Most young adolescents are more interested in doing than in thinking. I’ve
come to see that planning, reflection, and a focus on metacognition can help
students become interested in learning and more aware of their academic
development. For some time, I’ve wanted to slow down my lessons to give them
time to plan before working and reflect afterwards, and I’ve finally begun to do
Choice and reflection boost learning
comparative-religions unit, I used choice-rich planning and provided reflection
time. Offering choice helped keep my students’ interest level high. They focused
better on their research, and the quality and quantity of their work improved.
Systematic reflection allowed them to meet daily goals. And, as is often the
case, the questions we asked proved to be a key part of the learning process. My
professional goal for this comparative religions unit was to concentrate more on
planning and reflection. The main student goal was to develop expert-level
understanding about one of five religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism,
Islam, or Hinduism. The final product was to be a research paper. They had no
say in this, and when I explained the scope of the project, my students listened
respectfully, but to say the least, they didn’t appear thrilled. When I was
ready to tell them the questions their research needed to answer, I noticed
their daunted looking faces and realized I needed to include them more in the
process. The unit as it had been presented so far was entirely teacher-directed,
and I was running the risk of losing some of them.
A simple question did the trick. Instead of telling them the
research questions I had in mind, I asked, “If you were to learn about a new
religion, what are seven important questions you would like to answer?” The room
immediately became lively. We brainstormed many possibilities. After posting our
brainstormed list we selected our research questions by using a consensus model
similar to the one we had used to create our Social Contract. Individuals
selected seven, brought their questions into small groups and sorted/condensed
questions until the group agreed on seven. We finished by merging these into a
classroom set. These seven “essential research questions” became the “have-to’s”
to be answered. In fact, the entire research portion of our project was now
student-directed! (Interestingly, the questions we agreed upon were similar to
the questions I had been about to impose on them.)
Students considered the following questions for Buddhism,
Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism:
- Where and when did the religion begin?
- Who are the most important people in the religion’s history?
- How do the people worship?
- Are there beliefs regarding birth life, and death?
- Who are the gods or goddesses or figures of worship?
- What are the important symbols, and what do they mean?
- What ceremonies and celebrations does the religion
I separated the reflective part of
the unit into two categories: daily and summative. Each day, I asked students to
reflect on their work sessions. Often, I used an informal “thumbs up, thumbs
sideways, thumbs down” nonverbal check-in technique. I made a simple statement,
like “I completed my task;” “I used my time wisely;” “My notes kept to my web’s
framework.” Students responded with the thumb gesture that reflected their work
I also used entry or exit answers to elicit students’
reflection. To help them access prior knowledge at the beginning of class, for
example, I asked students to complete sentence starters like “Islam is…”,
is…” or “Buddhism is….” Typical exit-card topics included “Today I
learned…;” “One thing I struggled with today was…;” “Today I met my goal by…;”
“Tomorrow, I’ll begin by….”
One of the best
methods of informal reflection I used was to ask students to set a goal for a
work period, check in with it once during the session, and assess the degree to
which they were successful in meeting the goal at the end of the period. This
sequence was slightly more formal and took time to process, but the results were
worth it: whenever we used this reflective technique, almost all students met
the daily goal.
At the conclusion of the
unit, students wrote a formal reflection on the research process. This work
guided them towards metacognitive thought by asking questions like:
- What was easy for you?
- What was difficult?
- What part(s) of the research process did you like most?
- What would you like to change about the research process for next time?
- How will the process of doing quality research help you in the
As a culminating activity, I used an
engaged-learning strategy called Jigsaw to share what we’d learned about the
five religions. I created groups of five students, each of which chose one of
the religions. As each group member shared out what he’d learned, I observed and
noted which students were engaged positively as they shared. The results were
very encouraging: 95% of my students were fully, happily engaged when they
summarized their research projects to their Jigsaw groups! That, combined with
my daily observations of the work periods and the quality of the research
papers, was more than enough to make me want to continue to build in time to
plan and reflect with students.
Content vs. process
back on the comparative religions unit, I know I still have a way to go before I
can say that I’ve made reflection a natural part of my routine. Time management
was an issue for me, as was finding time to plan the process parts of my
lessons. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the content-I hadn’t taught the
unit before-so I had to spend a lot of time learning the content of my lessons.
Through continued reading about ways to assess and about theoretical work on
metacognition, and by teaching the unit again once I’m comfortable with the
content, I feel I can further improve the quality of student reflection in my
Sarah Ibson teaches 7th/8th grade Social Studies at Crossett
Brock Middle School in Duxbury VT.
Published January 2008