"Reflection makes experience meaningful"

"Reflection makes experience meaningful." Keilah Bias, an engineering student, said this during her presentation at the 2016 C...

"Reflection makes experience meaningful."

Keilah Bias, an engineering student, said this during her presentation at the 2016 CEEA conference in Halifax. It's an important point and a pertinent claim for both educators and students. Reflection is how we think through the significance of what happens to us, and decide what it will mean for our future. Pragmatically, reflection is an important cognitive function which helps fix ideas and concepts within the neural networks in our brain that "run" our minds, which in turn guides our future decisions.

Socrates (apparently) said much the same thing millennia ago: The unexamined life is not worth living. Of course, no one pays attention to the ancient Greeks any more, so it's not surprising that we keep re-discovering these basic truths. Nonetheless, it's noteworthy that we do keep re-discovering them, because it just reinforces their continuing relevance and universality.

The application of reflection to learning is obvious: reflection is an important element of learning because it helps fixate new knowledge for long-term recall and use; it also primes the brain for subsequent, more advanced learning.

The application to teaching is also obvious: we have to give students the opportunity to reflect, because reflection takes time.

This raises two important concerns. Do students have time to reflect? And do students know how to reflect?

Consider: How do you reflect on an experience? Have you ever asked yourself that? Does this question surprise you? Can you answer it?

If you can't, it's not a problem, and Google is your friend. You will easily find search results that are not just feel-good pop-psychology rubbish; you will find hits from schools of medicine and many other reliable sources. This is serious stuff.

Having 25ish years of teaching under my belt, though, I have to wonder whether students have been taught how to reflect. Given what I'm told - by students themselves - about their elementary and high school experiences, I'm forced to think they've been taught very little - or at least been taught it very poorly. More than lack of skill, many students don't even understand the relevance and importance of reflection, and so are that much less likely to learn how to reflect on their own.

There's precious little we can do about that in university. It's neither our job nor our responsibility to make up for deficits in the K-12 system. How we address this is an open question. I think we need to force the K-12 system to change, but I also think that will happen right after hell freezes over.

The other question, though, is a bit more under our (universities') control - namely, Do students have time to reflect?

Quite frankly, I don't think they do. I think we still remember our own experiences in university and haven't yet figured out that there are some very significant differences between those "good old days" and today. Some of the key changes between then and now that pertain: courses are far more intensive and contain a lot more stuff (not all of it useful) than they used to; as a result, students need to learn more, and learn it faster, than ever before; more of the stuff that students have to learn is abstract - or abstractly presented - which makes it harder to reflect on; commute times are getting ridiculously long, and it's basically impossible to reflect on a crowded subway; and students need to spend a lot more time earning money to pay for their education, which also eats into their time to reflect. There are probably many other changes, but these are the ones for which I have direct (albeit qualitative and subjective) evidence.

There are relatively straightforward solutions for all these problems*, but they're difficult - not because of any inherent complexity, but because they require changing the status quo. And change is hard, especially for those whose power will be diminished by change.

But no good will come from simply settling for the status quo, because the status quo sucks. The danger, as I see it, is the consequence of having a generation (or more) of people who have not reflected on their experiences and, indeed, don't know how to reflect. A widespread lack of reflection will act as a filter, removing a great deal of tacit knowledge about social contracts, the wisdom of history, and personal character. Reflection by the elder generations gives them the means to arrange society to ensure valuable systemic/societal knowledge is embedded in the experiences that the younger generations will have. This is knowledge you can't gain from a book; you have to live it to get it. If you don't experience it, it will never be real for you. It's the stuff of maturation and character development.

If you can't/don't reflect, you'll lose that knowledge. Without that knowledge, the society you leave for the next generation will no longer embody the ability to offer the experiences to young people that they need to gain that tacit knowledge for themselves. And because it's experiential, once it's gone, it could very well be gone forever.

What kind of knowledge am I talking about? The communal knowledge of how to get along with others. How to walk up a street and parse everything around you into meaningful information you can use to navigate your way to your goals. It's the knowledge that builds character, makes you strong enough to handle the bullshit that life will throw at you, and empathic enough to contribute to the community's overall well-being. It's falling off a bicycle, but getting back on and trying again and again till you get it right. It's trying new foods to learn why you like some but no others. It's having your heart broken for the sake of eventually finding the love of your life.

In many ways, this is the kind of knowledge that defines humanity. We're basically endangering our humanity if we don't help the younger generations figure out how to reflect and what to reflect on.

I try to do my part: I try to arrange my courses to at least allow for the possibility of students' reflecting on what I've tried to help them learn. I keep an actual spreadsheet where I calculate how much time my students should be spending on their studies outside class, and I do allow time in those calculations for reflection. I check it once in a while to see if I've missed anything important.

But I'm just one guy. Without institutionalizing this, I fear we'll just accelerate the arrival of The Marching Morons.

* In case you're wondering, the solutions that are straightforward but hard are: redesigning curriculum to carefully reflect what graduates need rather than what tenured full professors who live in ivory towers think they need; extending engineering programs to five years from four; massive build-outs of high quality residences so that all students who do not live within a 30 minute commute can live on-campus at a cost comparable to that of those who commute; and complete elimination of tuition.

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The Trouble with Normal...: "Reflection makes experience meaningful"
"Reflection makes experience meaningful"
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The Trouble with Normal...
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