September 26th, 2008
In one of the comments to my last entry, one of my former students asked for examples of ‘experiential education’. The York School has, since its beginnings, had the motto, “Experientia Docet”, or “Experience Teaches”. In our most recent Strategic Plan (2007), one of the major planks was to be a renewed push in the area of experiential education. Based on that commitment, we had our faculty begin this year with a half day focused on experiential education as an ongoing area for professional development. To set the context for the direction the school had adopted, I gave an address in which I outlined the philosophical underpinnings of experiential education, and the rationale for this strategic direction. You can access the address at the following link. Click here
September 22nd, 2008
To blog or not to blog. That was the question raised soon after our new Technology Teaching and Learning Specialist, Justin Medved, arrived on our school’s doorstep this August. A blogger – go see his blog – and general web enthusiast, Justin had just come from the International School of Bangkok, where he had successfully turned that school on fire with all things technological. Moreover, he had convinced two of the key administrators there to begin to blog. I was to be his next subject. As it would turn out, Justin found in me a receptive audience. Having just returned from a leadership conference given by Independent School Management (ISM) in Philadelphia, I had been persuaded that ‘reflection’ needed to become an essential part of my job. That being said, by the time Justin and I sat down in September, I was already slipping into a familiar pattern of endless meetings and emails, putting out fires, and biking home as fast as I could so that I could get a start on the tasks that didn’t get completed during the daylight hours. Where was the reflection?
As a school principal overseeing the delivery of two of the International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes (MYP and Diploma), I am constantly reminded that reflection is a key educational value. The IB has developed a list of ten key attributes that make up the ‘Learner Profile’ – number ten is “reflective”. Reflection turns up in so many of the things that our students do, from research in the humanities and the design cycle in technology to assessment criteria in math, science and the arts, from the personal project to reflections on Creativity, Action and Service (CAS), an obligatory requirement for all students. And then there is the mandatory Diploma course that I am privileged to teach, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), in which students continually have to reflect on everything they do as students. Beyond the requirements of the IB, I am daily faced with our school’s motto “Experientia Docet” or “Experience Teaches”. And as anyone knows, experience doesn’t teach much of anything without reflection.
Which brings me back to the blog. A blog appears, at first blush, to be a preposterous undertaking. Who, in their right mind, and in all humility, could believe that their thoughts are worthy fodder for the consumption of the entire world? Only an ego of colossal proportions, or someone much more famous, clever, or humourous than I, could consider such a thing. And yet, I thought, isn’t that the sort of response I receive from some of my students when I ask them to share their thoughts with their class, or write out their reflections? “Why me,” they seem to say, “my reflections aren’t good enough to share”. And then I had my first inkling as to what reflection was and why it might be important. And I began to reflect.
And I continued to reflect. And reflections turned to readings, and readings turned to further reflections, and I suddenly became aware that the blog had done its trick. I was reflecting for I had to blog. I blog; therefore I reflect. I reflect; therefore I am.
So what is reflection, why is it so hard for so many of us to do, and why do we insist upon it as an educational value?
Much has been written on the role of reflection in education. I happened upon the “encyclopedia of informal education”, a web project, in which author Mark K. Smith has conveniently summarized the major literature regarding reflection in education from John Dewey to the present. Suffice it to say, I have a great deal of reading to do before I can pretend to be anything of an authority on this subject. But in the interim, I am able to point to a number of themes that are important to a consideration of reflection’s role in education. In the first place, reflection is not a pleasant dreamy state that we would set to romantic music with a sunset as our backdrop. As Dewey writes, reflective thought is an “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends.” (Dewey 1933: 118) It is a rational, deliberate and purposeful activity that involves critical analysis and synthesis. It is hard work. More recent thinkers have tended to emphasize the role of reflection in responding to experience and make more of the emotions that lie at the core of experience. As Donald SchÖn has written, “The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour.” (SchÖn 1983: 68) In fact, it is often the emotion – whether it takes the form of doubt, puzzlement, or distress – that drives people to engage in reflection.
It is precisely the emotional basis for reflection – not to mention the hard work – that makes reflection so tricky in the field of education. Asking a room full of 14 year olds to reflect on their experience tends to summon up the same response as some of my worst puns. That is why ‘experiential learning’ is becoming so important to the education of young adolescents. Unless you engage such students in authentic tasks leading to emotional responses, you can’t expect real reflection to take place. That’s one of the reasons why at our school we introduced an integrated experiential education programme in grade 9. As a result, we have seen many of our Grade 9 students successfully reflect, for in putting pen to paper they draw together heart and mind.
As our students move into the Diploma programme at grade 11, we witness the transformation that seemed impossible at grade 9 - students want to reflect, as Dewey suggested, on their beliefs and the basis of their knowledge. Suddenly, students are excited to find answers to such questions as “why do I have these beliefs?”, and “how do I know?” Emotional responses are no longer limited to what has been experienced directly, but extends beyond their world of friends and family, TV personalities and popular music icons, to the adult concerns of media manipulation, political machinations, and environmental degradation. The world is suddenly their oyster, and their reflections become vital and profound.
But lest we forget, reflection is hard work. Whether we are sorting out our emotions and discerning personal values and attitudes, or discovering the shaky underpinnings of contemporary truths, reflection takes work, and, I would suggest, it takes practice. As I prepared to write this blog, I was amazed at how difficult it is to keep focused on a single abstract topic for stretches of time over several days. At the same time, the longer I kept at it, the clearer my thinking became. And the more organized my thoughts became, the stronger was my vision.
As a leader of a school whose mission is as lofty as one could possibly imagine – “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who are engaged citizens of the world” – I have to summon up a vision that is capable of making that mission come to life: for me, for my teachers, for my students, and for their parents, all of whom look to me to breathe life into those precious 15 words. I can’t do that on a diet of meetings and emails. I need to reflect. For in reflection, the barely audible stirrings of the heart come to the surface and infuse the mind with a sense of purpose, of order, and, yes, a clearer vision. And that is when I finally came to have a fuller understanding of why we need to have our students reflect.
If I need purpose, order and vision to run a school, how desperately do our youth need these three? In a time when their brains are changing as dramatically as they did in the first two months of their life, when eight subjects fly by in two days, and friends are made and lost in a hallway gathering or flurry of typed messages, when the world seems doomed by global warming, the crash of Wall Street, and rogue dictators in countries that no longer seem so far away, a little bit of purpose, order and vision could go a long way. Reflection may be hard work, but giving students the opportunity to practice this vital thinking skill on an ongoing basis can only benefit them now and in the future.
For in the practice of reflection lies our hope for tomorrow. Reflection will give our children the ability to rise above fashions and fads, to resist evil masquerading as comfort, and find lasting meaning in their lives. Reflection will enable our children to have clear visions of what is good and what is right, regardless of the confusion of media sources that clutter their world.
And that, I suggest, is worth more than a moment’s reflection!
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: D.C. Heath.
SchÖn, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.
Updated with photos of two landscapes created by our Lower School art teacher, Bart Snow.