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.