I started a new class this week. In addition to my day job, I teach a university course once or twice a year. The course I’m teaching currently is called “Adult Learning and Development.” The students who take this course tend to fall into one of two groups– they are either working (or hoping to work) in some aspect of adult education, or they have entered university late in life and the course is intended to help them gain greater insight into their own learning processes. I place a lot of emphasis on reflection in this course. For my students who are adult educators, I take the stance that I don’t just want them to learn a lot of academic theory about adult learning and development. I want them to take in that theory in a way that actually has an impact on how they behave when they interact with their students. And for my students who are there primarily as adult learners, I figure the theory is only meaningful if it actually touches them in a way that connects to their personal learning journey.
So I ask them to reflect. A lot. I build opportunities for reflection into class time and into assignments. I push them to reflect until they are rolling their eyes at me every time I say the word. But they thank me for it.
Reflection isn’t something many people immediately associate with university courses. But the reality is, you need reflection for learning. You need to stop cramming in new information long enough to let it roll around in your mind for a while and latch onto bits of knowledge that are already stored there — to make connections with your past learning so that the new learning knows where it fits in your every expanding mental picture of the universe. If you never stop to reflect on what you are learning, the learning will have minimal effect on you.
Think about a mirror. When I look in a mirror, this thing that is not me is showing me to me. My reflection only exists when I am positioned just so in relation to the mirror. In other words, if I am not engaged directly with the mirror, there is no reflection. Standing beside it doesn’t create a reflection. Nor does holding it turned away from me. I have to be facing it head on. Really looking at it. Looking into it.
Reflecting on experience is very much like that. It doesn’t matter if it is the experience of reading some new academic content, or a life experience. If I want to truly learn from that experience, I need to engage with it. It won’t be enough to stand beside it, or to hold it away from myself. I need to look into it head on until I see myself.
I am not saying that everything I learn is all about me. It isn’t. But I do think that everything I learn– even those things that challenge every fibre of my being, can act as a mirror to clarify and expand my picture of who I am in the world. I test who I am by holding up what I am learning and looking into it until I see the reflection — the connection — to what I already know. And I discover things I didn’t know about myself when the new learning reflects back an image that looks unfamiliar, and yet I know that what I am seeing is really me from a new angle.
We need reflection for learning all the time, not just when we sign up for university courses. I’ve been reflecting my way through parenting for nearly two decades– a learning enterprise that still challenges me daily to look at reflections of myself that are often less than flattering.
I’ve also had cause to reflect yet again on how little opportunity for reflection is built into my work day– and how very much I benefit when I do make time to step off the hamster-wheel frenzy that so often characterizes my day and pause to contemplate what each experience is offering to show me about my world, and about myself.