Revisiting reflection and cake baking

 

Revisiting a Short Reflection from 2010

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What follows is a reflection that I posted one rainy September day in 2010, and I have decided to revisit it seven years later to expand on the idea of reflection, something we increasingly leave behind as we hurtle through our daily lives.

Facebook can lead to Reflection

“It’s raining quite hard in Verona this morning so rather than going out and busily “achieving not very much” I decided it was the perfect time to sit down and reflect, or at least to write what I was thinking on Facebook. Feeling irritated, like so many people these days, with the overload of information we are all bombarded with, all the time, I wrote that information without knowledge and wisdom is like the ingredients without the cake. This sparked off a little discussion which made me reflect a bit more. (So, yes, Facebook can be used in all kinds of ways 🙂 ) In fact, making a joke, I added that cakes are also very dangerous, as we all know.

On reflection though this is not a joke because the power of the cake lies with the baker rather than  with the person who eats it. The baker decides what to put into it, and therefore what the effect will be. This is true of many things in life, not forgetting, of course lesson planning and teaching (Two of the many points in the learning  process. )

The person who eats the cake, or goes to the lesson, also contributes to the process though, by exercising choice. You can choose which cake to eat, how much of it etc. but we have to think about what it is that leads us to choose one particular cake and not another…. This opens it all up for even more thought and discussion.

In any case, reflection is the essential part of the process. If we just throw in the ingredients without thinking, or if the cakes we eat are mass produced by unthinking machines, for instance, the results will be questionable, at the very least.

So, I’m off to meditate now… and then I might bake a cake…”

Thoughts ten years later

My initial reaction is that not much has changed. We are still bombarded by too much information, in fact, even more so, and we are also struggling to process it all in the different ways we encounter it every day . The second is that reflection can be a one sided process, which would be like baking a cake that nobody eats.  If it leads to insights, though, and if those insights are shared, or applied in practice in the classroom, observing, reflecting, experimenting and then observing again, perhaps we can all learn from each other, build on our experience and the cake can only get tastier and tastier.

24 Hours a Day are not really enough…. or are they?

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One of the biggest problems when it comes to reflection is that many of us don’t think we have enough time to do it. Or rather, we get caught up in so much daily activity that stopping to step back and observe it all, is something that we simply don’t take the time to do.

I recently asked a group of university students what they would most like to do if they could do anything they wanted in that precise moment. What do you think the answer was? Well, no, they didn’t want to escape to a tropical island. They wanted to sleep. This says it all, in a way. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important ways of staying healthy and lucid, and yet here we all are, working too late, feeling stressed and carrying on anyway, and on top of all this I’m asking you to ‘reflect’! Well, when are you supposed to do that?

Digital Distractions

When I’m researching something, simply looking for ideas for my next lesson or even planning a trip, I tend to spend a lot of time navigating manically from one article or website to another on the Internet, without focusing to any great depth on any of them, always hoping to find exactly the ideas, flight or research I’m interested in the next one… The next one, after all, is only a click away. I can save them all and come back later, when I have more time. It’s a vicious circle, in fact, because it might have been better to sit and read one article through, rather than spending half an hour cataloguing articles that I am not reading. This is the siren call of the digital world and it takes up a lot of time. Taking time to do something like reflecting seems to be a waste of time. It isn’t productive. There is so much else to do. Strangely enough, though,  I find that taking the time to sit down and meditate, be mindful or simply breathe deeply stops my brain spinning round. It stops me multitasking and actually expands time. That’s the mental space that opens the doors to some of my most significant reflections and insights.

Recently, for instance, I was planning a lesson on discourse analysis which is quite a complex topic. I had been struggling to think of ways of simplifying it all without dumbing it down, and was not being very successful. I did not want to simply lecture students. I want them to be able to understand the basics of systemic functional grammar (in 8 hours at the most!), and I want to motivate them to find out more. Defeated, I left it and went to bed, and the next morning as I was walking down the street, after a good night’s sleep the image of clause complexes as planets came to me, all moving around their own systems, ‘process’ planets with satellites of ‘participants’ and ‘circumstances’ (I apologise for the jargon, but it is central to systemic functional grammar) so I made a Prezi which I called the universe of transitivity and suddenly just ‘knew’ how I was going to teach this subject. For all those who are interested, here is a link to the prezi :-).

None of this is new, of course. We have all experienced the way a good night’s sleep can help us to see things in a different light, and by taking the time to stop and  slow down, in fact, you actually do create more time for yourself, and you work better. Suddenly, you are doing something like writing a blogpost, for example, because you want to, because you have something to say, and not simply because it is on a list of goals that you have set for yourself. Suddenly you find yourself planning an activity to do in class with your students because it is meaningful, fun and relevant to them, rather than because it is simply the next lesson you have to do.

Finding time to make reflection part of your own professional development

This is a tall order, I know, for many teachers who are working heavy weeks, and barely have enough time to plan their lessons, let alone stop and think about them. I remember one Celta trainee I was working with, who said that our course was really good, and that he was learning lots of amazing things, but it was a pity that he had 40 hours of teaching a week and simply did not have the time to put it all into practice.

My advice to him was to “put it into practice’ for one or two lessons a week, rather than for all of them. I mention this because I know that writing a reflection journal, or even a blog, takes time. You don’t always have something specific to reflect about either. You may not have any insights for a few weeks, and then one episode in an exam, or a lesson, for instance, will start you thinking. That is when you can stop and take the time to think about it, and why it is memorable to you.

Reflecting by Asking Questions

Reflection is a skill that can be learned just as any other skill can. One or two moments of quality reflection can be invaluable but if you are not used to it, it may not be easy at first. You may feel that you have nothing to say or write. One way to start is by asking a few  WH questions:

What happened?

Where did it happen?

Who was involved?

When did it happen?

What did this make me think?

What might I do differently next time?

What are the implications?

Planning a little time once a month, even to sit down and take stock in this way can soon become a habit that can actually help you to put more into your teaching. You find that you are no longer simply baking a cake, but you are baking your own quality masterpiece and you and your students are having a feast. Personally, as you can see in the image below, I’ve moved on to waffles at the moment, since it was Pancake Tuesday this week, but I was still quite proud of my creations, just as I was proud of my transivity prezi.

I’d love to hear about your reflections too, and where they take you 🙂

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One thought on “Revisiting reflection and cake baking

  1. Hi Sharon,
    I really liked this post, especially the reminder that we should take a step back to examine what we’re doing, and that can often help us to come up with (better) ideas.
    I’m going to be a bit cheeky and advertise my new ebook here, as I think it’s relevant to the last couple of points you made: reflection is a skill which can be learnt, and questions are a useful way to go about it. ELT Playbook 1 is designed around those two ideas: it’s a series of 30 tasks for teachers, including 5 related to health and well-being. Each task is less than two hours in total, most less than one, and deals with areas new teachers often find challenging. The task is supported by a series of reflection questions, and four ideas for how to crystallise the reflection in some way: a journal entry, a blog post, a video/audio recording, or an image with a caption. It’s supported by an online community (which isn’t very active yet!) so people can get feedback on their ideas and see what other people are doing in response to the tasks too. All of the information, and an example of one task, is here: http://eltplaybook.wordpress.com
    I hope you and your readers find it useful,
    Sandy

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