Reflecting on Reflection

I’ve said this all along and believe it even more so now that I’m on the other side of my own attempt at blogging – to blog is a brave thing.

Photo Credit: Eustaquio Santimano via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eustaquio Santimano via Compfight cc

A blog asks that I invite you as the reader into my thought process. Not only am I being asked to reflect on the things that I do and why I do them, I am asked to share those things with the world. Reflection requires that I be vulnerable and honest with myself. Reflection via blog ads an extra layer of vulnerability on top of that.

Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield is well known for his work within the field of critical reflection and reflective teaching. My background in education taught me that as a classroom teacher one of the important things that I needed to do after teaching was to take some time to reflect – how did my lesson go? Did the students learn what I intended for them to learn? What should I change the next time I teach these objectives? What worked really well? What completely flopped? But, as you probably are aware, knowing you should do something and actually doing something are two very different things. Since the concept was taught to me in my educational methods classes, reflection has consistently been the thing that I knew I should do, but if I was going to let one thing slide in my lesson planning and teaching that would be it. Brookfield calls this “teaching innocently.” The word innocent makes it sound nice, but the truth is that it’s actually a pretty naive way to approach teaching and life in general.

In this case, to teach – or to work – innocently means that I assume that I’m always in the know about what is going on. It assumes that the things that we do – the way I explain a database search, the way that we organize information, even the objectives that I try to cover in a given class  – always do what we intend for them to do. It sounds like a laissez faire approach to teaching and to life. The truth is that a lack of reflection can lead to ongoing frustration. When we don’t reflect we don’t have a way of understand the whys of when we do well or when we fail. In a sense, teaching innocently or living without reflection keeps us from knowing how to recreate the good and to change the bad.

Now that I have fourteen blogs under my belt, these are a few of the things I’ve been reminded or reconsidered during my semester of reflection -

  1. This blogging thing is harder than it looks. I admit this fact to my bloggers as we begin each semester, but there is nothing like trying to do it yourself to drive home a point. The process of blogging in academia takes a careful balance of guts and discipline – two of which things that I often find myself in limited supply. Writing here is a delicate dance of – This is what I want to say. Can I say that? Does that make any sense? It’s what time?!
  2. The process is worth more than you think. Yeah, yeah, I’m supposed to reflect. I’m in an environment that stimulates me to question the world around me. I knew that reflection was good for me both personally and professionally. I’ve been surprised to find that reflecting on the blog (and weekly the impending deadline) has caused me to be reflective in other areas of my life. Along the lines of what David Splawn pointed out last week, writing a blog means that you are constantly on the look for things to write about. This semester I’ve found myself thinking about classroom experiences, the science of information, and how my faith influences my service as a librarian more than I can remember doing in the past.
  3. We all bring something unique to the table. Having followed this and other blogs like it for quite some time, I kind of already knew this one. Still, this semester has been an excellent reminder of what we can learn from each other. I’m no fan of vulnerability, but the truth is, the more that we are able to share with each other the more that we are able to understand. We have such a diverse body of knowledge on this campus, but it is so easy (and often tempting) to stay  in our own disciplines. This blog has given glimpses into the world of theatre, english, religion, communication, biology,  leadership, kinesiology, and sociology in ways that I would never be able to experience otherwise. I can’t know everything and while I learn from experience, I’d like to learn from your experiences too. Friends, I am grateful for the sharing.
  4. None of us gets it all right all the time. This is where the vulnerability thing really stands out. Engaging in reflection does point out the things that we do well – those are the things we like to talk about. I need to remember what worked and what didn’t. I need to think about why one thing worked with one class and totally fell flat with another group of students. Reflection reminds me that I’m not perfect – it also reminds me that I’m not terrible either.
  5. Not just a job, it’s a calling. Sometimes in the day in and day out we forget. We forget why and for whom we do the things that we do. I’m so immersed in my discipline of information science that I rarely take the opportunity to step back and look at what this library thing looks like from the outside world and how/if it makes the impact that I think it does. Reflection has helped me think about my every day tasks in light of the bigger picture of what I love (and don’t love)  about my profession.
Photo Credit: Gigi Thibodeau via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Gigi Thibodeau via Compfight cc

One last anecdote I’ll share before I sign off for the semester (I’ve also been reminded that I’m can be a rather long-winded writer):

Earlier in the semester I ranted about hearing someone on the radio talk about the anatomy of a chicken egg and mistakenly claim that there is an umbilical cord in said chicken egg. If you read that blog, you need to know the rest of the story (cue Paul Harvey). Weeks later I received a letter from Grace, the child I’ve sponsored through Compassion International for six years. Gracie draws me pictures of things she sees around her or things that she is learning in school in each letter that I receive. I kid you not, this last letter that I received had a nicely drawn, correctly labeled diagram of… the parts of a chicken egg. I cannot make this up, people. Through Compassion, Grace is learning valuable life skills that help her understand the world around her. Meanwhile, reflection is helping me find connections in the strangest of places and reminding me of all that I still see through the mirror dimly.

EDP

The Fear Factor

I went to an academic conference over the summer.  Several of the speakers zeroed in on an area of research that is finally getting some traction.  The question they addressed concerned student success in college.  One survey, taken at the Community College of Baltimore, discovered two primary reasons students drop out of school—They are overwhelmed by life problems.  Or they are overwhelmed by affective issues, mostly centered around “fear, anxiety, and a suspicion that they are just not college material.”

In other words, ability is usually not the problem.  Life is. The fear factor is.

So, how do we help these students?  The suggestions given are common-sense ones—“Create a safe atmosphere” in the classroom.  Find a balance between “flexibility” and “tough love”—between “compassion” and “firmness” (a lot harder than it might sound).  Implement “confidence-building experiences” early on in the semester.

And be aware of mindsets—because students will have “fixed mindsets” or “growth mindsets.”

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says that a fixed mindset is “the belief that intelligence is fixed [which] dampens students’ motivation to learn, makes them afraid of effort, and makes them want to quit after a setback.”

So when classes get hard, students give up.  Because when they struggle, Dweck says, they “feel dumb.”

Do I have students who have this mindset?  Of course.  But my confession is this: Sometimes I have the same mindset.

I fear failure.  And in my profession, where performance is evaluated and measured each semester, I often feel like I’m not measuring up.  And when I struggle, I feel dumb.  This doesn’t motivate me to be better.  It discourages me and makes me want to give up.

I guess the question is this: How do we establish growth mindsets?  How do we establish the belief that just because something is challenging and causes us to struggle, this is not a reflection of our intelligence or ability?

I’m pretty sure that most of the speakers at the conference did not embrace a Christian world view.  If there is such a thing as grace, I learned, it is merely a human grace we extend to each other.  And as teachers, we know the expectations of gracious teaching.  Help students to realize their potential and to be true to themselves.   Encourage.  Uplift.  Reinforce.  Reaffirm.  We do this because we care about them.  But we do this too because we care about retention, and we must always be looking for ways to keep students from dropping out.

But is this all there is to teaching?  Just getting students to finish college and get jobs so we not only identify them as successful but ourselves, as well?

I worry a lot about leaving God out of this equation.

Do I care for my students? Yes.  Do I want them to graduate?  Yes.  Do I want them to get good jobs?  Yes.  But. . . .

If this is all we are about as educators, we only address part of the need.  Because each one of us has a soul.  And souls don’t have expiration dates, like milk.  We will all live forever.

I take education seriously.  But I take eternity much more seriously.

I admit to my students that college is a big thing.  But it is not the whole thing.  God has opened this door of opportunity for you, I tell them, so seize it.  Work hard and be successful, not to bring honor to yourself, but to bring glory to God.

And when they get scared.  When they start to struggle.  When the challenges seem insurmountable.  I remind them that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength.  Trust Him, I say.  Lean on Him.  Because He is real and He is relevant.

I work hard in the classroom.  I take the material seriously.  But I am also serious about modeling a life that glorifies God, the author of grace.  If they don’t see that life in me, I have failed.  Measure me all you want.  Evaluate me all you want.  But I have a greater judge.  And when I stand before Him, I hope I hear these words—“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I want that for me. I want that for you.  I want that for my students.  Because that is true success.  

SC