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Understanding Reflection


What is reflection?

Most people who are involved in community service and service learning programs are familiar with the term "reflection." In fact, we are all familiar with reflection... Every time we look in the mirror. The term "reflection" is derived from the Latin term reflectere -- meaning "to bend back." A mirror does precisely this, bend back the light, making visible what is apparent to others, but a mystery to us -- namely, what our faces look like.

In service learning, we look to develop processes that allow the people doing service to bend the metaphorical light of their experiences back onto their minds -- to make careful considerations about what their experience were all about: what did they see, who did they meet, why is there a need for such services in the first place, etc. The act of reflection, therefore, becomes crucial to their education. It serves as the bridge between experiences and learning.

Reflection is more than "touchy-feely."

Many students, staff and faculty in university and college settings think of reflection only in terms of"touchy-feely" group discussions. Consequently, they resist opportunities to reflect on the nature of their service work. This, aversion stems from what appears to be a barrier to talking about one's feelings, thoughts, and emotions. However, reflection need not be limited to the release of emotional energy, the sharing of feelings, or attempts to "feel good" about the service performed. Rather, reflection is decidedly educational. It is simply an opportunity through which one can learn from experience. Reflection can take numerous forms, and touch on an endless variety of issues. It furthers learning and inspires, provocative thought and action. Most of all, it can benefit the individual and the community.

Why learn from experience?

Most of what we know about the world and our place in it is derived from learning through our experiences. Certainly we learn a great deal from formal education -- from lectures and books. But are we merely memorizing and absorbing the facts and figures, or are we experiencing them? Do we not engage in an internal dialogue with the subject matter and, as one student claims, "experience a book"? Aren't we, in fact, reflecting on the subject matter? Answering "yes" to these questions allows us to recognize that we are, learning all the time. When related to service, the opportunity to reflecton experience is crucial. As David Sawyer of Berea College explained, "Service action does not automatically become service attitude. The depth of reflection determines the, quality of the attitude, and the quality of the action." This reflection module encourages us not to take these learning opportunities for granted.

What is it that we take for granted?

Questioning what we, take for granted involves more than thinking about how privileged we might be compared to others in a diverse community. We need to look at the mundane world around us. Donald Schon, in his widely read book entitled, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (1983), calls for professionals to better understand their actions by thinking about their actions. This is hardly news, since we do it all the time. What is different, and out of the ordinary, is getting into the habit of thinking about our thinking. Schon suggests several properties related to thinking:

  1. There are actions, recognitions, and judgements, which we know how to carry out spontaneously; we do not have to think about them prior to or during their performance.
  2. We are often unaware of having to learn to do these things; we simply find ourselves doing them.
  3. In some cases, we were once aware of the understandings which were subsequently internalized in our feeling for the stuff of action. In other cases, we may never have been aware of them. In both cases, however, we are usually unable to describe the knowing which our action reveals.

(Schon 1984: 54)

Schon argues that "as practice becomes more repetitive and routine...the practitioner may miss important opportunities to think about what he is doing... [H]e learns, as often happens, to be selectively inattentive to phenomena that do not; fit the, categories of his, knowing-in-action, then he may offer from boredom or 'burn-out' and afflict [the people around him] with the consequences of his narrowness and rigidity." (Schon 1984:61)

Why should I be attentive to my thinking?

Do you want your service to be a part of your education? Do you want to serve well? Do you want the organization or club you work with to be effective? Do you want your work to mean something? Do you want to learn, improve, and grow? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you have provided yourself with good reasons to make reflecting into a habit.

How can I be more, conscious of "doing no harm."

Studies have been done about why college students do community or public service work. Most often students cite altruism, "the selfless concern for the welfare of others," as the reason. They feel that the work they do promotes the welfare of those they are serving, be they newly immigrated children needing to learn English, homeless people needing meals, or a campus needing educational programs about diverse cultures. However, we must question whether even these altruistic people can and should determine what is best for others. Many of us believe that we determine our own "best" interests; why should the people with and for whom we serve be any different? Reflection provides an opportunity for people who are serving to open their hearts and minds to the experiences of others, to acknowledge their wisdom and understand their resources strengths and needs, and to develop action plans that involve partnership with communities, and prevent doing harm.

It is often difficult to imagine that an act of benevolence can actually end up having negative consequences. But this question must be constantly asked if we are considering community members as equal partners in a service learning experience. Raising the specter of negative consequences forces us to look at the underlying reasons for the social conditions that gave rise to the need for service in the first place. Such attention to the root cause of social problems, thus becomes a critical element to successful reflection. Examining these causes in light of service experiences merges education and action in unique ways.

But how can reflection appeal to my self-interests?

The self-interests of people who serve are also met when these people reflect on how their service work has had an impact on their own lives and learning. These impacts involve one's growth and understanding in areas such as:

More often than not, this kind of self-learning is taken for granted. We tend to pay attention to it on specific occasions. Questions of career exploration only arise when life after college is contemplated. Spiritual fulfillment may only be a concern during periods of worship. Civic responsibilities may only come to mind when and if we vote. The kinds of structured reflection outlined in this module are designed to link one's service experiences to personal, as well as community, development.


The first section of this manual will introduce reflection leaders to the proper technique for effective facilitation. Although facilitation is not a new concept, and is used in a variety of situations, many individuals are unclear about it. Facilitation skill is especially important for reflection pertaining to service experiences, as a wide range of opinions and emotions can be expressed, and many of the topics of discussion are controversial. The facilitation section of the manual also includes samples of challenging situations for facilitator and describes appropriate responses.

Once facilitators have this fundamental understanding of facilitated reflection, they can begin to plan the reflection activities for their group. The second section of this, manual outlines the steps to take, and things to consider, in developing reflection sessions.

The most basic form of structured externalized reflection is the "reflection circle.' The, manual's third section explains this form of reflection and proves the reader with a selection of sample questions that can be used to initiate reflection. This type of reflection is not immediately appropriate for all groups, however, so the fourth section describes a variety of other reflection activities for groups.

Understanding that reflection can take many, many forms and that good facilitators are those that promote creative reflection activities, the final section of the manual includes brief descriptions of alternative forms of reflection that need not take place with a group present. Most of these ideas are popular in the classroom, and have been adapted to service experiences that are independent of academic courses. Samples include journals, portfolios, and presentations.


Individuals and groups will determine which form of reflection will be most meaningful for them. Across the many types of reflection taking place, and its infinite outcomes, we hope reflection becomes a habit of being for people engaged in service. The connection of theory and practice thought and action, can educate and transform.

...reflection is so critical; there can be no higher growth for individuals or for society without it. Reflection is the very process of human evolution itself.
-- David Sawyer, director of Students for Appalachia at Berea College


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