1.4 Defining reflection
Reflection is both an academic concept and also a word in common use, combining ideas of thinking, musing, pondering and so on. This everyday meaning is a good basis from which to start: reflection is very much to do with thinking. However, one of the most important things about reflection is that it enables us to think about our own thinking – about what it is that we know or have experienced. Such reflection might be summed up in the phrase, 'the mind's conversation with itself'.
When we use reflection intentionally, as part of course study, it requires two distinctive kinds of thinking. First it requires the kind of reflectiveness just mentioned. It requires that we direct our attention onto our own thinking and abilities. The aim in turning the spotlight onto ourselves is to become more aware of what we already know and can do, more aware of the inter-relationships between our existing ideas and actions and their values for us. This kind of reflection is essential in reviewing for ourselves the significance of the learning we are engaged in, its outcomes for us and the impact it makes on what we want to learn in future. We need to think reflectively, for example, if we want to clarify our motives for learning, what we want from course study and the extent to which our goals are being achieved.
The second kind of thinking that reflection requires is critical analysis of ideas and experiences, so that meanings are questioned and theories tested out. Such thinking may require a framework of questions or some problem-solving activities to help you compare and contrast arguments and frameworks. Indeed, both reflectiveness and critical analysis require the learner to be active, not only paying attention to the content of course materials but also working independently with the concepts introduced. This requires willingness to regularly turn away from the course materials in order to formulate a personal response, and to use your own words and constructions.
Reflection is an important component in all kinds of learning, but particularly in the kinds of study required for academic understanding and for the development of skills such as effective communication, problem solving and so on. Understanding requires the integration of new knowledge into what we already know. Our existing knowledge is stored in memory in ways particular to the person and to their experience. My understanding of 'learning', 'unemployment' or 'technology', for example, will not be exactly the same as yours, or that of my colleagues. There will be meanings, images and details associated with these concepts which are particular to me, and a product of my personal history and educational experience. Even so, there will also be ideas and feelings which are generally associated with these terms, and a core of meaning in common which enables me to communicate with others about them. In other words, the knowledge that we have has both unique features in the way we understand and remember it, and yet enough common currency that we can usefully share at least some of what we know with others.
When we are learning a new topic, we need to spend time putting new material into our own words, trying out new ideas, using what we already know, and seeing where the new material 'fits in'. This process may also lead us to question our existing knowledge and values, of course, and to create new frameworks of understanding which reconcile both old and new. We need to reflect more often on new material than when we are learning or reading about something with which we are already familiar. This is because we need to build 'bridges', in ideas, diagrams or images, between what we know already and what we are trying to understand and remember.
Understanding is an active process of constructing meaning. Reflection has a vital role to play because it is the process whereby we become aware of what we are thinking and able to change and adapt our ideas and understandings to take into account new learning.