Guiding Student Reflection – The Journey So Far

As I write this post, I have just applied to begin a directed study at university on guiding student reflection. Here, I am documenting my journey so far.

A boy looks at himself in a set of mirror tiles.

One of many questions that interests me is what forms of reflection boys are most likely to take away with them and use spontaneously in other settings. I’m not confident of finding an answer to this particular question, so it is one that I would particularly value your input on.
Photo CC BY-NC-ND Infinity Rain.

In my work at One Day School and at Gifted Online, I teach a negotiated curriculum, with its roots in Rosemary Cathcart’s REACH model. Children have a great deal of choice, voice, and ownership of their learning processes. For most gifted children, this freedom to learn in their own way is deeply satisfying. Some gifted kids are unhappy at regular school and experience some disruption to their learning, but even these children usually relax given the safety valve of a withdrawal programme where they can be themselves, be challenged, and be creative. New friends and novel ideas add to the children’s joy in learning and all in the garden is rosy… for a time.

However, in the way that I was teaching a few years ago, I noticed that many students seemed to hit a plateau after about two years with the programme. Something additional seemed to be needed to keep them moving forward, to keep them using the flexibility afforded by the programme in new and challenging ways. This bothered me.

Our programmes emphasize creativity more than rigour, and I felt that rigour was being undervalued to too great an extent in the ways I was teaching. However, within our democratic educational ethos, I felt that the rigour could not be imposed by me as teacher in terms of goals the child may not have been striving for. To do so would be to rob the child of the sense of ownership of learning that we work so hard to establish.

What was needed, I decided, was a way to introduce more rigour into students’ assessment of their own work. This would keep the ownership of learning with the student, but the question was how to do it. Assessment rubrics and exemplars are all very well for a class working on similar tasks, but that doesn’t happen very often in our programmes. I began to read widely about self-directed learning, self-assessment, and reflection. Most of the literature I could find that dealt with ownership of learning on multifarious paths, and with ways to reflect on such learning in depth, was discussing professional learning by adults rather than learning by children. I eventually read an article on the use of professional portfolios by teachers to reflect on practice within a supportive group. This piece had ‘the right feel’ to it – the kind of respect for the learners’ intentions that I was looking for – and it helped me to firm up two ideas that were forming in my mind:

  1. That robust processes of reflection can be assisted by the input of others without ownership being lost.
  2. That robust processes of reflection must allow the learner to view his or her own work through multiple lenses. In particular, the subjective view must be complemented with measures that allow a more objective view to form.

I was already using student reflections, but I was underwhelmed with the results. I read variations on the theme of, “I did reasonably well,” from most students. I also read, “I did pretty badly,” from perfectionists who had done an outstanding job, and, “My work was amazing,” from kids who had written a few sketchy words bearing no relationship to the task they had set out to work on.

The process I settled on is talk-based. I often scribe the comments of face-to-face students as we discuss their work. I invite online students to record their voices if they prefer that to writing, and their reflections are often discussed further in the chatroom. Why talk? At the end of a piece of really hard work, kids are tired. Ask them to write something deep and meaningful, and what you will get is a measure of their stamina, not a measure of their thinking. I want my students to work hard enough to get a little tired. I’m not interested in keeping them fresh so that they can reflect well on the economy of their efforts.

Also, I do some of my own best reflection in conversations with colleagues, as we question each other, justify choices, and propose new directions together. Sometimes I hold the mirror for them, sometimes they hold it for me, sometimes we stand alongside each other and look in the mirror together. These are the professional realities our children are headed towards, and talk is very much a part of them.

I arrived at a set of questions that asks children about their own goals, about subjective and objective views of their work, and about transferable learning. The subjective question may get the same old results. However, when I ask children what they can say about their work that is true, or measurable, or that most other people would agree with – the objective step – we enter new territory.

Subjective: My work is awesome.

Objective: I wrote one and a half sentences.

Why is it so much more powerful when the student notices scope for improvement than when the teacher points it out? I do not know, but it truly is, and the difference it makes is instant. The subjective assessment is almost always closer to the mark next time, and the student will often ask permission to stop reflecting and modify the task before proceeding.

The transferable learning takes a lot more practice for the children to be able to discern. There is a lot of clarification and probing along the lines of, “Yes, this may be helpful next time you create a cartoon strip about Ancient Greece, but how often do you expect to do that? What have you learnt that might be useful in several different tasks where you use pictures to share your thinking?”

However, once students can identify transferable learning, the process tends to become self-driven. When I ask kids about goals in a new task, they will often refer back to old reflections, without any prompting. Some students, girls more often than boys, will also tell me that they are using this reflection process (in their heads) at regular school. These spontaneous uses of the reflection process suggest to me that it has considerable has worth.

So far, so good, but in the words of an old advertisement, “I feel like I need something else”. I know this process will get old for some of my students, but that is not all. I also want to understand more clearly which elements matter the most, what else works well, and whether my guided reflection process would work for other educational environments. Are all the best answers in professional literature, or is someone else using guided, in-depth reflection with gifted children who work in a largely self-directed way? Is there a reflection process that more boys would take with them into other areas of their education? Where to from here? 

Your input is welcomed, in this area which has become a professional interest for me. Please feel welcome to use the comments facility to share your experience, books, papers or opinions on guided student reflections. I shall endeavour to report back as I learn more.

This post is part of the #NZGAW Blog Tour.

Blog Tour icon and link.


About Mary St George

I teach in gifted education, both online and face-to-face.
This entry was posted in education, gifted, New Zealand, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Guiding Student Reflection – The Journey So Far

  1. Sue NZ says:

    Great blog, Mary. I experienced the same unease with the lack of rigour when I taught for ODS and struggled with how to help students recognise the need to ‘go deeper’. Within the negotiated curriculum context of ODS this was often difficult. I agree totally about the use of talk as a means of reflection – students are capable of being much more reflective if they don’t have to write it down! I don’t have the answer to your final questions, but I look forward to hearing more about your research as you undertake your directed study.

    • Thanks, Sue. Some of your comments from the past, about the importance of helping children to identify what they have learnt, keep coming back to me in my thinking in this area. I am grateful!

  2. Hanlie Kruger says:

    Very exciting! Do your children blog or keep a written planning diary – if they start their day’s work with a short and sharp “today/this week I am going to …” including their goals it might help their reflection – they can conclude at the end of the day or on the next day whether they reached their short term goals and how well it went. This way they contribute to their own formative assessment, they keep reflecting on the process not only the final product (after all it is the process which contains the transferable skills) and at the end they have some prompts in writing to make the final reflection more informed? We did that with small groups when we taught the Primary Enterprise Programme and I think it really helped keep them on track, but I can see the value of it for individuals in a gifted programme. As for boys, when I was the luckiest teacher alive I taught 11 y4-8 children 0.4 per week and got to do mainly Inquiry learning and writing with them. There were some very “unacademic” boys but I’ve learnt there was nothing they wouldn’t do for you if they could do it on the computer, so I would consider getting them to devise some kind of personal grid not unlike a rubric but with spaces for dates and own short comments to chart their own goals reached/achievements? Sounds like work but then you want them to be rigorous in their self-assessment… tricky eh! Once again keeping track to assist with the final reflection.. just some rudimentary thoughts!

    • As the children try a lot of novel activities, they tend to clarify their goals as they move through them. If I were to have them stick with the goals they had at the start, they would set very safe goals. Just like adults, their goals are more meaningful if they are allowed to be somewhat dynamic. Talk, once again, brings flexibility and depth here, and sometimes we have time to write down the talk, whereas at other times, the learning process takes the time. I’m all about making the learning central, so the goals are discussed very deliberately within the reflection process, and often recorded by me at that stage, but are usually not written down earlier.

      I guess in other settings, you could have “working goals”, like a “working title”, or an initial research question – the expectation that the goals can be tweaked is important if there is a whole lot of real learning going on, with its cognitive dissonance, tangents, and serendipitous discoveries!

  3. Critical reflection has played an important part in my programme of study these past two years, in particular the ability to be ‘reflexive’ – the ability to identify ones biases, emotions, prior expectations and unidentified belief systems that one brings to any research process. It is very difficult to fully engage in reflexive work, in that one tends to naturally shy away from that kind of deep examination of ones ideas about the world and people in it. It is even more difficult having to put it into writing! So I like your idea about doing it in a verbal discussion. I am also intriged by the idea of engaging gifted children in what is essentially reflexivity. I wonder if one way of keeping things fresh is in varying the types of questions that are asked?

    • Yes, I think that variation in the questions may become important. I actually have two sets, but one is much more effective than the other. I’d like to have several sets of questions that all seemed to work well.

  4. Ruth says:

    Perhaps an alternative to writing goals or thought processes down could be to use video (eg on an iphone) or old fashioned cassette dictophone? I am using this a lot with my six year old who always has lots to say but hates writing. She loves the dictophone though and is learning to use this independently. Great for stories too which can later be scribed. Video provides an objective viewpoint – external to the child but not from the teacher, whose viewpoint is also subjective of course! Useful perhaps for self evaluation of more practical tasks, and contrary to adults, children love seeing themselves on screen.

    • I have kids record sound files on computer at times. This goes into their digital portfolios along with the work they are reflecting on. They do go into more depth than when they write. However, because they go into even greater depth in a discussion with me as teacher, I often scribe their thoughts while that is happening. The natural pauses while I catch up in my writing are often times when they think a little further and realise something new, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s