We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience. - John Dewey
Dewey was a believer in the power of reflection to inform the learning process. And yet, while Dewey imagined and spoke to the power of individual and group reflection in the learning process, he likely never imagined how reflection might be able to be hyper-charged in today’s classroom.
I won’t forget the day that I first truly understood the power of online learning spaces for reflection. I was visiting the Harpeth Hall School in November 2009 with the teacher of the OSG Genetics course. The teacher was speaking to an administrator at Harpeth Hall about the progress of the Harpeth students in her online course. She went on at length about the particularly strong class contributions of one of her students. The Harpeth Hall administrator had a confused look on her face, and finally inquired whether the teacher was actually speaking about this particular student. ”Yes, of course, she is a real leader in our classroom,” said the teacher. “She never, ever speaks up in classrooms on campus,” replied the administrator.
Time and time again this same scene has played itself out in conversations with campus administrators. When you ask students why this is, they inevitably answer that “it is not that I didn’t have anything to say in class, it is that I needed time to think about my answer and formulate it.” They needed time to reflect.
When pressed on this, students also speak to the individual differences in their reflection. Some talk about the desire to get online first thing in the morning when they are fresh to reflect upon a course experience. Others say that inspiration hits them as they are working on or playing on their school’s sports team. And, others say that they are at their best later at night. This all makes sense, too. As adults, we know that we are at our best at different times of day (for me… it is after a long run or late at night). And yet, we often ask our students to be at their best on our schedules for them (calculus meets from 8am-9am in the morning). So, an additional advantage to building asynchronous reflection points (journals, blogs, discussion boards, etc.) into courses is that students can choose to interact when they are at their freshest, not when adults tell them that they should be.
Most importantly, this time for reflection has helped students understand, develop, and project their voice in the classroom, in a way that is difficult to do (if not impossible) in a face-to-face setting. Thus, by building in time for reflection in an online setting to web-facilitated, online, or blended courses, the teacher is helping to fulfill a core promise of independent schools: to cultivate and develop each student and her/his voice in the learning process.
This is a fairly easy standard for a school or a teacher to start to implement, assuming that they have some system in place for asynchronous discussions, blogs, or journals. Journals or blogs are great spaces for individual reflections. Discussion boards (and to a lesser extent blogs) are a great place for group reflections.
Some helpful hints for teachers engaging students in asynchronous online discussions or journals for the first time (or who are new to this type of instruction). This is, by no means, an exhaustive list, but instead just a starting point:
- Start slow… Insert an asynchronous discussion or required journal entry once every few weeks, don’t jump into one discussion/entry a night.
- Don’t just try it once and give up if you don’t see the outcomes that you want. You are going to have to try this a number of times in order to find success and to find how particular discussions work with your group’s dynamic and individuals in your classes.
- Moderating an online discussion has some similarities to moderating a classroom discussion: the teacher’s role is to help guide the discussion and ask questions of students, not to be omnipresent; some students will tend to dominate the discussion, and the teacher will have to appropriately guide the students; some students will be relatively silent, and the teacher will have to encourage them.
- Hold the class accountable to the online discussion, and hold individuals accountable for journals. Give the online discussion as much value as an in-person discussion. And, at least for the first few online discussions, do not repeat the discussion in the face-to-face classroom format (doing so sends the signal to students that they have an option of where and how to participate, and at the start, you’ll want to help them value the online).
- Consider your prompts. Just as you would in a classroom setting, consider what you want students to reflect upon (in groups or individually).
- Set ground rules. You may tweak the rules you set as you go along, but start out with a clear set of expectations. For example, you probably are going to want to give guidelines to students on how often they should post, how they interact with others in discussion boards, and how long their posts should be.