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Why Reflect?

(Originally published on August 13th, 2013 in , a blog created by Dr. James Stellar, a neuroscientist and former Dean of Arts and Sciences, Northeastern University, who has been my mentor since the year 2000. Dr. Stellar is now Vice President of Academic Innovation and Experiential Education in Queens College, City University of New York. His blog, The Other Lobe of the Brain combines topics related to science, education, and psychology. In this entry which we worked on together, we analyze the concept of reflection and its relation to experiential education…)

The Other Lobe of The Brain

A Blog About Experiential Education, Social Media, and the Brain…
It is important to try new things. When Sarah and I decided to write a piece together on reflection, having written a previous blog post, she did what she often does with me and produced something impressive. This time, I decided that I did not want to touch it and instead, with her permission, wanted to reprint it whole in my blog. So, I did, just as she sent it to me.
As you know, reflection is a very important part of experiential education as it joins together the experience (and its impact on the unconscious brain mechanisms that make such decisions – think neuroeconomics) and the academic facts and theories learning of the classical classroom so that conscious reason can be better informed by and integrated with experiential influences. That is a long way of saying that we will return to this topic.
-Jim Stellar
Why Reflect?
By: Sarah V. Platt, Ph.D
(Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily)
What is the importance of reflection? Why is reflection such an influential component in the learning process? Plato used to place a significant emphasis on the importance of “learning thyself”, meaning one’s personality, beliefs, mental states, desires, etc.- all of which comprise something we know as self identity. Most philosophers also share the common belief that self-knowledge is particularly different from the acquisition of world knowledge, external to oneself. When applied to experiential education, engaging in reflection or introspection is sometimes a component that I consider to be under-rated. People often undergo an experience or important life event and forget or don’t consider it important enough for whatever reason, to take time to digest, reflect, and view it from different optics. Very often we are caught in the midst of it all and are later interrupted by some other experience, making the previous one seem like it already forms part of our past.
Looking within ourselves is an essential element of our personal growth. In order to fully grasp a particular experience, one’s own mental state before and after it, the lessons learned, the people encountered along the way, and the way in which, optimistically speaking, one has grown from it- one must reflect. There is really no other way to do it.
Self-knowledge, which roots from reflection, is the outcome of the learning process. Many authors and thinkers have quoted the importance of reflection in their own lives and works:
“I am a writer of books in retrospect. I talk in order to understand; I teach in order to learn”. –Robert Frost
“It is the language of reflection that deepens our knowledge of who we are in relation to others in a community of learners”. –Carole Miller and Juliana Saxton, University of Victoria
“Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections”. –Jane Austen
“It takes a certain ingenuous faith- but I have it- to believe that people who read and reflect more likely than not come to judge things with liberality and truth” –A.C. Grayling
“Sometimes, you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead” -Yvonne Woon
If we trace this concept back to experiential education, which is what really interests us here, it makes me think of an experience I had when I was a study abroad student at the Mediterranean Center of Arts and Sciences ( the small island of Sicily, almost ten years ago. I used to live in the city of Siracusa, specifically in the historical centre of Ortigia, which was actually another tiny island connected to the mainland by a bridge. At the time, I was an undergraduate student of Anthropology at Northeastern University, where I met Dr. James Stellar, who was Dean of Arts and Sciences at the time. I remember sitting in a classroom in Ortigia taking a Creative Writing course offered by Professor Patti Trimble, a native Californian artist and poet, Adjuct Faculty Member of this institution. Professor Trimble made us buy a journal and jot down our experiences in Sicily on a daily basis. I remember how I often felt annoyed because of her assignments and how I couldn’t think of anything to write, while sitting on my balcony in Ortigia, which overlooked the sea. I was busy living my life in the present and found it extremely challenging to digest and put these experiences into words. However, I tried to make an effort to reach the minimum word count Professor Trimble required of us. Sometimes I would write down the words of songs I had learned in Italian, other times I asked my new Sicilian friends to tell me stories about their families or neighborhoods, and would write them down in my diary. On other occasions I would write about how tired I was of eating pasta or how my new roommate annoyed me. In sum, my diary was a way of unleashing all my emotions on a day to day basis.
Now, ten years later, I finished my Ph.D and on occasions also teach writing courses in English and Spanish. Life opportunities have taken me all around the world, most recently to Poland, where I came back recently after two years. When I think of my days in Ortigia, my memory gets fuzzy. If it weren’t for Professor Trimble’s class and the emphasis she placed on reflecting on our daily experiences while engaging in this experiential education program, I wouldn’t have all these vivid memories stored in my journal. I recently found the small green diary stacked amongst my other books kept in my mom’s home in my native Puerto Rico, dusted it off, and began reading some of my entries. One of them written on February 12th, 2004 starts with the following quote:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”. I believe this is precisely the beauty of reflection, for it gives us the opportunity to have new eyes…


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