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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 8|April|2000


Thinking about a Child's Need
for Reflection

By Kristina Kenegos Sullivan

about the author

It is one thing to absorb a fact, to situate it alongside other facts in a configuration, and quite another to contemplate that fact at leisure, allowing it to declare its connection with other facts, its thematic destiny, its resonance.

Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies

I suppose that whenever we have an idea that we think is uniquely our own, the next thought that comes rushing in is that there are billions of people on the planet thinking the very same thing. Well, maybe not billions, but quite a few. I have been thinking this way since I was young and it used to bother me because my mind would start to expand with all the possibilities and it felt like my head was going to explode. Maybe when you’re young it’s common to feel that way. Big head, small body, big trouble.

I still have ideas that I think are uniquely my own, at least in part. But I know that a lot of other people are thinking about the same thing as I am, just perhaps in a slightly different way, through a different lens. In fact, there are probably very few ideas I have that other people don’t have, but we may spend differing amounts of time thinking about them, and surely we use a different emphasis. For instance, I think a lot about the way that children spend their time these days because I am a teacher and a parent and I have been kind of stuck in childhood for most of my adult life. I’m not sure if I’m still working out my own childhood, or if I am just really interested in the experience of being a child, the way they think and what they can offer to us mixed up, misdirected adults. Perhaps this is just an academic exercise. I think about children as guides and us adults as guides and I wonder sometimes how we find our way. Other people may think about childhood in a less deliberate way. They may say, "He’s just a kid," offhandedly as they watch their child race out the door, or they may reminisce, "Go play outside like I used to" when their children sit glued to the television set.

But I fear that children spend less time thinking these days. I notice that they spend more time being entertained through television, movies, video, and computers.

While these can be useful tools in providing information, what children need most are things that are real. A real hug, a real animal, and real relationships with other people. In a school setting this is called authentic instruction. To teach children authentically we need to allow children an opportunity to know the curriculum for themselves.

The difference can be illustrated through my own experience of being a second grader. At that time my experience at school and home were quite dissimilar. For example, to learn about frogs in school we colored and cut out pictures of the stages of a frog’s life and pasted them onto construction paper.

But when I got home I went to the pond across the street from my friend’s house to play. I noticed the polliwogs and tadpoles in the pond and I made the connection between "book work" and the world outside.

That was authentic learning, but at that time it just happened naturally. We didn’t have to set the stage. Apparently the expectation for authenticity is being handed down to the classroom teacher.

I think what interests me most about this topic of teaching children to think is the fact that we now need to intentionally set aside time to reflect. It is an odd twist on things. For so long in our history reflection has been part of our daily lives. But all that seems threatened now that we have the ability to communicate throughout the world in an instant about any subject we want. My concern is not getting information, but what we may be losing in the process. Childhood is all about the process of discovery, or at least that is the opportunity that childhood affords us.

As a classroom teacher I am now being expected to have children "reflect" on their learning. I would like to help define what that means for myself and for others like me. I would also like to raise some issues around this expectation that can be further explored at one’s leisure.

When people speak of reflection, they usually want students to reflect on something. One can reflect on a math lesson or a student teaching assignment. As a teacher we can ask our students to reflect on what they learned about the lead character in a story. Reflection in this case means, "serious thought or contemplation". It means taking new information in and focusing on it, making sense of it. We can think or write about what we learned, what we would do differently the next time or what comes next in a sequence. We can use reflection as a jumping off point.

In How We Think (1910) John Dewey says, "Thoughts that result in belief have an importance attached to them which leads to reflective thought, to conscious inquiry into the nature, conditions, and bearings of the belief." (p. 5)

The first step in teaching children to be reflective is to provide meaningful topics. When we invite children to have strong beliefs we allow the opportunity for further inquiry. So we must be willing to discuss things that directly pertain to children’s lives or find ways to connect the subject matter that we teach to children directly.

The second thing the classroom teacher needs to do in helping students be more reflective is put value on an inquiry based approach to learning. According to Jamie McKenzie, research into wait-time for American classrooms reveals that many teachers wait less than two seconds for the answer to each question and ask hundreds of questions per hour. (Filling the Tool Box, 1986) We must pose "five minute questions" or difficult questions that there is no answer to. Furthermore, if we want children to be reflective, we have to be so ourselves. This does not mean wasting time, but giving children time to think. We must provide a classroom environment that is conducive to thoughtfulness.

John Dewey continues in his book, How We Think "As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection." (P 11)

Not surprisingly, this smooth flowing hassle free lifestyle is a hot commodity. Who wants reflection if it means we have to think about the effect we have on others in our daily lives? As a result, we are largely unconscious of our actions. We buy things quickly that are pre-made. We drive cars, often alone, that pollute the air and keep us from knowing the feelings of others. We throw away masses of garbage every second. It is not that we don’t care. The problem is that we are unprepared to face the effect of our actions. It is not that we do not know any better. We are a society in overwhelm.

I fear that this societal trend is spilling over onto our children. I suspect that they spend less time thinking these days and I wonder what they are going to remember when they grow up. What will they look back on from their childhood that gives them strength?

What I remember about my childhood, what speaks to me now when I think of what it means to be a child, is the time that I spent in quiet reflection or discovery. Running through a field, sitting at the top of a big hill I just climbed, discovering snakes and frogs and lizards.

When I think of these things as an adult I have a sense of connectedness and of hope. How will people get through their twenties without this sense of hope in the future?

We must give children an opportunity to discover the world through their own lens. This all takes time. When we ask ourselves what we can give to the generation we have given birth to, time would be the best idea yet. Unqualified, unstructured, lifetime.



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