reflecting with purpose
Project Based Learning is often perceived by newcomers as a whirlwind of activity: students are engaged in tasks: researching, applying, creating, presenting. But PBL teachers know that the learning inherent in PBL– one of the Essential Project Design Elements that differentiates PBL from “doing projects”-- is rooted in intentional practices of reflection. It is through reflection that students make individual and collective meaning of their experiences, connect those experiences to past and future learning, and build new neural networks. Learners need time and structures to process their experiences, just as our bodies need time to digest food and transform it into usable nutrients.

The PBL teacher plays a critical role in facilitating this process of reflection. In their book “Learning and Leading Through Habits of Mind,” Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick write, “In the role of facilitator, the teacher acts as an intermediary between the learner and the learning, guiding each student to approach the learning activity in a strategic way. The teacher helps each student monitor individual progress, construct meaning from the content learned and from the process of learning it, and apply the learnings to other contexts and settings. Learning becomes a continual process of engaging the mind that transforms the mind.” 

So how do we plan for and facilitate reflection in a way that facilitates this transformation? First, we can consider the varied purposes reflection serves, and be intentional about when and why we ask students to reflect on their learning. The structure of PBL creates rich opportunities for students to reflect in four key areas: content, process, purpose, and identity.

Reflection on Content

When students reflect on content, they are engaged with the question, What are we learning? Through this type of reflection, they wrestle with questions such as, “How does the new information we are learning about this topic change our understanding of it?,” and “How does this concept compare/connect with a related concept?” For example, students in a science class might return to their hypothesis and consider why it was incorrect, or students working on a social studies project might compare the Industrial Revolution to technological shifts in the present day. Reflecting on content helps students build schema about core concepts within and across disciplines, so they can integrate new knowledge and use it.

Reflection on Process

The process-oriented focus of PBL makes it possible for students to become better collaborators, project managers, and strategic thinkers. In order to do this, students need opportunities to reflect not just on WHAT they are learning, but on HOW they are learning it, and how they are working together. Sample process reflections might include questions like the following:

  • What strategies did I try? How did they work? What could I try next?
  • How well are we collaborating in relation to our working agreements and/or the Collaboration Rubric?
  • What’s going well, and what might we need to change about how we are working in order to meet our goals?
  • Do we need to find new or different resources to address our questions?
  • How is this task similar to or different from tasks that we have completed in the past?
  • What feedback do we have for our teacher about this project? What might we need to shift or adjust?

Regular reflection on process helps students to become flexible, effective, and independent learners and thinkers. 

Reflection on Purpose

In Gold Standard PBL, students should always be able to answer the question, “Why are we doing this?” Creating space for students to consider why their work and learning matters not only fosters engagement and motivation, but also helps to ensure that their work really is purposeful and impactful, and builds the habit of mind of operating with intention. Sample reflection prompts on purpose might include:

  • How does what we are learning help us to answer the driving question/solve the problem/create the product? 
  • Why does this work/learning matter to the world/our community/the audience for our final product? 
  • Where else could this skill be helpful?
Reflection on Ourselves

Arguably the most profound question students can wrestle with throughout a project, is “Who am I as a learner, and how am I growing and changing?” This form of reflection, which includes setting and revisiting goals and considering progress over time (and which can be particularly powerful when supported by the use of portfolio assessment), helps students to (in the words of Ron Berger) “lead their own learning.” Prompts that support this form of reflection could include:

  • What strengths do I bring to this aspect of the project? 
  • What are some areas in which I want to grow?
  • What do I need from others in order to be successful? How can I advocate for those needs?
  • How am I growing and changing as a learner?
  • What successes can I celebrate?

Making self-reflection a regular and shared practice has incredible benefits for classroom culture as well: it helps you better know your students, it normalizes the fact that everyone has strengths and needs, and creates a culture of interdependence, in which students are invested in one another’s growth.

Putting It Into Practice

How do we create reflection-rich classrooms in which students make meaning and grow as learners? Keeping in mind the four focus areas above, use the following practices to guide you as you plan for and implement reflection:

  • Balance individual and shared reflection: Costa and Kallick write about two “voices” of reflection: an internal voice, where we learn to engage in “self-talk” and to know ourselves better, and an external voice, informed by “others' comments, suggestions, assessments, evaluations, and feedback. External sharing of reflections is important because this kind of reflection multiplies the learning for each individual.” As you plan reflective moments for your classroom, consider how you will provide opportunities for internal reflection (via practices like journal entries), and external reflection (through discussions, feedback, and other group activities).
  • Provide rich “inputs:” Psychologist Robert Kegan writes “Reflection without action is ultimately as unproductive as action without reflection.” In order for students to have meaningful experiences on which to reflect, projects ideally include a wide variety of engaging, thought-provoking learning experiences– this might include guest speakers, hands-on-activities, relevant texts, and opportunities for students to make connections to their lives and the world beyond the classroom walls.
  • Model reflective practice: Be transparent with your students about your own goals, growth areas, and learning. Share with them how you “think about thinking” and how you adjust your own practice based on new learning.
  • Make time: This can be one of the most challenging aspects of cultivating reflective classrooms. In a culture and educational system focused on productivity and urgency, we all face tremendous pressure to cover content and pack instructional time. But reflective practices are the tools that help students retain and integrate new learning. Think of reflection as a tool for “uncovering” content and helping it “stick.”
  • Build reflection as a habit of mind: Ultimately, our goal is for students to practice reflection independently– to be thoughtful lifelong learners. We scaffold reflection in the classroom in order to help students build their reflective “muscles.” The world desperately needs people who can pause, think, understand, and adapt. Teaching students to reflect helps them find their gifts and grow their capacity to use these gifts effectively to contribute to the world they will inherit.
Sarah Field, Senior Curriculum Manager
Sarah designs professional development programs and curriculum for PBLWorks.