How to make reflection more powerful

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Written by Paul Matthews on 16 December 2015

In my last blog, Practice makes perfect? I talked about the role of practice in learning, and how practice can trigger improvement. It can also trigger reflection, which is a necessary component of any learning process.

That of course begs the question, ‘How can we improve our reflection to improve our learning?’

I like to think of reflection as something that can happen at 5 levels, and the further we can assist a learner to ascend those levels of reflection, the better and more ‘sticky’ the learning is likely to be. Consider the 5 levels below and design your learning initiatives to utilise as many of the levels as you can.

Level 1: The unconscious and automatic ‘autocorrect’ that was described in the previous blog.

Level 2: Basic reflection involving internal dialogue. The quality of this reflection varies immensely from wallowing in how wonderfully we did something, or wallowing in how poorly we performed, or reflecting in a way that is useful for learning by asking ourselves questions. When people talk about reflection, they usually mean this solitary mulling over of our experiences in order to understand them better, and connect them with previous experiences or knowledge.

Level 3: We can improve upon the reflection of Level 2 by externalising our thinking. The reason this works is that in order to externalise the ideas, they must be assembled into understandable language.

The way we speak to ourselves internally may sound intelligible to us, but when we externalise them, we have to reconsider how to assemble the thoughts and structure them with words that could be understood by someone else. You can do this by writing about your thinking in a journal, a blog, or by telling your thoughts to a colleague, or even your dog on a walk in the park.

Level 4: This is similar to Level 3 but with the added dimension that when you externalise your thinking, there are consequences. By this I mean that the person, or people, who you are speaking with have their own opinion, and may challenge your thinking, or your perception is that they may judge you in some way based on what you say.

Your audience could be a colleague, or your boss, or a mentor or coach. You will likely reflect on your subject in more detail and in a different way, and try and anticipate the turns the conversation might take, if the conversation has consequences.

Level 5: You have probably heard the old adage “The best way to learn something is to teach it.” This should really be rewritten to state “The best way to learn something is to prepare the lesson plan to teach it.”

It is the preparation of the lesson plan and the reflection that accompanies this process that provides the learning. You have to think about your subject in a whole new way to understand how someone who does not know what you know, will react to what you have to say, and where they will find the concepts and ideas difficult to grasp. Then you need to think of a way to deliver those ideas so they can grasp them.

This is a whole ‘higher’ and different level of reflection. The delivery of that lesson plan is less useful than the reflection involved with preparing the lesson plan, until of course, your student asks an awkward question you had not anticipated. But this just pushes you back into reflection mode to figure out how to answer their question.

Notice that the higher levels are actually collaborative reflection, and it is likely the other people will also benefit from the process.  A lot of learning and understanding happens in conversation and collaboration.

How can you design your learning programmes to push people as far up this ‘learning stack’ as you can?

About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, ​