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May 25, 2018

The Power of Embedded Reflection

Courtney Reynolds, Senior Learning Designer

Reflection is a powerful tool in enabling students to discover more about themselves as learners and develop agency. Senior Learning Designer Courtney Reynolds shares her experience of cultivating a reflection mindset in her classroom.

I remember the moment I became fascinated with the power of reflection: I was standing in the middle of a makeshift runway in the school cafeteria, watching as my fifth-grade students tested their paper airplane designs. A rogue airplane grazed my ear as it entered its final descent. I turned to follow its flight path, and watched as it struggled heroically against gravity. It landed soundless, but triumphant. Cheers of victory erupted from behind me, and I turned to see joyful grins spread across the faces of my students.

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Mindfulness as a Skill

The group raced by me and got to work measuring and documenting the plane’s flight distance. I looked on as they analyzed their data and listened as they debated how to use this information to improve the plane’s wing design. It struck me how reflective these students were. In their minds, reflection wasn’t an event or separate activity, as it often is in education— it was in the moment and iterative. Their reflection was a mindset and I wanted to know how they had cultivated it.

Curious, I observed as the students became fully present with their airplanes, using their senses to make observations about design and flight path. I watched as these students persisted in their task, even after the bell rang or another airplane infiltrated their work zone. They were fully committed, present, and mindful of their task. I began to wonder if mindfulness—the ability to notice the present—was integral to their cognitive flexibility.

To resolve my question, I began researching mindfulness. I read works by Jon Kabat-Zinn and began practicing mindful meditation. I discovered the research of Ellen Langer, a mindfulness scholar at Harvard; her work on mindfulness and learning changed the way I thought about knowledge construction, and further emphasized the importance of anchoring one’s consciousness in the present. As I extended my circle of thought partners to include the research of John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam, it became clear mindfulness was more than a mindset, it was a skill. It required both the ability to attend to the present and the willingness to engage with the present (Hattie, 2009; Langer, 1998).

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Learning to Notice

Reflecting on my group of students, I refined my question: How do I cultivate both the ability and willingness to attend to the present? As I continued to search for clues, I recognized the power of noticing. When I slowed down and anchored my attention, I recognized more nuance and detail, making every reading or experience novel.

To create this experience for my students, I turned to research from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, particularly their work on Visible Thinking. Their thinking routines, such as See, Think, Wonder, help students learn to take time to notice detail and how to use their observations to make meaning. This is similar to the way AltSchool educators use Think Sheets to help students think through social situations. Think Sheets guide students in noticing their own thoughts and feelings, then the thoughts and feelings of others. Just like Project Zero’s thinking routines, they help develop the skill of noticing.

Students document and share their work with their teachers, parents, and one another using Capture, a tool in the AltSchool platform that helps make learning visible.

Another strategy I borrowed from Making Thinking Visible was to create ongoing opportunities for students to bring visibility to their thinking—from writing to building models to engaging in conversation. Once students made their thinking visible, they were able to inspect and notice specific details of their work, making documentation an important aspect of their learning to notice. Documentation is fundamental to a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach because it celebrates each child’s unique learning language and is a catalyst for reflection.

Video: See how Capture enables learner agency.

Shifting from Skill to Mindset

As my students and I continued to cultivate our ability to notice, my perceptions of reflection changed. It was clear reflection was most powerful when it was embedded into the design of the learning experience. In fact, I realized if I wanted to engender a reflective mindset, I had to design each learning experience with reflection as the core design principle. With this new awareness, I was able to effectively implement new strategies like the thinking routines and analyze old strategies to understand what made them effective (or not). In the case of the paper airplane unit, I recognized the specific design characteristics—students posing the driving question, emphasizing trials and iteration, close reading of data—that unlocked my students’ reflective mindsets.

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I realized it takes more than carefully crafted lessons to strengthen students’ reflective mindsets. Everything from language usage to modeling helped to reinforce reflection as a mindset. Whenever we analyzed a piece of work or wanted to provide feedback, we always led with, “I noticed.” I was transparent with my students about my desire to learn more about reflection and mindfulness. I modeled my own noticing by surfacing my own thoughts and feelings, and modeled how I used my observations to make adjustments to my own learning.

I’m still on my journey of studying mindfulness and reflection. But ever since that moment with the paper airplane, I’ve learned many valuable lessons about the power of embedded reflection. When we give students opportunities to step into their reflective mindset, the dynamics of the classroom shift. Students become the main agents of learning. They become more curious, more willing to take risks and solve complex problems, and more engaged in taking ownership over self-monitoring progress and making mindful decisions to extend their learning. They become experts in the way they think and can articulate what brings them joy. Perhaps most importantly, they discover who they are and who they have the potential to become.

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