Reflective Learning and the Glass Half Empty

I have been told twice, very recently, and quite often in the past – that I am a glass half empty person. In other words I am a pessimist and the implication is that this is not good. Good would be (I have been told) – to be a glass half full person – an optimist.

I have thought about this a lot – as you do when you feel that you have been criticised – and I honestly don’t feel that the criticism is justified – not because it is not true – it is (I am definitely a glass half empty person) – but because I think there is real value in being a glass half empty person and especially in relation to reflective learning.

For me being glass half empty means that I am usually prepared for the worst – so ahead of time I carefully analyse situations, I go through everything with a fine toothcomb, I try to anticipate what might go wrong. I also try to surface assumptions, I ask critical questions and I really can’t be doing with ‘appreciative inquiry’! I come from a science background and science progresses not by proving things but rather by disproving. I strongly believe in learning from mistakes and that as an educator/teacher/learner I have to try and ensure that I, and those I learn with, are not afraid of failure. There is plenty of research to show how inhibiting fear of failure can be. For me a ‘can do’ attitude comes from knowing, through careful analysis and preparation, that it can be done!

I am thinking about this now because the first activity in the #fslt MOOC asks participants

To reflect on your overall experience to date as a teacher; what kinds of students have you taught, what have you discovered from the experience, and what have you most enjoyed in your teaching?

I may not actually do this activity but it’s interesting to think about how I might approach it if I did?

Being a glass half empty person, to complete this activity I would probably select a critical incident in my teaching career (and there have been many :-)) and analyse why it was a critical incident and what I learned from it. To do this I would need to do more than simply describe the event – I would need to critically analyse it, looking at it from a number of different perspectives – my own, those of the learners involved, my colleagues and the literature – as suggested by Stephen Brookfield’s four lenses.

But how would I know that my analysis was critical and not simply descriptive? Jenny Moon’s writing on this has been significant in developing my understanding.

In her book ‘A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice’  she includes a number of exercises to help learners develop their reflective learning skills and abilities. One of these activities (which is freely available on the web – search for ‘An example of a graduated scenario exercise – ‘The Park’ A means of introducing and improving the quality of reflective learning’) provides three accounts of a critical incident in which each account becomes increasingly reflective. Jenny Moon then describes the shifts that occur in deepening reflection.

When I worked on Oxford Brookes’ online reflective learning course as a participant in 2007 (and Jenny Moon is a tutor on this course), with another participant Bernie Gartside, we explored these shifts in detail.  I have summarized our work in the diagram below. (Click on the image for a clearer view).

Characteristics of Reflective Writing

So in my analysis of the critical incident I selected, I would hope to see some of the characteristics described in the diagram above.

And finally, what I have learned from John Mason, who writes about the teaching of mathematics, in his book – ‘Researching your Own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing’ –  I know that I am unlikely to ‘notice’ changes in my learning unless I ‘mark’ them in some way. There are many ways of ‘marking’ learning, especially these days with multimedia at our fingertips, but my blog serves this purpose as I explain in this video, which is also posted on the #fslt Moodle site.

10 thoughts on “Reflective Learning and the Glass Half Empty

  1. red rabbit skills services May 26, 2012 / 5:39 pm

    Dear Jenny, thanks for this resource rich post. I enjoy your very helpful links to the Handbook of Reflection, the Four Lenses and Researching your own practice. I have noticed with adult learners in skills training, that a resource and information poor schooling background, seems to leave them with a tendency not to analyse, evaluate and reflect. Their responses tend to be impulsive and emotive, (this goes for workplace contexts as well). I find that they need to be trained to do this in a very explicit way.

    I find Bloom’s Taxonomy a useful tool for this. We have outcomes here in South Africa called Critical-Cross-Field Outcomes, (or key competencies elsewhere). The one I find of particular interest is called critical-cross-field-outcome collecting: where the learner is required to collect, organise, analyse and critically evaluate something, situation, or scenario. I find this very useful for getting learners to do this in a sequence, say by researching something to write a simple report and make recommendations. This then helps them reflect on their thinking and processes. But, it can be hard in the beginning because it is an unfamiliar process.

  2. elenizazani May 27, 2012 / 12:07 pm

    Having read this, I feel I didn’t put it right… 😦

    I should have probably included more evidence and taken a specific example to build upon it. But would that summarise my overall experience as a teacher? In hindsight, yes… we all learn when we know why new information matters; otherwise we don’t reach new meanings! We, as librarians tend to be dogmatic and oppose Google, Wikipedia etc as if we are in a war with giants. Do we tell students why they need to be cautious?

    Librarians in the States recently realised that this is the way forward and named it a “Real deal” Information Literacy.

    For me, is a “real deal” teaching probably derives from my cultural background where childrens’ questions didn’t have answers but the word “because” as an explanation.

  3. AJCann (@AJCann) May 27, 2012 / 5:14 pm

    I wonder if there’s something about failed scientists (“come from”) that makes us pessimists.

  4. Jeffrey Keefer May 27, 2012 / 6:39 pm

    Great post, Jenny! You had me right at “I am definitely a glass half empty person” without apology, and your working through what that means in a reflective practice manner is just icing on the cake!

  5. Scott Johnson May 28, 2012 / 4:50 am

    Good post and helpful information I should have read a few days ago! The half empty person not only knows what they are talking about (at least the first half anyway).

    Nice quote from Christian Smith “What is a Person” about knowing things in advance:

    “That which is cannot be immediately constrained by limits on the knowledge of it. First we come to terms with what we believe it is and what it is like, then we examine the possibilities of knowing about it.”

  6. jennymackness May 28, 2012 / 7:34 am

    Hi Carol – many thanks for your comment and for sharing the approach you have in South Africa. I agree that personal story telling is a very helpful approach when starting to develop reflective learning skills and your critical – cross -field – outcomes (what a mouthful :-)) approach seems to fit the bill.

    I think Jenny Moon’s work is useful because she describes in depth how to extend personal storytelling into something deeper. Some people seem to do this naturally – for others its more of a learning process.

  7. jennymackness May 28, 2012 / 7:46 am

    HI Eleni – I think reflection is too personal to be right or wrong. I’m looking forward to reading yours and others reflections and I’m expecting/hoping that they will all be very different. Although I am one of the FSLT Mooc convenors – I don’t see your learning and ideas as being any less interesting or valuable than mine – in fact over the years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with a ‘teacher as authority’ role, since I know that I am always learning from those I am supposed to be teaching and often learn more from them than they from me 🙂

    One of the problems we have when we ask people to engage in reflective writing as part of a course requirement, is that they might see it as a hoop to be jumped through rather than something of personal value for themselves. I haven’t seen any ‘hoop jumpers’ in this Mooc yet, but I have seen many in my teaching career.

    The problem with having reflective writing as an assessment requirement is that it tends to come at the end of a block of work rather than being integral to the ongoing work – so may be seen as an add-on, rather than a learning habit to be developed over time – in fact over many years.

    So I’m looking forward to reading yours and others posts 🙂


  8. jennymackness May 28, 2012 / 7:53 am

    Thank you Alan, Jeffrey and Scott for your comments – and your quote Scott. You will see from my comment to Eleni that I struggle a bit with the notion of assessing reflective learning. It seems such a personal process.

    Jenny Moon in her book suggests assessing ‘secondary’ reflection, i.e. asking students to submit a piece of work that is taken from their initial reflections. But of course this takes time – probably more time than we have in this Mooc?

  9. Nico Baird May 28, 2012 / 10:36 pm

    Great post Jenny!!!

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