How do you learn? How do you retain information? How do you make connections between informational points and synthesize for true creativity? Worthy questions—not only for our students, but for ourselves as well. This is where the concept of reflective learning makes an appearance.

Reflective learning is something that takes time. It demands thought and effort. Unfortunately, we know that our days can become riddled with busy work and mindless tasks. We don’t get a chance to internalize experience and skills acquired and put our puzzle pieces together. In other words, we often don’t get to reflect.

Reflection is a discipline of self that takes commitment. It’s the brain’s digestion exercise, the soaking in, the internalization of thoughts and ideas. It’s the buildup of potential thought energy into kinetic energy of imagination and creativity.

What makes it different than regular learning? Read on.

A Closer Look at Reflective Learning

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, renowned physicist Richard Feynman relates in his first chapter how, at the age of 12, he was asked to fix a radio. The man he was fixing it for wasn’t very pleasant to the young Richard. He wondered aloud how a little boy could do anything so complicated.

Upon listening to the man’s problem and hearing the disturbing noise coming from the radio, Feynman simply began to walk back and forth, thinking. The man was incredulous. “What are you doing? You come to fix the radio, but you’re only walking back and forth!”


Finally Feynman stopped, reversed the tubes in the radio and the problem was fixed. The man was completely taken aback.

In a recent BBC production of Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes descends mentally into his “mind palace.” He shuts all distraction out to the astonishment of onlookers. He reaches deep down into his thoughts, grabbing pieces of information and reassembling them visually. His hands move as if to reposition elements in mid-air. After sometimes half an hour in this trance, he snaps to alertness and solves the case at hand brilliantly.

Reflective learning doesn’t really happen so quickly and dramatically in this way. In great minds such as these real and fictitious characters, reflective learning is second nature and may be accompanied by a certain flourish of the dramatic. For others, we need time, space, some background information, and a template to guide us.

Where Does the Idea of Reflective Learning Come From?

Reflective learning first came to a modern focus through John Dewey in 1933. Building on ancient Greek ideas, he posited that reflective learning allowed for people to connect ideas to past knowledge in order to solve problems.


Hatton and Smith (1995) went further and characterized the reflective learner by the following:

  1. Thinks laterally. Considers that the data might be interpreted many different ways. We see this at the climactic points in certain movies where a “prophecy” appears to be fulfilled. But it is fulfilled in a way that is not expected. By thinking laterally we can envision the problem at different and unexpected angles. This gives rise to new solutions to old problems.
  2. Lets time pass after a lesson or action, then reflects back upon it. Let’s call  this “letting the problem gestate.” For all our learning, there is an action. Afterward, there’s reflection upon the action. Then comes a transformation—we can not go back; we have changed in some way.
  3. Uses journals and group discussion directed toward answering a defining question. Often we lose sight of the goal of our reflection. Reflective learning in its strictest sense involves drawing conclusions and solving problems.
  4. Considers opposing historical, cultural, and political viewpoints and values beliefs with an open mind. Arrives at solutions that are practical and that encompass many viewpoints. This allows our brains to stretch.

Reflective Portfolios

Ivory Research suggests how to create reflective portfolios. These are writings by students that bring insight and understanding to their work. It allows students to become familiar with their own learning process. It can take the form of a large written work, a collection of written pieces, or some sort of online format.

The reflective portfolio will include:

  • Work samples—scans, photographs, and photocopies of projects
  • Journal entries—not necessarily conclusion-driven, but merely recordings of thought processes along the way
  • Critical Incident Reports—“aha” moments (the reflective part), landmarks of achievement, and progress are accounted for in this section.
  • Proof of achievement—formative assessment results, other test scores
  • Personal summary statement—allowing the student to encapsulate their experience and their progress.

It’s important to remember that the reflective portfolio should be an honest assessment of one’s own path through a project. It therefore should include honest assessment of one’s weaknesses and plans to improve.

Solution Fluency and Reflective Learning

Bringing this idea into innovative learning, we must bring up the GDCF’s Solution Fluency, which lends itself well to reflective learning.


The 6Ds process of Solution Fluency—Define, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, Debrief—takes us through the process of reflective learning. It’s a cycle of constant learning and improving.

  • We define the driving question. The problem is stated in such a way that allows us to focus upon it from time to time. As we progress through the next stages, we look back and continue to ask if we are striving for an answer to the driving question.
  • The discover step accesses that information in the past that we already know. We assess our knowledge and resources and prepare to make connections with our ideas that we will be forging anew.
  • Dreaming is the reflective part. Considering what we know, we begin to synthesize it all into a working solution.
  • The “blueprint” stage is where our design happens. We give our project a skeleton so that it begins to take shape. This may cycle several times through back to previous stages. We may find things out that we didn’t know before, and give rise to more dreaming and revising of our blueprint.
  • Now we must deliver the goods. This is the final reveal. When all’s said and done, we present the final piece. We go public.
  • It always includes a debrief. This is a time to celebrate. A time to talk about the experience. A time to reflect on what we learned. A time of gratitude and looking forward.

Conscious reflective learning allows the mind to rest and reflect and revisit, bringing forth a deeper understanding of the experience and skills that we acquired. By incorporating systems within our learning structure that allow for reflective learning, we can instill in ourselves and our students good habits of mind and lifelong learning skills.



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