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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

Getting into the Habit of Reflection

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Building in frequent opportunities for faculty and students to reflect on their teaching and learning enriches education for all.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.—Søren Kierkegaard
A bimonthly school faculty meeting opens with a review of the school's goal and mission statements. The principal asks the staff members to reflect on how their teaching relates to the school's goals. The teachers then might study student work or analyze the results of action-research projects. At other times, some of the faculty might capture and document on computers one teacher's reflections on how her practices have strengthened student performance.
This school immerses its staff in continual learning and growth experiences and considers the practice of reflection as significant to its work as planning is. Rather than regard teaching, faculty activities, and school improvement efforts as unrelated, episodic events, teachers use reflection as an opportunity for constructing meaning from their work. They are dedicated to maintaining the continuity of the school's core values, while viewing such events as steps in a spiral of planning, experimenting, gathering evidence, and revisiting and modifying their work experiences (Costa & Kallick, 1994).
  • amplifying the meaning of one's work through the insights of others;
  • applying meaning beyond the situation in which it was learned;
  • making a commitment to modifications, plans, and experimentation; and
  • documenting learning and providing a rich base of shared knowledge.
Every school's goal should be to habituate reflection throughout the organization—individually and collectively, with teachers, students, and the school community.

Internal and External Voices

The ultimate purpose of reflection is to get us into the habit of thinking about our experiences. Once educators have developed this habit, they start hearing both an internal and an external voice of reflection.
The internal voice of reflection. Self-knowledge involves what and how you are thinking, even unconsciously. Many people are not used to engaging in the "self-talk" that is necessary for hearing their inner voice. To develop this voice, write in a letter to yourself or a journal what you learned from an experience. Remind yourself of what to anticipate in similar future experiences. Some educators find it helpful to record the steps they used to solve a problem and to comment on how useful those steps were.
The external voice of reflection. Sharing reflections on events validates, expands, and enriches our internal conversations. By sharing, we can demonstrate and practice effective listening skills: probe for clarity and understanding, ask thoughtful questions, and share our metacognition. Some ways to develop the capacity for sharing reflections include sitting with colleagues in a circle and having each person offer one reflection on the day's activities. Or share thoughts in small groups with a designated recorder who synthesizes everyone's comments to present to the large group. Participants could then offer and analyze problem-solving strategies or share an example of a disposition or a habit of mind displayed by each group member.

The Path to Reflection

Documenting these internal and external conversations through teacher journals or student records helps a faculty measure the organization's progress toward a greater valuing of reflective processes. But before making such assessments, the school needs to create an atmosphere for reflection. Step into any school; it will most likely be lively and noisy. Schools must dedicate time and space for reflection, away from the school issues and the student problems that can fill a day. At the beginning of each faculty, grade-level, or department meeting, take a few minutes to establish it as a time and a place for looking backward and inward, not forward and outward.
Soothing music can signal the change in thinking: We are going to take a break from what we have been doing, stand back, and ask ourselves, What have we learned from doing our work today? On their own, many teachers arrange their planning time to devote a day each to planning the curriculum, discussing students, dealing with parents, handling general logistics, and reflecting on student work.
Despite a reflective faculty's best intentions to focus on the past, the tradition in education is to simply discard what has happened and move on to new topics. This episodic approach is reflected in both classroom instruction and assessment and in change efforts as schools frantically strive to stay abreast of an array of educational improvements and mandates. Knowledgeable, vigilant, and reflective organizations, however, view school change from a broader perspective—as a process of revealing and emancipating human and organizational intellectual resourcefulness.
  • Drawing forth cognitive and emotional information from visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile sources;
  • Linking information to previous learnings;
  • Comparing the results that were anticipated and intended with the results that were achieved;
  • Searching for effects and finding connections among causal factors;
  • Acting on and processing the information by analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating;
  • Applying learning to contexts beyond the one in which it was learned and making commitments to plans of action; and
  • Thinking about thinking: conducting an internal dialogue (metacognition) about the completeness of, satisfaction with, and interest in the reflective process (Costa & Garmston, 1994).

Strategies for Reflection

Schools should invite both students and educators to reflect on teaching and learning, especially during the school change process, which can be hard on students and educators alike (Wasley, Hampel, & Clark, 1997). Students often give educators insights into the worthiness of the changes that the school is instituting, and reflecting on the changes can help students identify how the changes benefit them. Many strategies may facilitate reflection.
Metacognitive reflections invite thinking about thinking and help students make meaning out of events. Teachers can conduct discussions with students about their problem-solving processes. They can invite students to share their metacognition—to reveal their intentions, strategies, and plans for solving a problem; to describe their mental maps for monitoring their strategies during the problem-solving process; and to reflect on strategies to determine their adequacy. Those who practice metacognition learn to listen to, and explore the implications of, one another's strategies and build such habits of mind as empathy, flexibility, interdependence, and persistence.
Collaborative dialogues held between teachers, between a teacher and students, or among students cause participants to share their reflections and outline their progress toward the mastery of learning tasks (Lee & Barnett, 1994). Time should be set aside at the end of a learning sequence—lesson, unit, school day, or year—for participants to question one another about what they have learned and how they can apply their knowledge and skills in future settings.
In an atmosphere of trust, well-crafted questions allow participants to reveal their insights, understandings, and thought processes: As you reflect on this semester's work, which dispositions were you most aware of in your own learning? What metacognitive strategies did you employ to monitor your progress toward your desired outcomes? What insights have you gained that you will use in the future? The resulting dialogue allows staff and students to model and practice listening habits characterized by understanding and empathy, to communicate clearly, and to compose powerful questions.
Portfolios and journals afford opportunities for staff and students to periodically look back on events throughout their journey toward knowledge. Collecting work provides documentation for comparing students' levels of knowledge and performance at the beginning, middle, and end of a project. Focusing on one or two significant skills or pieces of knowledge lets teachers and students reflect on the significance of what they are learning, apply new knowledge to future situations, and form goals and an action plan to consciously modify behavior.
  • I selected this piece of writing because. . . .
  • What really surprised me about this writing was. . . .
  • When I look at my other journal entries, I see that this piece is different because. . . .
  • What makes this piece of writing strong is my use of . . . . Here is one example from my writing to show you what I mean. . . .
Models of reflection give students images to mirror. Students need to see adults—parents, teachers, and administrators—reflect on their practice. Such models may also be found in literature. In many novels, central characters take a reflective stance as they consider their actions. Some novels and films use reflection as their way of telling a story. For example, in Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, the smell of a petit madeleine reminds the main character of his past. In Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, Wilfred discovers that life's meaning can come from the retrieval of powerful memories. As he visits with a group of elderly people, he hears them reminisce about significant events from their past, and he realizes that memories are given meaning through making them explicit to someone else.
Developing habits of continual growth and improvement requires self-reflection. As we as individuals, staffs, and organizations reflect on our actions, we gain important information about the efficacy of our thinking. These experiences let us practice the habit of continual growth through reflection. With meditation, trust, consistent modeling, and practice, we and our students learn to listen to the internal and external voices of reflection, and in the process, our school communities truly learn by doing.

Costa, A., & Garmston, R. (1994). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for the renaissance school. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.

Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (1994). Assessment in the learning organization: Shifting the paradigm. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Lee, G., & Barnett, B. (1994). Using reflective questioning to promote collaborative dialogue. Journal of Staff Development, 15(1), 16–21.

Wasley, P. A., Hampel, R. L., & Clark, R. W. (1997). Kids and school reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Arthur L. Costa is emeritus professor of education at California State University, Sacramento, and cofounder/codirector of the Institute for Habits of Mind. He has devoted his career to improving education through more "thought-full" instruction and assessment.

Costa has served as a classroom teacher, a curriculum consultant, an assistant superintendent for instruction, and the director of educational programs for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is recipient of the Malcolm Knowles Award for Self-Directed Learning from the International Society for Self-Directed Learning. He has made presentations and conducted workshops in all 50 states and internationally.

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