Thinking strategy #2: Reflection

Tree and reflection
Photo by Bess Hamiti

Reflection is essential—it’s how we discover what we think and what we know. At its simplest, reflection is a natural mental activity that occurs regularly and often involuntarily. It’s what we do while walking to the grocery store or waiting for an appointment. Focused reflection is a powerful thinking strategy that once learned can yield surprising and potent results. By asking ourselves questions and recording our answers we can consult with our tacit knowledge—intuitive, practical, context-dependent and experience-based “know-how.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “reflection” as the “action or process of thinking carefully or deeply about a particular subject, typically involving influence from one’s past life and experiences; contemplation, deep or serious thought or consideration…”* Costa and Kallick write in Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: “Reflection involves linking a current experience to previous learnings (a process called scaffolding). Reflection also involves drawing forth cognitive and emotional information from several sources: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, and tactile. To reflect, we must act upon and process the information, synthesizing and evaluating the data. In the end, reflecting also means applying what we’ve learned to contexts beyond the original situations in which we learned something.”**

Experts in learning, leadership and personal development highlight the benefits gained from regular self-reflection. They acknowledge the challenge of finding time and commitment for a reflection “practice” but note that even five minutes a day can generate positive results. Benefits accrue from engaging in daily reflection while recognizing that on occasion we may need to miss a day. Find a time that best accommodates a busy schedule (e.g. first thing in the morning, after work or at the end of the day before sleep) and develop the habit of checking in with your personal knowledge. For some, a conversation with a trusted colleague or friend may be the most effective form of reflection.

Getting started
Reflection can occur through conversation or posing/answering questions in a group discussion. For practical purposes, reflection is frequently done by journaling or recording thoughts in a notebook. If you’ve not yet adopted a notebook for recording thoughts and ideas, revisit Thinking strategy #1. Your notebook provides a place to record your questions, responses and other musings. Articles about self-reflection are plentiful on the Internet and many recommend recording your answers to a series of reflection-oriented questions in a notebook. Sample questions can be found in the resources listed below. You’ll also want to customize your list with additional questions specific to your situation or challenge. If a reflection journal is new to you, begin by choosing 6-10 questions to explore an issue or challenge. Bear in mind that reflection can be messy… perfect answers are not the goal (or productive).

Questions to initiate reflection
Consider forming your own questions to explore an experience and your feelings and goals for moving forward. A simple but useful approach is to ask yourself the following three questions about an event or situation: What? So what? Now what? Describe the situation (“what?”) and why it’s important (“so what?”). Finally describe your reflection/understanding going forward (“now what?”).

For example
What? [What is bothering me about work today?] My response to my manager’s question about the project in our meeting this afternoon
So what? I feel as though I didn’t respond appropriately and then was rather defensive when questioned by others around the table.
Now what? [What can I do to improve the situation going forward?] I will be better prepared to discuss my portion of the project prior to meetings and will consider asking teammates for input rather than reacting defensively in future.
This model is described in more detail by Kerry Jones (2015) [see Reflection resources below].

Additional sample questions
(Sources in Reflection Resources below)

♦ What am I avoiding?
♦ How am I helping my co-workers be successful in their work?
♦ How am I not helping or even hindering their progress?
♦ In what ways might I be contributing to my least enjoyable relationship at work?
[Prompted by Jennifer Porter in “Why you should make time for self-reflection (even if you hate doing it)” see resources below]

♦ What did I learn (personally and professionally) while working on this project/challenge? Why?
♦ Regarding communication with co-workers/team members during this project/period of time, what worked well? What needed improvement?
♦ What did others do (teammates, colleagues, family members etc.) to help me learn or overcome obstacles?
♦ What could I do differently next time?
♦ How will I use what I’ve learned in future?
[Based on Lee Watanabe-Crockett’s “25 Self-reflective Questions” see resources below]

♦ How was my mood/tone with others today and how can I improve it?
♦ In what ways did my colleagues/team members or students surprise me most today?
♦ What are the biggest obstacles to my work/participation as a team member or colleague and how will I overcome them?
♦ What could I do to support/assist my coworkers to ensure that we achieve better results?
[Based on Lee Watanabe Crockett’s “10 Self-reflective Questions” see resources below]

Reflection resources:
Jones, K. (2014) The Reflective Practitioner and Reflective Journal Writing (ARC II 2014). Adapted from Materials Prepared by Dr. Gregory W. Little. Connecticut. Office of Higher Education, 2014.

Jones, K. (2015) Becoming a Reflective Educator & Reflective Journal Writing (ARC II 2015). Adapted from Materials Prepared by Dr. Gregory W. Little. Connecticut. Office of Higher Education, 2015.

Porter, J. (2017, March 21). Why you should make time for self-reflection (even if you hate doing it) [Harvard Business Review digital article].

Watanabe-Crockett, L. (2017, November 6). 25 Self-reflection questions to get students thinking about their learning [blog post].

Watanabe-Crockett, L. (2018, July 11). 10 Self-reflective questions teachers can debrief with every day [blog post].

* Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed. September 2009.

** Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). pp. 221-22.