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The power of reflection on learning

By Nicole Pokorney

Have you seen the power of reflection in youth development? You can witness the power of reflection during the Minnesota State Fair. In the 4-H Building this week, more than 3,000 4-H'ers with general exhibits are going through conference judging, where they sit down with a judge and a group of peers to explain their project and be interviewed about it. Each exhibitor is asked to reflect on how they developed the project, along with technical details of the project area.

Reflection is an essential part of learning. In fact, reflection actually influences brain development.

One of the experts on this is Abigail Baird, a professor of psychology at Vassar College. Earlier this year, she delivered a presentation at the University of Minnesota's Howland Symposium on Trends in Adolescent Brain Development: Implications for Youth Practice and Policy. In it, she stressed the importance of encouraging youth to think of experiences and consequences of actions as a bodily response. What does your gut tell you?

"Teenagers are a work in progress - it is a learning process. As an adolescent, it's hard to interpret what is happening in your body," explains Baird. The brain begins to recognize discomfort and tries to put the feelings into context. This discomfort is what drives you to resolve the feelings and travel through the experience. There is a part of the brain called the insula, which regulates and listens to the abdominal area, and develops as youth work through the decision-making process. Dr. Baird emphasizes the importance of asking youth what they are feeling during these experiences -- encouraging them to reflect upon them.

Many times, we as youth workers design activities with reflection at the end, as a final check on learning and assessment of engagement. Reflection is also compartmentalized in many program planning models. If we instead incorporate reflection throughout an activity or planning process, we enhance the effectiveness of reflection and true youth engagement.

Shelley H. Billig writes in her article, Unpacking What Works in Service-Learning - Promising Research-Based Practices to Improve Student Outcomes, "The power of reflection can be strengthened considerably if reflection both becomes ongoing and involves more cognitive challenge. Ongoing reflection occurs before, during, and after service and features multiple forms of reflection: written, oral, and nonlinguistic". Although Billig's work is focused on service learning, youth engagement through reflection is vital in creating positive learning environments throughout formal and nonformal educational settings.

The power of reflection is strong. Not only is reflection a tool used for engagement of youth or an evaluation of an activity, but it is necessary for healthy brain development. Have you seen the power of reflection in youth development?

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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  1. Hi Nicole –
    Thanks for providing this blog – it helps unlock some of the mysteries of youth learning. It is quite interesting to think of reflection as a way to promote healthy brain development for youth.
    You asked the question about readers’ experiences with reflection in youth development. Like you, I see the power of reflection in learning. Reflection helps youth dig deeper into their learning, see other (and opposing) points of view, and helps promote the accumulating effect that learning can have on individual growth and development. I also see tremendous value in group reflection – where youth can learn from each other, discuss their experiences, and collectively process.
    Do you have any creative tips on facilitation reflection?
    Great post and resources.

    1. That was helpful and insightful. It's sometimes hard to remember "where they are coming from," that was a good reminder.

  2. Thank you, Jennifer for the comments! The power in reflection definitely comes through by the ways you describe! Group and individal reflection is important to use together - not only to address different learning styles and environments, but to actively engage youth with peers.
    The best advice I can give for facilitating reflection is make it a priority. Always search for ways to incorporate reflection and the creative possibilities become endless. Know that the lesson will be taught, but through reflection, it will be learned.


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