Osaka YMCA
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A Reflection…on Reflection

Picture of Jess Barga

Jess Barga

Jess Barga is an MYP/DP English Language & Literature / ToK teacher. Reflectiveness and impetuosity are two of various warring factions fighting for space in her soul.

This brings me to the most difficult question: do I conduct genuine reflection, as I so often ask my students to do?

A Reflection…on Reflection

After midnight a few nights ago, I wrote a long blog post about reflection. The next morning when I tried to cap it off with a tidy conclusion, I realised—upon reflection—that I’d gotten it completely wrong. My post was a mess. It was a holier-than-thou rumination that presented reflection as a method we can use solely to identify and address our own flaws and insecurities. Although that may be one function of reflection, it is far from the only one, and in fact when my students reflect on their defects and difficulties without also acknowledging their successes and growth, I always point it out. So here I am again, starting over.

ayase thinking
milan thinking

Here at OYIS, we seem to have a curricular crush on the concept of reflection. We ask our students to reflect before, during and after their units and whenever we conclude a significant learning engagement. A student who successfully completes our programmes is likely to be a finely-tuned reflection machine. And teachers lament the fact that some students find it really challenging to conduct genuine reflection. How, we ask ourselves, can we help them develop the reflective reflex?

Well, lately a troubling question has been nagging at me. Are we, the adults of OYIS, a reflective community? Do we model reflection for our students? Although I loosely think of myself as reflective, I can’t remember ever unpacking the term to ask myself some serious questions about it: What is reflection, anyway? Does it matter? And crucially, am I practising reflection, or just preaching it?

Although Merriam Webster defines reflection as “a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation” and the Cambridge Dictionary gives us the still broader “serious and careful thought,” I believe the reflection we’re talking about with our students goes beyond deep thought and demands that we direct that thinking inward. Mirrors reflect, and when we behold a mirror, the image that stares back is our own. After all, the IB Learner Profile distinguishes “thinkers” from “reflective,” linking the attribute to “our own ideas and experience,” as well as an awareness of “our strengths and weaknesses” that can “support our learning and personal development” (IBO). If we accept this interpretation of reflection, then it must matter: it forces us to inquire into who we are and how we approach the world, and then to build new learning and development upon that foundation of self-awareness.

This brings me to the most difficult question: do I conduct genuine reflection, as I so often ask my students to do? Whereas a student might be asked to reflect on the way they approached a complex task that called for imagination, research, planning, analysis and revision, I should ask myself about my professional choices as a teacher: did I work hard enough to ensure that the quiet students had as much time in conference with me as the ones who are always clamouring for attention? Did I involve the other members of my team in that decision, or did I overlook their opinions because I ‘knew’ I was right? Did I listen actively to my supervisor’s advice, or did I nod politely and then just forge ahead with my own ideas? Likewise, I should reflect honestly on my personal life: have I been trying to guilt trip my son into reading more, even though I know that this is the worst kind of parenting? Did I stop playing my fiddle or studying kanji because I had no time, or because I have little aptitude for either and was mortified by my mediocrity?

It’s surpassingly difficult to look your flaws in the eye and own them. Just as someone skilled at applying makeup chooses to regard their physical reflection free of blemishes and wrinkles, many of us instinctively Photoshop out our pride, small-mindedness, or [fill in your own flaws of the week] when we contemplate our inner landscape. Then, once we do grit our teeth and take a look at the raw truth of ourselves, we risk veering into self-reflection’s flip side, self-deprecation. The tendency to magnify and dwell excessively on our defects is unlikely to carry us forward, but without the ability to weigh the evidence and recognize where we could have done better or were just plain wrong, we stagnate.
Oddly, though, for some of us it’s even harder to acknowledge our strengths. We know that arrogance is a contemptible trait, so maybe it’s the proximity of bragging to positive self-appraisal that scares us off. Or maybe it’s a question of upbringing and cultural norms. But when we ignore or deny our talents, in a sense it’s less humble than accepting them. Consider Jimi Hendrix or Franz Kafka, master creators who held their art to such high standards that nothing they ever created was good enough for them. Unless you happen to be a genius, why not accept your small human triumphs and examine their components so you can make triumph a habit?
In both the positive and the negative directions, then, reflection can be gruelling. But I’m finding, as I revisit this type of active self-study, that it really works. It unearths perspectives I had not considered, revealing new approaches to the messy matter of life that I may want to apply to future challenges. I get somewhere when I think like this. And it’s somewhere I badly need to go.
Jess reflecting
It seems to me that reflection, like meditation or yoga, is a practice that builds upon itself, becoming reflexive and natural only if we return to it again and again, on a daily basis. In the week or so that I’ve been spinning this blog post through my head, I’ve forced myself to reflect on the most disagreeable and complex parts of my current life, but have also looked at areas where I’ve grown or strategies that helped me exit a situation feeling competent and reasonable. It’s been productive, but I’m also not a middle school student, and my brain has already developed a reflective capacity. For our students to become adults who genuinely reflect and use this habit of mind to their advantage, they have to start somewhere. When we worry that some of them (especially those who are new arrivals at our school) are “unreflective,” all this tells us is that they’re just beginning to build their practice, and that it’s up to us to keep them focused on that mirror until they can stare without flinching.

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