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.
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:
- That robust processes of reflection can be assisted by the input of others without ownership being lost.
- 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.