Published on 2012/03/07

Time To Think: Activating The Artist’s Reflective Process In The Classroom

Time To Think: Activating The Artist’s Reflective Process In The Classroom
The artists’ process of reflection is a valuable addition to the classroom process. Photo by Alice Carrier.

Consider all the choices you’ve made today.

Go ahead, take your time…

What choice first jumped to mind? Was it a major decision that needed to be made for work? Perhaps a simple daily judgment about what to eat or wear?

Now consider all the factors that influenced your decision. Your mood? Outside demands? How confident were you about your choice? Was knowledge or intuition more important in your decision-making process? What constraints or limitations affected your choice? What does your choice say about your values or priorities?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, these ongoing considerations form a river on which we sail the boats of our lives each day. Our capabilities as decision-makers shape every nuance of our experience from the smallest details to the most monumental events. In the workplace, high value is placed on the employee with the greatest ability to take a wide variety of factors into account and make well judged decisions. Bloom’s Taxonomy ranks evaluating, judging and concluding as the highest-order thinking skills. Yet, in the mad dash to prepare students for standardized tests, very little time is allotted to developing the reflective skills in students that produce effective decision-makers.

As a Teaching Artist, my job is to merge the practices of the creative professional with those of the educational professional. One of the key components I strive to bring to the classroom is the artist’s process of reflection. Successful artists embrace the process of evaluating and re-evaluating their technique and their relationship to their art over a long span of time. When actors embark on a play production, for instance, they approach the rehearsal process with a series of wonderings intended to seek out the layers of importance within the story. They become scientists, experimenting with various combinations of physical, verbal and emotional elements, then make decisions about what produces the most inspiring formulas. As each audience brings its own chemistry to the performance, the performers must continue to respond, reshape and reflect upon the new insights that continue to emerge. Furthermore, if an actress plays the same role several years later, her life experiences and interactions with new cast members will cause her rethink her choices and discover fresh meaning.

The artist’s habits of thought serve as a valuable model for promoting the reflective skills that bridge the span between student and citizen. Whereas timed tests suggest that learning ends when the bell rings, reflective practice promotes the ongoing process of exploration over a long span of time. Rather than confining students to the false notion that every question has a straightforward multiple-choice answer, reflective practice empowers young people to wonder about multiple possibilities and discover relevance. Reflection is an active process that values not just what we learn, but how we learn, why it’s important and how learning impacts the choices we make.

Strengthening reflective skills requires schools to allow – better yet, encourage – teachers to take time during each class to actively look back on the learning process. Educators must have the freedom to explore connections to each student’s personal experiences, without feeling as though it would be viewed as a “waste of time.” Students should be given permission to wonder how today’s learning connects to their past and future experiences. Furthermore, higher value must be placed on each student’s ability to articulate his own developmental journey. Consider these questions, for instance:

  1. What are you expecting to discover about the Civil War?
  2. Why do we read Shakespeare? Are the reasons important?
  3. What tactics have I learned this year to improve as a creative writer?
  4. How do my own life experiences offer unique insight on the subject of immigration?
  5. What were the most important choices I had to make to complete this project?
  6. What about physics makes me wonder?

After all, if students can’t answer these questions effectively, then what does that say about the choices we’ve made as educators? Reflect on that for a while.

Go ahead, take your time…

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Readers Comments

Eric S. 2012/03/07 at 11:56 am

How do you engage on such a level with your older students? I can see this working for children, who are still learning to learn — but what about people set in their ways?

    Christina Farrell 2012/03/08 at 5:40 pm

    Great question, Eric! I often work with teachers in professional development settings and one of the challenges is inspiring them to reflect on their own practice as teachers – even though they can be very set in their ways. Here are some strategies that I have found to be successful with both children and adults to help foster a habit of reflective practice…

    Start with simple questions. Begin developing reflective practice with basic questions such as “What do you see?” or “What do you know?” Older learners often take these basic observations for granted, but these simple questions begin the process of noticing deeply. Once their basic observations evolve into interpretations, ask “What did you see/hear/read/learn that makes you say that?” and “Does anyone see it differently?” These baby steps force students to examine their assumptions and actively evaluate the first steps of their learning journey.

    Ask for questions, not answers. Older students have developed an expectation that they are required to provide correct answers to questions. Instead, ask them to supply a list of questions of their own. What do they wonder? What would they like to learn more about? Don’t feel compelled to answer all their questions right away. Rather, revisit juicy questions several times and discuss how the group’s responses change as they accumulate more experience. This practice fosters genuine curiosity and develops the habit of seeking meaning over a long span of time.

    Go outside your comfort zone. One of the cool things about being a teaching artist is that I provide opportunities for people to do things they never thought they could, such as choreograph a dance or write songs. Teachers who have participated in these experiences in professional development workshops often say that it made them think differently about what it is like to be in their students’ shoes. They are forced to develop new expressive strategies and are therefore more conscious of their own learning process. So, occasionally ask older students to break the mold – draw a picture, write a script, create a rhythm. Then identify the specific choices that were made and insights that were gained throughout the process.

    Practice what you preach. One of the ways I foster an environment of reflective practice with older students is by openly and actively reflecting on my own process as a teacher. For instance – “I think I could have asked a stronger question to start this discussion, what do you think I could have asked instead?” “I noticed there was a lot of enthusiasm about this project. Can you tell me what you thought was successful about this lesson?” I’ve found that high school and college students, in particular, are very receptive to this candid approach. By showing that I am willing to acknowledge my own successes and failures, it gives them permission to do the same.

    Make reflection a habit. The most important thing is to make reflection an ongoing and vital part of every experience. If reflective practices are consistent, varied, interesting and personally relevant, students will slowly begin to recognize the deepening of their own learning and form new habits of thought.

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