Reflecting to Learn and Learning to Reflect
When I first had my twins, I initially went from a capable, confident individual who could take most of the usual quirks and responsibilities of everyday adult life in her stride…….to a clueless parent who had no idea what to do with two babies, couldn’t fathom the mechanics of their double pram and was rendered a nervous wreck when trying to leave the house with them in it.
This was undoubtedly the biggest learning curve I had been on since, well, since I was about their age! There is nothing like jumping in at the deep end to realise how little you know and how much you need to work out. But when you are busy in a new or challenging situation, and preoccupied with the ‘doing’, it can be very hard to stand back and observe what is happening, understand how you feel about it and identify what might help you to increase your competence.
During the first month a Health Visitor came to our house once a week. She did the usual baby weighing stuff and then each time asked me this simple yet insightful question: “What have you learnt this week?” I smiled the first time she asked it. As a coach, I knew the power of her question.
Being prompted to consider what I was learning helped me to recognise my progress and build confidence. Yet I had not asked myself it. Why was that? I fear it was a classic example of the difference between knowing something (and using it to help others) and doing it (in particular for yourself).
Becoming good at reflecting and using it proactively is a valuable skill and a habit worth developing in both life and work. Yet in our fast-paced world, how frequently do we consciously review our experiences, actions or feelings? How effectively do we pause to think about what is helping or hindering us and use this awareness to make decisions or do something differently?
How we reflect and prefer to learn, plus our past experiences of learning, often dictate our view and approach to it. To get a sense of what this means for you, try considering this:
- Think about the last time you were in a situation where you were learning. What did it feel like? What did you enjoy about it? What was hard?
- What benefits did you gain? What were the outcomes?
- Think about how you went about learning. What helped you? What would you have liked more or less of?
- What happens for you when you go for a long time without a) reflecting and b) learning?
With the rise of social media, the importance of learning by interacting with others has become even more apparent. Whether it is face to face or on-line, having a chance to share or discuss experiences and hear or see how other people approach things all play a key role in our learning effectiveness.
I was interested to read about a team of Harvard Business School professors who carried out a series of studies on how taking time out to reflect and share impacts on our performance. Their working paper (Learning by thinking: how reflection aids performance, March 2014) was based on the dual process theory of thought; that people learn automatically by doing/experiencing and consciously by thinking/reflecting (which seems to align with David Kolb’s work on Learning Styles). They divided their study group into 3:
- A control Group (worked as normal)
- A reflection Group (had 15 minutes at the end of each day to reflect and write down what they learnt)
- A sharing Group (same as the Reflection Group but with an additional 5 minutes to share and discuss their notes with a colleague)
Each group went through the same training and performance testing. The results showed the performance of those in the Reflection Group had improved 22.8% more than in the Control Group, and that the Sharing Group had a further marginal increase on top of this. Participants in 2nd and 3rd groups also reported a greater sense of confidence in their ability to achieve their goal.
This may not be surprising, but it is food for thought. Especially as one of the Professors (Francesca Gino) stated: “I don’t see a lot of organisations that actually encourage employees to reflect—or give them time to do it. When we fall behind even though we’re working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection.”
So, time for a little pause………and to share some of my reflections:
- Reflecting on what is going on in our lives, in and out of work, is good for us. It helps us to make new discoveries, gain perspective, awaken our creativity, increase self-belief, renew our focus, develop our competence and build commitment. A pretty compelling list of reasons to do it regularly.
- Sharing your reflections with someone and being asked thought provoking questions can really help. Never underestimate the power of good coaching!
- Spending 15 minutes in a day (or even once a week) isn’t that long and could be manageable for many people. Some people find reflecting more instinctive than others, but it is a habit that can be learnt……start by thinking about your day, how did it go?
- What went well? What did you enjoy?
- What did you prioritise?
- What went less well? What action did you take to manage this?
- What frustrated you? How did you handle this?
- What could you do more or less of next time? What could help you?
- What did you learn?
The results will be worth the effort.