Reflective learning and metacognition Frank O’Hara style

Meta reflectionsSource of image:

Anyone who has taught for any length of time will have at some stage encouraged students to reflect on their learning and will be familiar with the work of Donald Schön , Kolb, Gibbs, Brookfield, Mezirow, and others. Many students are required to keep learning journals which are thought to encourage metacognition i.e. learning about one’s own process of learning. Jenny Moon has written about this extensively in her book, Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Professional Development.

The term meta crops up regularly in the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry course (ModPo) in relation to meta poetry, i.e. poems about the process of writing a poem.  This week’s assignment (the third in the MOOC) has been to do a close reading of Frank O’Hara’s  poem – ‘Why I am Not a Painter’ –  and through this discuss the differences between poetry and painting.

Why I Am Not A Painter by Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Source of poem:

For a audio reading of this poem click on this link –

As Al Filreis (ModPo convenor) explains in a video discussion of this poem – this poem is a meta poem. It is a poem about a painting that behaves like a poem and about a poem that behaves like a painting. This poem is process oriented. It is a poem that shows you how you can have a meta painting in a poem and how you can have a meta poem in a poem. It is a meta meta poem.

In the light of this discussion I have been wondering how we could encourage students to engage in meta meta reflection, i.e. reflect on their reflection. Many students find reflection and reflective writing difficult, but the video discussion incorporated a lot of points that I thought might be helpful for reflective writing in general.

  1. Consider what you want to represent and how you want to represent it.
  2. Think about structuring the writing in three parts i) Present your case, set up the story ii) Through reflection on your observation and experience, begin your analysis iii) Turn back in on yourself and relate your analysis to your own learning.
  3. Frank O’Hara is one of the New York School poets. He writes present tense narrative – ‘I do this, I do that’ and keeps us in the moment.  This style would serve as a helpful illustration of how to write freely for students engaged in reflective writing.
  4. O’Hara’s poem also depicts the passage of time, the process of unfolding over time. Reflection is not a fast process but a gradual unfolding.
  5. In O’Hara’s poem the composition/process determines the content rather than the content determining the composition. This focus on the emergent process, which will often be unpredictable and surprising, seems to me to be a necessary element of deep reflection.

I have written about reflective learning before (see for example – Reflective Learning and the Glass Half-Empty), but these thoughts from Week 7 in ModPo are welcome additions.

FSLT13 Reflections on teaching

Focus on your own learning experiences, how do you learn best? How have your own learning experiences influenced how you teach? These are the questions asked in the first week of the FSLT13 course (not yet a MOOC. According to Stephen Downes you need more than 150 active participants – Dunbar’s number – to be a MOOC, but that begs the question of what we mean by active).

So thinking about the questions for the first task on reflective writing …

…. I qualified as a teacher in 1969 – rather a long time ago. Last year for FSLT12 I was a tutor on the course and didn’t really have time to think about this question, but I was impressed by all the participants’ posts and in particular the autobiographical response made in a series of blog posts by Fred Garnett about how and why he came to be the teacher that he is.  (See Stephen Brookfield’s work on becoming a critically reflective teacher for further information about reflective writing using an autobiographical lens).

Reflecting on this, I know that condensing more than 40 years of experience into one post is nigh on impossible, but as it so happens, I have recently watched a TED talk by Ken Robinson – How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.

This talk is about school education. I spent quite a few years teaching in schools and teacher training (teaching how to teach in schools) so a lot of it resonates. In fact I think he’s spot on. Through the years I have taught all ages from the youngest of children to adults at Masters level. Years ago a wonderful Head teacher, to whom I am eternally grateful, insisted that I teach the youngest children (4/5 year olds) telling me that if I could teach these children (kindergarten), then I could teach anyone – and I have found that there is a lot of truth in this.

Ken Robinson in his talk says that ‘the role of a teacher is to facilitate learning – that’s it’.

In recent years I have thought a lot about the role of the teacher and despite my many years in the teaching profession, as the years go by I think of myself less and less as a ‘teacher’ in the traditional sense of the word. This thinking started a few years after I qualified as a teacher with the sudden realisation/revelation that teaching isn’t about me, but about the learners.

When we are new to teaching all we can think about is ourselves and our ‘performance’ and unfortunately many teaching situations and practices encourage performance (we are observed, assessed, inspected, judged). So we end up with a focus on questions such as Have we planned the lesson effectively? Do we know the subject? Will we engage the learners? Will we be able to explain the subject? All a focus on me as the teacher instead of on the learner.

As time went on in my teaching career I began to realise that I was the least important person in the process and that my focus should be on the learners – what were they learning, were their learning needs being met, did I know who they were? But having been a teacher trainer I know that you have to go through the first step, i.e. who am I as a teacher, to get to the second step, who are the learners.

My current approach to ‘teaching’, if you can call it that, is a strong belief in learner autonomy and negotiated meaning and a belief that learning is emergent and cannot be controlled by the teacher whether or not it is prescribed. Recent research  into what kinds of learning environments promote emergent learning and how these environments are experienced, confirm time and again that learner experience is unique to the individual (see this wiki for examples), which really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but which makes me wonder about the logic of the teacher planning learning objectives.

Stephen Downes has said that to teach is to ‘model and demonstrate’ and to learn is to ‘practise and reflect” – but as Cris Crissman has pointed out in a comment on my last post – a teacher is also a learner, so also ‘practises and reflects’. To ‘model and demonstrate’ probably needs unpicking.

Anderson et al. in their Community of Inquiry model write about ‘teaching presence’  and Stephen Brookfield in the podcast posted on the FSLT13 Moodle site, make it clear that whilst a teacher may be learning alongside learners, there is still a need for intervention – but the manner of this intervention has to be carefully thought through, particularly with regard to power relationships. At what point does intervention become interference? There is a delicate balance here to be understood and worked with.

I think I learn best when I have a good sounding board and safety net (teacher), but also when I feel empowered and in control, so this is how I try to teach. Catherine Cronin articulated this very well in her keynote this morning to the ICT in Education Conference in Ireland in terms of student voice . Hopefully a recording of the keynote will become available soon.

I have written about many of these ideas before, but they just seem to keep coming up again 🙂

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.

#fslt12 MOOC Week 1 starts today, 21-05-12

The MOOC is off to a really good start. We have around 120 people registered on the WordPress and Moodle sites and about 16 interested in being assessed. And there are likely quite a few more following the course without registering.

Activity in the Moodle forums last week, particularly in response to the question ‘What is learning for you?’ indicates a real interest in the issues surrounding learning. Discussion has covered aspects of the process and product of learning, transformative learning and threshold concepts – worth reading if you haven’t already visited the Moodle site (you do have to enrol in the Moodle site though, if you want to add to discussion). See

This week the focus is on Reflective Practice. Some people have already set up their blogs and started this activity which is:

We suggest that in this first week you 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?

We have also suggested that Stephen Brookfield’s lenses might be a good place to start when thinking about reflecting on learning and teaching – beginning perhaps with the autobiographical lens. There are some resources on this in Week 1 of the Moodle site –

For those who have chosen to be assessed the activity is linked to UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in Higher Education 2011  All the details are on the Moodle site

Also this week we have our first live session. We have allowed 2 hours for each of these sessions. The idea is that our Speakers (this week George Roberts and Rhona Sharpe, from Oxford Brookes University) will give us a presentation during the first hour and then we can use the second hour to discuss course issues, particularly those concerning assessment.

Looking forward to following the discussion in various locations.

#PLENK2010 Reflective Learning

Reflective learning came up in the weekly round up Elluminate session today and Stephen asked Rita to expand on her understanding of reflective learning. It was one of those situations, where I was so busy trying to find my own response to Stephen’s question, that  I completely dropped out of Elluminate into my own thoughts – so apologies if this post crosses or repeats what has been said.

Every year I work, as a tutor on an online distance learning reflective learning course ( a short course – only 4 weeks), run by Oxford Brookes University,  which is based on the work of Jenny Moon and on which Jenny Moon is a tutor. The course is usually fairly small, numbers below 20, which is ideal for the subject, but we get participants from around the world, and it is always highly thought provoking and stimulating. People who attend the course already have a deep interest in the reflective learning process, and I love the course because I learn so much from them.

Today Stephen asked Rita to explain what she meant by reflective learning. This is a question that we ask our course participants, and which I have thought about deeply, since as a tutor on the course, I also share my own definition. My definition has developed a bit over the years, according to the reading I have done and also in response to participants on the course who have sometimes challenged my definition – but currently this is my thinking:

‘My own understanding (I hesitate to use the word ‘definition’) of reflection/reflective learning is that it is the process of thinking about my own thinking, actions or learning, with a view to gaining a deeper understanding of them and improving them, so that I can see the evidence in changed behaviour. This thinking will also involve examining my emotional response and how my feelings have influenced my thinking, actions and learning. To make this reflection significant, I need to mark it in some way, by talking about it or better still recording it in written form. Finally, I need to revisit the marked events at some later stage and note whether my learning has improved/moved on.’

This definition is based on the work of Jenny Moon and also on the work of John Mason, who have influenced my thinking and to whom I am grateful for their insights.

  • Moon J (2006) Learning Journals. Routledge Falmer
  • Moon J (2005) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. Routledge Falmer

Every year, I keep a blog in conjunction with the course  – Reflective Learning with Reflective Learners. The next course will run March 2nd to April 2nd 2011. Although it is only short, it is intensive and I always learn a lot from the course participants, which helps to keep my thinking about reflective learning alive and prevent me from forgetting its relevance to teaching and learning in general.

Critical thinking

I attempted to attend the synchronous session today with Grainne Conole (on the Critical Literacies online course) – but I’m afraid I abandoned it when the audio kept cutting out and it was clear that I was not get the return on investment of my time that I needed. Shame – because I think it would have been very useful and Slideshare without the speaker never quite does it for me.

So I’ll move on.

I’ve done the description post (previous one) and now will try to do more of a  ‘take what you have and move beyond it’  type of post – as Carmen has done so eloquently (as always) in her post.

The reading list for this week is not completely unfamiliar to me: how to be persuasive (I scanned this but it didn’t grab me) critical thinking (I read this, but noted it’s date and know that there is more recent ‘stuff’ out there – will come back to this) studentguide to Freakonomics: rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything (Another quick scan but it didn’t grab me) How scientific peer review works (Haven’t even looked at this) The critical thinking community (Already know of this)

I’m sure this is very telling of my level of critical literacy! So to return to the Alec Fisher article which I did read – I felt it did not distinguish clearly enough between critical thinking and reflective thinking. I know of course that it’s not as simple as that and that there is overlap – but I like the work of Jenny Moon, which is more recent. She has written extensively about reflective learning. Two wonderfully helpful books are:

  • Moon J (2006) Learning Journals. Routledge Falmer
  • Moon J (2005) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. Routledge Falmer
  • And she has also written about critical thinking and tried to unravel the differences between them.

    Moon J (2005) We seek it here…a new perspective on the elusive activity of critical thinking. Escalate Discussion Series  See

    This is how she thinks about critical thinking and reflection

    We said above that deep reflection is similar to
    critical thinking but tends to be more often associated
    with thinking about the self and personal activities
    and critical thinking tends to be more associated with
    the need to arrive at a conclusion or judgement. (p.21)

    I can relate to this. I see reflection as internally oriented  and critical thinking as externally oriented and I also see them as being interdependent.

    So what has all this to do with critical literacies? And I’m wondering if in this course critical literacies is going to be confused with digital literacy or one of the other literacies that Grainne mentioned in the very first part of her presentation that I was able to pick up.

    I think we might need to start being clear about what kind of literacy we are talking about.

    Reasons for blogging

    I was interested in Mike’s  ten minute blog post about why he blogs. I can relate to a lot of what he has written. In particular I find these paragraphs describe exactly how I feel:

    I blog because it helps me explore, self-assess,  reflect and document my current intellectual state.  This includes concepts I’m grappling with, ideas that I’m exploring, research I’m conducting, or support I’m attempting to lend to others.

    As wierd as it sounds, when time passes and I’m not able to do this I start to grow out of touch with my own intellectual state.  Ideas start to fade, continuity becomes disrupted, concepts to explore rise and then disappear unresolved.  The end result is I feel less on the ball, more reactionary, and more cognitively disquiet.

    I have always seen blogs as a tool for reflection and I define reflection and reflective learning as ….

    …the process of thinking about my own thinking, actions or learning, with a view to gaining a deeper understanding of them and improving them, so that I can see the evidence in changed behaviour. To make this reflection significant, I need to mark it in some way, by talking about it or better still recording it in written form. Finally, I need to revisit the marked events at some later stage and note whether my learning has improved/moved on.

    But in a public blog the reflective process can be compromised by writing for an audience. This thought has a arisen because today I met my brother in-law for lunch, who for some reason had Googled me and of course, as you will know, he came up with pages of my blog posts. I find this a really embarrassing aspect of public blogging. My brother-in-law thought that anyone who needed to blog, must also have a need to be noticed! This line of thinking was a bit of a shock to me. Is it true and even if it is, does it matter?

    I do find the whole ‘exposure’ aspect of blogging difficult to deal with. In this post, for example, are my concerns about blogging and the related exposure of interest to anyone else but me? I don’t think I ever make a post without wondering whether it is too trivial, or will it be of interest to anyone, or whether I should just keep my thoughts to myself. And when I think about these things too much I get writer’s block and can’t write anything.

    But I do enjoy blogging. Actually, it not so much the blogging, it’s the reflective process that I enjoy. And having tried blogging both ways, privately and publicly, public blogging does have its rewards in the connections you can make to others and the discussions that you can engage in. It’s difficult in private blogging to move your thinking on, when there is no-one to challenge you or promote further thinking.

    So, for now, I’ll keep marking these random thoughts, in the hope that from time to time they will amount to something!