Reflection as Learning and Teaching

by Sean Michael Morris

“In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,--free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom … Brave; for fear is a thing which a scholar by his very function puts behind him.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”

Critical reflection is an important part of any learning process. Jack Mezirow states that “Critical reflection involves a critique of the presuppositions on which our beliefs have been built. Learning may be defined as ‘the process of making a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of an experience, which guides subsequent understanding, appreciation and action’.” To reflect is to enter a space of co-incidence, where the beginning of the learning process, and its end, meet to consult about the result of that process. Without reflection, learning becomes only an activity -- like viewing a reality TV show -- which was never meant to have meaning, but was only meant to occupy time.

Critical reflection is not meditation, rather it is mediation -- an active, conversive, dialectical exercise that requires as much intellectual work as does every other aspect of the learning process, from analysis to synthesis to evaluation. But in reflection, all the learned material can be gathered about, sorted and resorted, and searched through for greater understanding and inspiration. The result of critical reflection is not the same as other steps in learning, though, because it’s like the unwrapped package: we’ve spent our time undoing the tape and ribbon, ungluing the cardboard, and clearing out the foam peanuts, and now we have the item -- the gift -- which calls us into further play.

But critical reflection doesn’t just offer us a new toy to play with, it provides us with a tool we must use. We have an ethical responsibility as educators, as students, as people involved in the educative endeavor, to reflect. In Pedagogy of Freedom, Paulo Freire tells us that “In the process of the ongoing education of teachers, the essential moment is that of critical reflection on one's practice.” This is true because we must reflect upon our process, our learning, our practice, in order to push them forward. Teaching must be a learning process as much as learning is a teaching process.

The relationship between MOOCs and this reflective step in learning is untidy. Depending upon the MOOC, learning may be positioned as more instructional than dialectical. Many MOOCs simply draw to a close with a final exam or writing project, leaving students much the way a movie leaves its audience: with a resolution that is not their own, but which belongs instead to the script. Other MOOCs so strongly encourage community connections, locating learning as a process that happens when two or more points converge, that intrapersonal connections -- those most often made through reflection -- are underplayed and possibly undervalued.

But if MOOCs are to be true learning experiences, reflection must be woven into their strange method. We must be allowed to join in the process “by which experience is converted into thought, as the mulberry leaf is converted into satin,” as Emerson says. Only through reflection will we understand the nature of what we’ve unwrapped, its potential, and its instructions for use.