Reflection On – and In – Action

I’m working on a new project, with the Forum Corporation, about workplace learning.  It’s been a really interesting journey that’s thrown me into some fascinating reading and put me in touch with some very interesting experts – Chris Briggs, a learning expert from Indiana University School of Informatics,  George Siemens, the learning theorist and co-founder of “connectivism”,  and the Harvard neuroscientist,  Srini Pillay.

One element of this research is the concept of reflection.  We know that learning must consist of action—mental, physical, or both—in conjunction with an opportunity to reflect on the action and its outcome. People learn by doing and thinking about what they have done.  Reflection generates lessons for future action.  It allows people to examine experiences, to find meaning in them, and to generate new insight and knowledge.

But when do we reflect?   If we do at all, that is.  In our busy, workaday worlds, we can’t always make time for reflection.  But brain research (and our experience) tells us that reflection is an essential part of learning – without reflection we are unlikely to experience behavior change, and it is highly unlikely that the learning will be retained.

When we do reflect, most often it is reflection on action – that is, we set aside some time, after the fact, and we think back on what we have done in order to improve or change our future actions. Equally important, yet not often discussed, is reflection in action –that is, reflecting in the midst of our actions, without interrupting them, and reshaping what we are doing as a result.  As an example, think of the way a skilled pianist reflects while she is playing – How could it be better?  What mistakes am I making?  What refinements might improve my performance here?

Just last night, I had the practical opportunity to fully absorb that notion.  I’ve been asked to do some “test cooking” for a friend who is publishing a cookbook.  She has a number of recipes that she wants others (less proficient others, like me) to test for her and report back.  She is interested in information like – were the instructions easy to follow, were the ingredients easy to obtain, how long did it take to make the dish, how did it taste, and do you have suggestions for improving it?

Last night I prepared my second test dish for her – linguini with kale and pickled lemon (I know it sounds gross, but it’s really tasty). As I was preparing the dish, I realized that I was reflecting in action.  I took in the ingredient list critically – asking myself if it made logical sense.  I carefully measured amounts and time, making note of them.  I tasted as I went along, marking subtleties.  I looked for inconsistencies in the directions.

All of this attention and reflection happened while I prepared the meal.  It was most definitely reflection in action.  I was spurred on by the certain knowledge that my friend would ask me questions about the experience when I was done.  And the impact of that knowledge, for me, was a much more vivid, memorable, and intense cooking experience.  I also know that the next time I make linguine with kale, I will not need a recipe.  It’s burned into my longterm memory.

The resulting dish is pictured above – and I can tell you that I enjoyed it more than most meals I create.  I suspect that pleasure had quite a bit to do with how carefully I reflected on the making of it – while I was making it.



Filed under Reflections on Teaching

7 responses to “Reflection On – and In – Action

  1. Very nice. Definitely “food for thought” when preparing, delivering, and revising lessons for students at any level. It definitely relates to your idea of spiral (Spiral!) delivery of instruction in workshops.

    • rheyden

      Ha ha! “food for thought”. Good one, Liz. And, you’re so right, that spiral approach that we intende to take with workshops will give time for reflection — and all of the benefits that it renders.

  2. mimi muircastle

    I agree, Liz – great *food* for thought and I think, Robin, you really found a nearly perfect analogy to illustrate reflection while *doing*.

    I never thought about reflection within the context of cooking even though I rarely follow a recipe – always seemed like a boring way to cook.

    Wish I had had your analogy yesterday when I was working with some of the members of my Refuge Friends group as we planned an environmental education project for kids and their parents who visit our Refuge. I kept trying to think of ways to explain how to include activities that would allow kids to reflect on what we plan to have them experience and your analogy is just what I needed! BTW – I love kale and this recipe sounds great! When will it be available?
    Thanks too to Liz for twittering the link this morning!

    • rheyden

      Glad you liked the analogy, Mimi. It was one of those ah-ha moments when I was cooking. I’ll send you the recipe – very yummy.

  3. Arlene Davis

    Sounds like a tasty dish. One might think odd ingredients — but sometimes we have to try because the outcome is surprising. Where do you find pickled lemon? Thoughtful preparation. Keeps us from doing things things automatically without too much thought…………

  4. Kate

    Please add me to the list of people interested in the recipe (and the book, I suspect, when it comes out).

    As you know, one part of our KM system is dedicated to Reflection, and I tend to harp on it with fair regularity. I’m hoping the WPL work will put some more… bite (HA HA oh I kill myself) into my harping.

    (ok, that mixed metaphor doesn’t work, but I trust you get the gist).

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