Educators: Before you Recharge this Summer, Reflect
Our company is known for having a unique organizational culture. We have eliminated the traditional organizational hierarchy of direct managers; we employ a self-organizing team structure; and if you attended this year’s Personalized Learning Summit, you know we also view trivia and dancing to 80’s music as valuable team-building time. Something that is not as widely known is that we also have internal monthly challenges. During the month of November, our CEO challenged us to meditate for five minutes every day. That was the entire challenge. Five, uninterrupted minutes of silence where we took time to pause and reflect. Resources were shared. Apps were downloaded. An accountability chat room was created. On the first day of the challenge, nearly 20 team members meditated. Two weeks in, there were less than 10 people meditating with fidelity. And by day 30, very few had continued the practice.
While some of my colleagues did an excellent job turning this challenge into a daily habit, I was with the majority of my team who failed miserably. Along with my colleagues, I reflected on why it was so hard to devote - even five minutes a day - to complete silence. You read that correctly. We took time to reflect on why it was so hard to reflect (the true purpose of our meditation challenge). A few hypotheses surfaced, including that:
- Absent of an app, we were unsure how to meditate
- Stillness felt like wasted time and other priorities seemed more pressing
- Quiet time made space for anxious thoughts
Still, in our role as teachers or education professionals and proponents of personalized learning, we often spout the power of reflection and taking time to reflect. John Dewey, American education reformer and psychologist famously wrote,
“We cannot tell just what the consequences of observed conditions will be unless we go over past experiences in our mind, unless we reflect upon them and by seeing what is similar in them to those now present, go on to form a judgment of what may be expected in the present situation.”
Many people have translated this quote to simply say, “We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.”
So if reflection is so important to learning, why aren’t more of us in education doing it? Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that the answer may lie in the two systems of thinking we employ - System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is always on. This is the system we use to make quick decisions, many unconsciously. For example, what groceries are you going to buy? Marketing experts rely on System 1 thinking as the ultimate goal of any brand - to become the unconscious, “no-brainer” purchase. Think Band-Aid, Sharpie, or Popsicle (yes, unless you buy the brand Popsicle, you are just consuming an ice pop).
System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is characterized by slow, deliberate thinking, with the purpose of seeking new and missing information. Reflection lies in this second cognitive process. And while this type of thinking is innate to all human beings, it often takes a backseat to System 1 thinking. Researchers have found that Americans view “busyness” and lack of time for System 2 Thinking and reflection to be a status symbol that people aspire to - such as being a member of the uppermost socioeconomic class or owning a large mansion. In other words, time spent on reflection is seen in opposition to “working,” “doing,” and “achieving.”
If our meditation challenge is any guide, here are the top three reasons we don’t make time for reflection, and how educators can use the slower days of summer to do so.
1. We don’t understand how to get started with reflection.
There are two critical steps you can take this summer to begin the practice of reflection. The first is to schedule time to do so. Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, writes that you should purposefully block off a chunk of time on your calendar to reflect. “There will always be a need to get things done and knock another To Do item off the list. However...as the breadth and depth of your initiatives expand...you will require more time than ever before to just think,” Weiner writes. Once you have blocked time off your calendar, use these or other reflection questions as a way to start:
- What happened this year?
- What did I learn in general about myself?
- What did my students learn in general?
- What worked for me as an educator?
- What worked for my students as learners?
- What would I want to take with me into the next school year?
2. We view stillness or inaction as a waste of time.
A 2007 study on elite soccer goalkeepers revealed that during penalty kick rounds, most goalies have a tendency to jump right or left and do this almost exclusively when attempting to block goals. The study found that if these same goalies had simply not moved, but rather stayed in the center, they would increase their odds of stopping a goal by more than 30%. The study implied that a goal scored would feel better for the goalie who had acted (jumped left or right) than for the goalie who did not act (stayed in the center). But it is in our nature to act. Sitting still or inaction often feels like a missed opportunity and not just to World Cup hopefuls.
Similarly, a 2014 Harvard Business Review study found that taking time to stop and reflect actually improved job performance. Some tips that were shared during our company meditation challenge were to reflect on the first thing that we did after waking up or the last thing we did before bed. If your answer is “check email/social media” like it was for us, consider blocking out dedicated time to check your email on your calendar one to two times per day and reserve the first or last 5 minutes of your day for reflection instead.
3. We don’t like or are intimidated by the results.
Reflection is hard because, as we shared within our team, it can make space for anxious thoughts. You have to be honest with yourself about what you did well, which we tend to dismiss, and even more difficult, be candid with yourself about what you did not do well. The failure to reflect can lead us as educators to repeat our actions over and over again. A 2015 Forbes article put it this way: “[An employee who fails to reflect] doesn’t have 10 years of experience - he has two years of experience repeated five times.”
It’s even harder in education. If we admit failure in our teaching practice, the effects of that are very real for students. Instead, view reflection as part of the iterative practice. Iteration and innovation require prototyping a model, testing it out, and using data from that test to refine your prototype. Your past year of teaching was a prototype (or several prototypes) of an instructional model. To reflect on this model, consider asking:
- How did your test model go this year?
- What does your data (anecdotal, quantitative, or otherwise) show you about that model?
- What does your instructional model in your next year need to include?
- What can be tweaked or changed about your model?
Regardless of whether you just finished your first year of personalized learning, your fifteenth year of teaching, or have already booked your summer full of professional development opportunities, ensure you make time to reflect on your school year. Whether it’s five silent minutes a day or one solid work block for self-reflection, your System 2 brain will thank you.
About Gabrielle Hewitt
Gabby Hewitt is an Associate Partner at Education Elements, working directly with large and small schools and districts to impact student growth and success. She spent six years in the classroom as an 8th grade U.S. History Teacher, first in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and later with KIPP DC. In her first year in the classroom, she was selected to receive the Maryland Association of Teacher Educators Distinguished Teacher Candidate award. During that time, Gabby also wrote the county-wide history curriculum for middle schools and assisted the Prince George’s County Social Studies Department with the rollout and integration of the Common Core State Standards. Gabby led teams as both the Social Studies Department Chair and Eighth Grade Level Chairperson before leaving the classroom to train and manage the development of resident teachers in her charter network. As the Manager of Professional Development for the Capital Teaching Residency program with KIPP DC, she developed skills in planning and facilitating adult professional development, project management, and effective teaching evaluation models. Gabby holds a B.S. in Political Science and a B.A. in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University. She earned her M.S. in Educational Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Born and raised in New Orleans, Gabby currently lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and sons. When she is not working, you can find Gabby pursuing her passion for photography, finding new coffee shops, and chasing around her two little ones.