A past teacher-trainee (participant) of mine wrote this Chinese proverb (see title) as her Facebook status yesterday. I am grateful to Youkyung for posting this — not only because she gave me a title for this entry — but also because she reminded me that many other teachers share this teaching belief: we learn from our experiences. Why did I need this reminder? Well, it has to do with a question a participant asked me during yesterday’s class focused on reflective learning: he questioned the purpose behind reflective writing. I realized two points from his simple question, and I’ll begin my reflective quest from the observation stage of the experiential learning cycle.
(click here to see a fun flash depiction of the cycle)
Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Graphic by Clara Davies/Tony Lowe, Leeds University LDU/SSDU.
Reflective Observation – What?
A significant moment always begins as a concrete experience. My significant moment has a background story. Here it is:
Yesterday was the fourth writing lesson of the semester. During the first class of the week (lesson plan 2), I asked the participants to do the 2 Truths & 1 Lie ice-breaker activity. The catch was that in order to make their truths and lies, they would have to use either of the conjunctions or, so, but or and. They then wrote their sentences on a sheet of paper, and posted them all over the classroom for a gallery walk. During the gallery walk they circled the sentence they thought was a lie for each participant. Once this was done, they each presented their truths and lies, and in this way, we got a little glimpse of their lives.
From this point we went into a lesson on the use of conjunctions and their relationship with commas. Wanting to avoid a lecture on these punctuation rules (see inductive approach), I asked the participants to scan an article for FANBOYS, and then in pairs they compared sentences that combined comma with conjunctions, and those that didn’t. They came up with their own hypothesis for these rules, and then I gave them an explanation
The next day (lesson plan 3), after asking them for some basic feedback on their interests and concerns for my writing course, we reviewed the comma/conjunction rules. I then asked them to take out their Truth & Lie sentences to edit them according to what they learned. They also added 3-5 sentences to one of the sentences they wrote, elaborating their story, and practiced the new rules. After peer checking their work, I did my best to offer one-to-one feedback.
Now back to yesterday. My plan was for the participants to reflect on the week’s previous two lessons in a reflective writing activity. To help them remember what they did, we reviewed the week’s lessons. I then I wrote this on the board:
Choose one significant moment/event that happened this week in writing class. Describe this event. The event could be related to learning or teaching.
We had a whole class discussion about the definition of the word significant. We concluded that it can be something important and meaningful, and that it is neither good nor bad; it is simply something that strikes us as a point of exploration.
In pairs they discussed their significant moment. Once they were done they described their significant moment (reflective observation) in writing. After that they answered:
Why was this moment significant for you? (abstract conceptualization).
I explained that at this point they could explore their feelings and ideas behind the event.
The final point of reflection focused on this:
Explain how this will impact your studies in this program, your future role as a language learner, or your future role as a language teacher. (Active experimentation)
While they wrote I saw some eyes roll and heard some hesitant sighs. One of my participants asked me what this activity was helping them practice: fluency or accuracy? I told him that this isn’t a writing activity focused on fluency or accuracy. It is an activity focused on helping them learn. I saw confusion in his eyes. This was my significant moment.
Abstract Conceptualization – So what?
Why did I ask them to do all this reflection? I wanted them to do this because I believe learning happens once it is reflected upon. This is such a strong teaching belief for me. Without reflection, a learning moment risks getting lost in the content of the day or week. While we reflect on a moment, we unlock realizations that we may not have been able to make conscious otherwise. Reflection brings the learner back to understanding his/her involvement in an experience. This is what the Chinese proverb reminds me of. So by looking back on their week, and by writing about one moment that impacted them, I believed that their writing would help them integrate this learning.
But what the participant helped me realize was that there is another purpose to reflective writing that I had not made explicit. What was this reflective writing helping them practice? From a skills perspective, this is an activity that asks them to work with their thinking skills. Via his simple inquiry, and through my own reflection, I realized that reflective writing will do more than help them learn from their experience. From their writing they will learn to develop their ability to be critical and creative thinkers. These are essential skills for all writers. These are skills that help the writer create content and meaning.
Active Experimentation – Now what?
I began this entry thinking I was going to write about the importance of reflective writing. I thought I was going to validate my belief that reflection is essential for learning, and that by asking them to reflect I was increasing their learning. After yesterday’s class I had a small doubt that the participants would also be able to understand this value. I was worried that they would somehow rebel against the idea of reflective writing because they wouldn’t be able to see a clear link to the traditional 4 skills. I wondered how I would help them understand that learning is the ultimate goal, and that how we learn isn’t only via tests, but also via experience and reflection on experience. I thought that by writing this entry, and by reflecting on my week’s lessons, I would justify my belief that teachers need to understand that learning is the most important outcome for their students.
I still believe this, and will also teach my participants from this point of view when I ask them to write reflectively. However, now I realize that I can also come to reflective writing from a different perspective. I can help participants understand that reflective writing will also help them be better writers thanks to their developed thinking skills. At a time when the content of the Korean standardized achievement tests will be asking their students to be more critical, these are essential skills for their teachers to develop and understand. So in the end, I learned that reflective writing is a way to develop language skills, as well as to help increase their learning.
I’ve learned a lot from my participant’s question, and without reflection I may not have come to this realization. His question helped me realize that even our most fundamental beliefs should be questioned. From this realization, I believe we can add another element to the ancient proverb:
Tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; involve me and I understand; question me and I become aware.