Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Reflections on reflection

Reflective learning is one of the latest buzzwords in education. Unfortunately, like critical thinking, everyone claims to know what it means (and to teach it already) but no one agrees on what it is. Fortunately, there is some agreement that John Dewey is the father of reflective learning, and it gets some of its cachet from his reputation. So maybe philosophers can use this to defend the teaching of philosophy, deal with assessment people, sell the subject to administrators, etc.

Here are some things that Dewey says about reflection (he doesn't mention reflective learning) in How We Think:

Thought is reflective only in cases where "the ground or basis for a belief is deliberately sought and its adequacy to support the belief examined."
Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence—a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley.   
Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought. 
This function by which one thing signifies or indicates another, and thereby leads us to consider how far one may be regarded as warrant for belief in the other, is, then, the central factor in all reflective or distinctively intellectual thinking. 
Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection.  
Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.
Genuine freedom, in short, is intellectual; it rests in the trained power of thought, in ability to "turn things over," to look at matters deliberately, to judge whether the amount and kind of evidence requisite for decision is at hand, and if not, to tell where and how to seek such evidence. If a man's actions are not guided by thoughtful conclusions, then they are guided by inconsiderate impulse, unbalanced appetite, caprice, or the circumstances of the moment. To cultivate unhindered, unreflective external activity is to foster enslavement, for it leaves the person at the mercy of appetite, sense, and circumstance. 
Upon examination, each instance [of reflection] reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief. 
There is thus a double movement in all reflection: a movement from the given partial and confused data to a suggested comprehensive (or inclusive) entire situation; and back from this suggested whole—which as suggested is a meaning, an idea—to the particular facts, so as to connect these with one another and with additional facts to which the suggestion has directed attention. Roughly speaking, the first of these movements is inductive; the second deductive. A complete act of thought involves both—it involves, that is, a fruitful interaction of observed (or recollected) particular considerations and of inclusive and far-reaching (general) meanings. 
I guess this is meant to apply to subjects beyond philosophy, but it fits philosophy pretty well. There is little emphasis here on memorizing facts or mastering already-discovered methodologies or techniques for solving particular problems. Some of this is going into my syllabuses, and I might even design paper assignments based on the last two quotations above. Something like this: first, in applied ethics, (i) identify some problem, (ii) define the problem precisely, (iii) consider a possible solution, (iv) think through (i.e. explain carefully) what the proposed solution would mean in this case, both the good and the bad, (v) conclude whether the proposed solution (or theory) should be accepted (or believed) or not. Repeat until a belief that should be accepted is identified, making sure to consider at least two proposed solutions before the end of the paper is reached. And then, still in ethics, but more abstract, (i) based on the last quotation above, connect the conclusions of two or more papers on applied ethics to form a more comprehensive or inclusive belief or theory about how ethical problems should be resolved, (ii) try this belief or theory out on some other problems you can think of, (iii) draw a conclusion about whether the belief or theory leads to good results or bad, (iv) adjust if necessary and re-test the belief or theory, (v) conclude that the belief should be accepted or rejected.

Hmm. I think Dewey's language might need to be updated or simplified for contemporary undergraduates, and then I might end up simply asking them to do exactly what I already do. But I like the idea of being able to sell philosophy as it already is as reflective and therefore in line with the required mission. Less cynically, it's also helpful to read through Dewey's thoughts and reconsider in their light practices that might otherwise become thoughtless habits.

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