How common is it to have ‘ah-ha!’ moments as a result of reflective thinking?
There seems to be an assumption that reflection should lead to profound, transformative insights. This is even given as a reason against using reflection in teacher education courses: Teachers think they can only pass their reflective teaching course if they have completely transformed their teaching by rejecting some fundamental assumption, so they invent transformative experiences (Macfarlane and Gourlay 2009).
But I think these sorts of transformations rarely result from reflection. I can’t even remember a time when suddenly my whole approach to teaching was transformed and I saw everything differently. My reflections about teaching typically result in small, satisfying changes, which I call insights, but which are not the massive, earth-shattering upheavals we might expect. When I reflect on my teaching I might tweak a teaching method, solve one particular issue I was wondering about, or come up with a better way of explaining something to my students, or devise a new strategy that I hadn’t thought of before. For example, this blog post is the result of my reflection about how I change and improve my teaching. I had a vague idea that I developed new insights, and I have clarified that these insights are frequently small rather than transformative.
I only rarely experience moments when several different issues fall into place – for example when I suddenly realise that I had seen assessment solely as grading students, but it was better to see assessment more broadly as evaluating student performance, with or without grades. This is more than the typical experience of clarifying an isolated point, because it transforms a lot of my teaching practice. But it is also not a complete transformation. Perhaps it is a kind of like a micro ah-ha! It is a very satisfying experience where something hazy suddenly comes into focus.
Reflection frequently involves more plodding than great leaps of insight. It is hard work that is rewarded by a slow revealing, like cleaning a very smudged painting, rather than a flash of insight that suddenly illuminate the entire picture.
Bruce Macfarlane & Lesley Gourlay (2009) The reflection game: enacting the penitent self, Teaching in Higher Education, 14:4, 455-459