Replacing “Well, you know, you reflect” with an ORDERLY Reflective Writing Framework

1 Aug

Introduction

Whether as someone who’s completed the work required for several degrees, or as someone who’s created short, informal, formative writing assignments as part of a Writing Intensive Course or Writing-Enriched Curriculum, I’ve encountered writing prompts that are variations on this stem phrase: “Write a short paper in which you reflect on…”  For example:

DSCN0262Reflect on your experience as/when/with…

Compose a reflective essay that…

Once you’ve completed your ________ [essay, performance, internship, sculpture installation, proof], reflect on…

Your reading log is a place to reflect…

Reflect on what we did in class today, and…

As you respond to the open ended questions on the teaching evaluation, please reflect on…

When students ask you to define reflection or to give some examples of what a reflective paper might (okay, should is usually the word) look like, do you point to or speak from something you’ve already prepared?  Or bluff by saying something like, “I’ll post some information about that to Moodle tonight”? Or maybe you ask, “What have you done in the past?” to generate criteria.

Often undergraduate students asked that last question will report these characteristics as part of their experience with reflective writing:

  • Written in the first person.  You get to use “I” and “me” pronouns.
  • Uses informal citations – author’s name, title of the work – in the reflection.
  • A place to sort out ideas on paper – knowledge, feelings, ideas, awareness of how you are behaving and/or thinking/observing what others do or say.
    • This is akin to what Jenny Moon calls this “cognitive housekeeping” in reflective writing: challenging – pushing and considering your own thinking in writing.  This might take shape as a straightforward description of a problem-solving process or be structured as a description of how the writer came to determine something was right or wrong – what the writing “I” once thought, then thought, then thought about and now thinks.
  • The writer gets to express how his or her opinion about some personal, academic, creative, public, entertainment, community issue or experience.
  • And they will almost always describe using a DIE template - Describe, Interpret, Evaluate.

I loved writing even as a high school and undergraduate student. And I genuinely do look forward to responding to what my students write and share as part of their course learning.  I hated the DIE reflections.  And after reading them once as a Teaching Intern, I didn’t assign reflective writing in my own classes.  Well, not until I found something different.

Reflective Writing - A What and Why

In brief, Stephen Brookfield describes critical reflection as

a capacity of adult learning in which individuals do the work of assessing the match between the earlier rules, practices, theories informing one’s thinking, and the now emerging interpersonal, contextual, cognitive, and perspectival understandings that come with new encounters and study.  Critical reflection takes shape via avenues including self-assessment linked thinking, dialogic conversations with others, and generative writing practices.

James Zull, author of The Art of Changing the Brain, offers this image to set out “four pillars” to provide a basic visualizing of learning as it “moves” from gathering data to reflecting to creating and to testing in a cycle of constructing knowledge from bits of  input via sensory details humans gather – through avenues such as information gathering and experience building, for example.  This “flow of specific meaning or even bits of sensory data from the back association cortex to the front association cortex becomes the basis for conscious thought and planning.”  Comprehending new information – the “I see” or “Aha!” – is  based on the association between new events and past events, on this process of assembling images to become tools in thought.  

 

Zull

This is reflection.  And, it is slow work:

[A]ll this assembly and association of bits of data, memories, and images might be considered the slowest part of learning.  It takes time and involves rerunning our data over and over.  It takes reflection.  Such reflection is often missing in classrooms where ‘coverage’ is the primary goal.  Or reflection may be guided almost entirely by the instructor’s agenda, leading students to search for ‘right answers’ … rather than making meaning.

Learners, Zull proposes, may need to build comprehension of themselves as learners in at least two ways:  First, it would be helpful for learners understanding the “four pillars of learning” so they, too, can push beyond gathering data.  Second, it would be illuminating for learners to examine the association between new events and past events related to their own learning lives: 

The more past events available to be drawn on, the more powerful the meaning.  This can have positive and negative results; adults who have been traumatized by being told they ‘couldn’t learn’ or were ‘bad writers’ and so on may have powerful emotional barriers to learning.  On the positive side, assignments that encourage students to use negative experiences as a basis for thoughtful reflection and further analysis may help students ‘reframe’ (find new meaning in) those experiences.

Reflection – for Brookfield and Zull – is integral to learning, to vigorous higher-level learning.

Finding Graham Gibbs’ Work on Reflective Writing

Through teaching mentors, I found Graham Gibbs’ Learning By Doing work, and made my way to ideas reflected in this diagram. Gibbs structures a reflective practice framework (see below) that stretches the generic 3-part formula to consider multiple perspectives, to engage in accounting for assumptions, to mindfully think through inferences, and to set out thinking patterns as a precursor to sketching next action steps.

Gibbs cycle

Description and Evaluation are still there.  And Feelings comes into the cycle, with its nod toward accounting for roles of assumptions and perhaps biases in the processes of thinking as linked to the affective – emotion and feeling – realm.  Description and Evaluation engaged students in thinking about what they were Learning.

This combination worked to slow the dive into Evaluation that so many of my students wanted to make.  They eased into this segment of reflection with somewhat more sturdy and studied view of events and ideas at the heart of the observation.

Bringing these three factors at the Analysis stage seemed a big move forward, especially with a brilliant next move into a Conclusion that didn’t ask for tidy wrapping up or for congratulations, but for taking time to consider “what else?”

  • What might I have overlooked? What aspect of this thing at the center of my reflection have I not really paid attention to in thinking and writing?
  • What are my peers noticing?
  • What may/will happen if I take divergent – maybe even dissenting – views into account?

Evaluation and Analysis called on writers to make sense of what they were Unlearning – that process of looking at life and ideas in new ways, of finding ways to make sense of misinformation and dive into information gaps.

The combination of Conclusion and Action Plan left students poised to Relearn.  Where have you gotten to?  What might be next to learn?  How are you going to shape a plan for getting there?

Best of all?  In making use of this framework, my students found they had more to say and that they were more interested in writing reflection papers.  They were also more interested in reading other writers’ reflections papers.  And so was I.  The papers conveyed nuanced learning in cogent compositions rather than uniform linear teacher paper rhetoric.

ORE, Maybe This…

DSCN0067

And then, it all changed.  Not right away.  More like 25 years later.  Increasingly, I asked students to separate Observation from Description.

With a new and perhaps difficult a reading, for example, that would mean noting in one column the passages that “got you thinking for whatever reasons.”  A second column alongside this would describe “connections, disconnects, difficulties, partial understandings,” while taking account of emotions – those feeing that spark learning decisions and inform reading responses: fear, anger, exhilaration, perplexity, awe, revulsion, affirmation, contentment, awareness, tingling.

In his 2010 post, “Enhance Cross-Cultural Learning – Reflective Writing for Critical Thinking,” university instructor Dan Paracka offers a three-letter acronym that helped me rethink both the DIE model and Gibbs’ reflective cycle.

ORE:  Observe.  Reflect.  Expand.

Observe with an awareness of your role, potentially, as a participant observer when the reflective thinking and writing takes you out into public places, or to the private worlds of ideas and people and change.

Reflect with a willingness to question assumptions, an engagement that welcomes multiple interpretations and a deep willingness to “take into account issues of inequality and discrimination or preconceived notions and stereotypes that influence social behaviors.”

Expand, with its “requirement” for expansive thinking, helps writers/thinkers take account of all they’ve come to understand, to notice contexts and contraries; in short,  to trace change and note new landing places.

And so, I’ve been back at the drawing board – or at least back at making my own word clouds on paper ahead of sitting down to PowerPoint for an afternoon of diagraming via SmartArt templates.  This is where I have landed:

Reflection – Making Creative Use of an ORDERLY Framework

It’s not that I am after orderly writing – neat formatting, precise content, common rhetorical organisation.   Rather, I am interested in attempting to make more transparent – less tacit, less part of a hidden curriculum – the sorts of twists and turns of thinking that wise, compelling, clear, comfortable, fluent writers commonly engage as part of coming to write about complex issues, wicked problems, layered histories, interdisciplinary learning, or novel circumstances.

At the moment when I’d become a 30-year teacher of writing, I recognised my reflective writing assignments were a  juggling – a mishmash, and often mis-match – of the three models of reflective writing I’ve just outlined:

  • Gibbs’ Cycle
  • DIE
  • ORE

That cobbling together clearly cut out the DIE model, clearly preferred the Gibbs’ cycle, and stretched to incorporate the the Extend/Expand idea of ORE.

My own reflective writing.  What had been my process?  How had I heard other frequent and comfortable writers describing their composition process – a process that always included reflective writing practices and principles?

That’s when I realised a tacit set of practices that seemed to overlap in a particularly ORDERLY way:

  • Observe
  • Reflect
  • Describe
  • Expand
  • React
  • Land
  • Your Next Steps

And that the pattern I was looking at involved the bits to overlap, circle back, skip over one another.  An overall system rather than a staging.   In my mind, it looks like this:

Orderly

 

The first four – Observe, Reflect, Describe, Expand – are straightforward enough and nicely addressed in the GIbbs and ORE narrative above.  The final three aim to hold together some important contraries:

Observe with an awareness of your role, potentially, as a participant observer when the reflective thinking and writing takes you out into public places, or to the private worlds of ideas and people and change.

Reflect with a willingness to question assumptions, an engagement that welcomes multiple interpretations and a deep willingness to “take into account issues of inequality and discrimination or preconceived notions and stereotypes that influence social behaviors.”

Describe the event: What happened? What was said?  What did you see? Describing what was observed becomes the focus. 

Expand, with its “requirement” for expansive thinking, helps writers/thinkers take account of all they’ve come to understand, to notice contexts and contraries; in short,  to trace change and note new landing places.

Reactions are our own and others – over time and in tension, in play with one another.

Landing is both an act and a place – where we have gotten to and may well head on to as thinkers, and also in what cultural and community contexts we find ourselves situated.

Your Next Steps opens to roads that can be taken – as well making room to consider roads to be built, to be rediscovered in noticing what’s beneath the scrub along pathways.  These next steps may well entail noting road to not to be taken – given circumstance, contemplation, choice-making.

So, in writing up those reflection-based assignments for your students, perhaps you will join me in considering how an ORDERLY approach might help students to dig into complex thinking, which is the reason – after all – that we ask them to engage in reflective thinking, writing and action.

(Re)Sources 

Originally published 26 August 2013.  Revised 1 August 2014.

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4 Responses to “Replacing “Well, you know, you reflect” with an ORDERLY Reflective Writing Framework”

  1. Helen Reimer 20 October 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    Replacing “Well, you know, you reflect” with an ORDERLY Reflective Writing Framework. I need to know who author of this title? Appreciate to know who wrote this. Are this Archive?

    • UMinnTeachLearn 20 October 2014 at 10:06 pm #

      The author is IleneDawn, the blog editor, and Center for Teaching staff member who also teaches writing courses.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Reflection - Making Creative Use of an ORDERLY ... - 27 August 2013

    […] As a teacher of undergraduates, I was wanting something different from the “mind dump” of assumptions that often resulted from using the DIE template. Sometimes this template worked well as a “how to” guide, but in stretching to consider multiple perspectives, to account for assumption, to construct accurate inferences and to ponder where a student had landed in his thinking or in devising her next action steps, the frame felt thin. Through teaching mentors, I found Graham Gibbs’ Learning By Doing work, and made my way to ideas reflected in this diagram:  […]

  2. Evaluating Teaching: A Guide to Current Thinking and Best Practice | WWW.MYINFOPAGE.NET - 28 August 2013

    […] Reflection – Making Creative Use of an ORDERLY Framework … […]

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