked your tips to Freire. That's one of my favorite books and I so rarely see his work used in education.

Marisa's picture

I find even at the pre-school level, my experience is similar to Mr. Block's. Even as young as three years old, I always start a new skill with a discussion. For instance if I am teaching tempi I'll have them repeat the word "adagio" after me and then the phrase "adagio means slow!" And then I will ask them questions about the concept of "slow," of what colors does slow music make them think, of what feelings, what things from nature make them think "slow thoughts," etc. And usually I have to lead this discussion very aggressively, lots of prompting and lots of elaborating on one-or-two-word answers. The goal of the lesson is to then get up and dance to music in a way that shows recognition of the different tempi, i.e. when I tell them we are dancing to a piece of music that is adagio they move slowly, smoothly, and deliberately try to emulate the musical quality they hear. For years I had a hard time getting them to transfer the understanding I thought I saw in their eyes during the discussion to their own movements. A couple of years ago I started incorporating a new step into the lesson. After the discussion I have them spread out around the room and sit by themselves. I then say, "Close your eyes and imagine slow music and slow things!" I give them just a couple of seconds for those thoughts to sink in, and then I say, "Ok now here is some adagio music. Open your eyes and show me an adagio dance!" and voila, here comes some truly beautiful demonstrations of slow, flowing movement. That brief moment to reflect on everything we discussed seems to give them the power to harness their own energy and redirect it toward the goal in a way that they were not capable of doing without that moment of reflection. It reminds me of what one of my greatest coaches would tell me before a challenging performance: never underestimate the work you can do sitting by yourself, imagining yourself achieving the task. The brain, after all, controls the body; it is your brain that has trained your muscles to do those hard things. It's such an important step, and very often over-looked. In my field we talk endlessly about preparation, that the body must be humming with energy even when standing still, before taking a step. We forget that even preceding the preparation of the body, there must be energy and connectivity humming in the mind. Those moments of reflection are essential to that purpose.

Anne Beninghof's picture

Closings are also important times to review and summarize essential concepts from the lesson. It is the last chance the teacher has to emphasize the learning target before the student leaves for 24, 48 or even 72 hours! I sometimes ask students to work in pairs or trios to create a slogan (a summary and call to action) for the lesson concept.

Anne Beninghof's picture

This is also true of professional learning for adults! In my teacher workshops, I always try to build reflection time in throughout the day. I have found that if I want learners to reflect deeply, I must make the sharing optional.

Jeannie's picture
Third grade teacher from Saint Simons Island, Georgia

Great article! I have felt the same way when I am teaching or when I am having conversations of any sort. We often, as teachers, feel the pressure of the clock. Thank you for the reminder to build in time for reflection.

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