Can we learn to reflect?

One of the advantages of growing older is that you become a more conscious learner; you find ways to draw lessons out of a variety of situations and experiences. Sometimes the learning stares you in the face and all you have to do is pull it out of the background. At other times you need to actively carve it out like an archaeologist, often not knowing what you will find until you have blown away the debris. But these lessons, even the obvious ones, are available only upon reflection, when we look back with a thoughtful eye on what we have seen and heard and read and felt.

The ability to reflect doesn’t seem to be as common as we might think. Of course, we often encourage children to think about things, to look at a situation that may arise in the classroom or the playground, we talk and walk them through conflicts or confusions. But somewhere in all this there is also a target that stimulates the reflection – the need to find an answer to a question or a solution to a problem. Reflection that has a purpose, one that is tied closely with curriculum related marks or grades, is of course crucial to learning, but often it happens that students see it as something that is instrumental to a particular task, and fail to integrate it as way of understanding life in general.

One of the most important of what have been touted as “twenty-first century skills” is learnability – the ability to learn from context, to incrementally add to a broad understanding of the world and its dynamics in a broad sense. Reflection lies at the heart of this. If we are able to look at something carefully, think about it in an analytical and dispassionate manner, take apart its components and see how they fit together, then we can learn a great deal from it, whatever “it” may be. This becomes more important in areas where we do not have “how to” manuals or YouTube videos to take lessons from, such as managing human interactions.

Today, the Internet has become the default “go to” option when one is faced with a problem or an unfamiliar situation. We look for ready solutions that can be applied instantly. While this may work when we’re trying to fix a machine or learn how to use a tool, it may not work for more complex social or cultural issues. Yes, we can certainly take from others’ documented experiences and learn from them, but we need to go through a process of application to the situation at hand and that is something that only we – who are in the middle of the situation – can do. Reflection gives us a way to do that.

Is it possible for us to build a habit of reflection – without instrumentality – into our students? Some are fortunate to be naturally endowed with this characteristic, but can we inculcate it into those who are not?

Something to reflect on, this Teacher’s Day?