In China’s Zhejiang province, preschool children are constructing their own playground. With wood blocks, ladders, and planks, they are building a slide and a climbing frame. Experimenting with different angles, they try to figure out how a change in slope will affect their sliding experience. Wary of safety, some children hold the ladder when it wobbles. And they place mats beside the slide when they experiment with making its slope steeper.
Where are the teachers? Although they remain in the background, they have an important role: to be close and attentive observers who document the ongoing learning processes by taking pictures or videos. This documentation is later combined with drawings by the children expressing what they found interesting during the day so they can reflect together about the experience. Importantly, this practice is child directed, that is, it is driven by the children’s interests and fascinations.
Problems with reflective practices at school
This exercise in child agency – known as the progressive pedagogical approach “Anji Play” – highlights how children can learn about the world and test their capabilities in a self-directed manner. In doing so, the learners enhance their proficiency in a skill that is a central human challenge – understanding how to survive in an uncertain and often volatile world. The reflective practices aid in consolidating experiences and making sense of surprising events. Such skill development is helpful for children at any age.
“Reflection is triggered by an unusual or perplexing situation or experience . . . the element of surprise is of critical importance.”
Contrast these experiences to those in most schools, where reflective practices look very different. At a typical school, students are often bored by questioning at the end of an exercise which asks them to write what they have learned during the day. In our research, we find that such reflection prompts rarely lead the student to wonder about issues that have yet to be resolved. Instead of eliciting meaningful reflection, these prompts often result in a guessing game where students try to gauge what the teacher might want to hear from them. For many students, the word reflection becomes a term with negative associations.
“I really hate doing , they are boring, and usually formatted in an uncreative way,” explained one student. “And sometimes these are questions that are extremely hard to answer or formulated in a weird way. Too many questions!”
Reflection has become a key concept in formal education
Student antipathy to such “reflections” may seem ironic since reflection has become a cornerstone of education in the 21st century. Across the world, numerous commissions, organizations, and state educational boards have highlighted reflection as a standard and a skill toward which students, as well as teachers, should strive. Yet there is little agreement over what reflection really is and how best to facilitate it.
The scientific literature on reflection (and especially the work by Russell Rogers) offers a couple of key insights. It suggests that reflection is triggered by an unusual or perplexing situation or experience and requires active engagement on the part of the individual. It involves examining one’s responses, beliefs, and premises in light of the situation at hand and results in integrating the new understanding into one’s experience. We believe that the first of these insights – the element of surprise – is of critical importance.