CarolAnn sat back in her chair and sighed loudly. “Oy vey,” she said. “Three words?!” I had just asked her to think back over her first year as an assistant principal and generate three words or phrases that might capture her experiences, thoughts, or feelings. I nodded and smiled. “Well, that’s the first: Oy vey!” She repeated. “And, culture and adjustment.”
In my coaching practice, I always find time with my clients for a final end-of-year reflection session. Whether I’m working with school teachers or school leaders, it is through reflection that we can isolate key lessons and frame them within the larger scope of our school year. Pausing to look back on our values, actions, and feelings as they were expressed throughout the year helps us clarify and solidify our learning, both intended and unintended, and helps us pinpoint some key takeaways that we learned through our teaching or leadership.
And no wonder—for the art of reflection is the science of learning. Indeed, as educational researcher David Kolb posited, reflection is a critical part of our learning, not just something we do after we’ve learned. According to Kolb, once we have an experience, we later review it in our minds; this reflection leads to a conceptualization of what we learned, which allows us to experiment further, thereby creating a new learning cycle (Kolb, 1984). Reflection happens when we review a learning experience, and learning happens when we conceptualize and draw conclusions about that experience.
We can connect Kolb’s learning cycle to what actually happens in our brains when we are learning and doing. When we discover something—an idea, a sensation, a novel experience—the messenger neurons in our brain send impulses, or electrical signals, to other receptor neurons, and a connection is made. This phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity, and the more connections we make the more we learn. Our brains become a literal network of ideas and information, each connected to another and another. We can take any number of different neural connections from one idea to another, revisiting some and at other times forging new pathways. Those connections that we revisit more often, that get called upon for more learning, are made stronger. If we look at an MRI of neural connections, like the one above, we can see that some connections appear thicker—these represent the learning pathways we frequent.
It might help to imagine our brains as a forest, filled with neuron “trees,” and our learning—the firing of one neuron to another—is like forging a new path between the trees, or from one tree to any number of others.
A path that is walked along only once is difficult to find again; but the more we walk along a path, the more the ground wears down to dirt, the more the forest floor opens up and creates a wider space, a more discernible route. This is the value of reflection: it helps us create pathways of learning, connections we can easily access, linking important ideas that help our brain grow so that we, too, grow smarter.
There are many ways we can spark reflective practice in ourselves or others. We might easily categorize these into writing, talking, or creating. If we choose to write, we can write a personal journal, a blog on a website, a social media post, a poem, an essay, or any other form of writing you might think of. If we talk, we can talk to a coach or trusted thought partner, to peers, one-on-one or within a small or larger group, or we can talk simply to whomever is listening and post our expressed thoughts in a Flipgrid, YouTube, or even TikTok video. Or, we can create: we can draw, paint, sculpt, dance, sing, play music, act out a scene, mime a human statue, create a PowerPoint or Padlet, create and fly a kite—if you can think of it, you can do it and make it your reflective practice!
CarolAnn’s three words—Oy vey, culture, and adjustment—told a simple story of her learning journey this year, and in identifying three words or phrases, she was able rather unconsciously to see the arc of her own growth. First, she felt dismay and exasperation; then she focused on developing the culture of her school through several small initiatives she put into place; and finally, she learned that everything needs tweaking and refining, and that such adjustments are not signposts of failure but are instead a part of successful implementation.
What might be some reflective practices you can engage in—either independently, with your staff, or with students? How might you carve out time for reflection as a matter of learning?