Habits of Mind: Being Reflective


Last night at Cannon School, we welcomed over 100 new parents to the Cannon community at our annual New Parent Reception.  As always, this was a festive event — the room filled with the energy and excitement of parents who have enrolled their children for 2012-13 and are eager to begin their transition into the Cannon School family.

As Head of School Matt Gossage greeted them, he pointed out that he sensed their need for context.  Afterall, these new parents are stepping into a community that is deeply engaged in number of robust conversations and discussions about the best ways to educate and support children. Matt welcomed the new parents into these conversations — beginning with an overview of the concept we call Adaptive Expertise.

With that in mind, it makes sense to look back at a recent “Matt’s Memo” that addresses one of the habits of mind that we think all problem solvers need — the ability to be reflective.

Here’s Matt’s Memo:

The Place Where Learning Occurs 

I have always been fascinated by the efforts of a toddler to dribble a basketball. Given the opportunity to watch someone older create all that noise and energy and given the subsequent opportunity to have a try, a toddler will quickly begin the attack. Usually the ball is motionless on the floor, and the toddler will position herself right over the ball, bend and squat in only the way a toddler can, and begin to smack the top of the ball with all her might. Inevitably, the ball will roll away, and the chase begins. If she’s nimble enough, she will track it down and try the approach of tossing and running with the hope of catching it on a bounce and keeping that bounce going. And if she’s fortunate, she will avoid running up on the ball and rolling right over it.

Dribbling is one of the skills required to play the game of basketball. I am labeling it a skill because it is an action that, when mastered, leads to accomplishing something larger. Dribbling is a fundamental skill because the offensive player can use the dribble to advance the ball to the basket and to create a passing lane to a teammate. When used skillfully, the dribble can and should lead to a score.

Almost always in games involving the youngest of players (and too often in games involving the most accomplished players), the dribble becomes an end all unto itself. The youngest dribbler, because he has to (and the most accomplished dribbler because he chooses to), pounds the ball right in front of his feet with his head down unaware of the basket or a teammate. The ball does not move because the skill of dribbling is still a work in progress. The dribbler has advanced beyond the toddler’s stage but has not made dribbling a means to the greater goal of scoring points. Hopefully, this young player will intersect with a coach who will take the time to teach the skill so that this player can help a team.

I have used “all this dribble” to provide a framework to explore a skill I believe young people will need to acquire when they begin to confront as adults the challenges of an unpredictable world. Dribbling gives us a working definition of a skill: an ability coming mostly from practice and some aptitude to do something that leads to an accomplishment larger than the act itself. The mention of the toddler, young dribbler, and accomplished dribbler introduced the developmental stages that accompany the learning of a skill. There is a big difference between doing a skill and using that skill to a greater end, and there is another step between using the skill and becoming an expert who can transform an endeavor by employing the skill.

As we begin to think about our children, this world they will inherit, and skills that will prepare them, I want to explore with you the skill of reflection. Actually, I invite you to reflect on reflection with me. To reflect is more than to read. To reflect is literally “to turn our thoughts back on themselves.” To reflect is to turn things over and over in the mind to consider and to re-consider. Reflection is a skill that demands plenty of mental space and time to lead to the accomplishing of some wonderful things in our lives.

Blaise Pascal once said, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” We allow the pace of life and perhaps our own nature to keep us from developing the skill of reflecting. If as toddlers we are drawn to bouncing a ball, I am not sure most of us are drawn to reflection. We love filling the moment with activity and others until we reach exhaustion.

Many of life’s true experts have developed the skill of reflecting. The world’s most acclaimed poets and painters spent hours turning over ideas and images in their heads. Scientists who have brought some of the greatest advances the world has ever known developed early on the skill of reflecting. And I would argue that our nation’s most successful entrepreneurs have devoted significant time to considering and reconsidering strategies. Each of these experts has developed in a most systematic way the skill of reflecting.

I truly believe children can learn the skill of reflection. Just as the young dribbler needs a guide, the child learning to reflect needs a parent and a teacher to assist. For the young child, the experiences of each day hold so much meaning: the birthday, the arrival/departure of grandparents, the dog’s latest stunt, the younger sibling’s latest stunt, the completion of a school project, the failure to carry out a responsibility at home, a day in the snow, or a parent getting over being sick. The real meaning behind each of these events is found in the opportunity the child has to attach meaning.

In the classroom and in the home, the teacher or the parent can take the time on the other side of the event or activity to help the child reflect:

  • What happened today?
  • What did you see?
  • How did you feel?
  • How do you think that person felt?
  • What could have changed this day?
  • What should we think about next time?

The teacher and parent can literally slow life down to allow the child the opportunity to construct meaning. The skill of reflecting can be taught by a loving routine of helping the child go over in her mind what has recently taken place. The child begins to learn that slowing down to ask questions and think back are part of growing as a person. The child learns reflecting is a life skill.

As the child matures, the skill of reflecting becomes one he monitors. The process can become his. The questions can become his. Just as our dribbler eventually learns to move the ball without the coach’s direct supervision, the same can be true for our “reflector.” What I have seen in early and late adolescents who learn the skill of reflecting is the development of a healthy degree of self awareness. The questions take on the shaping of a person:

  • Who am I in this group, family, or classroom?
  • Am I comfortable in this role and place?
  • What can I alter?
  • What else can I contribute?
  • Where do I need help?
  • How can I help others?

I believe families and school can contribute to a child’s development of self awareness if they will constantly provide the practice of and opportunity for reflection. I actually think the development of this healthy degree of self awareness is one of the greatest safeguards against self absorption. True reflection is not day dreaming. It is not escapism. It involves a process of honest self-reckoning and a coming to grips with realities that had previously not been discovered. Reflection is the place where learning can occur.

The expert dribbler is often called a true ball handler. I believe the person truly skilled in reflection becomes a handler of life. In its most mature state, reflection transcends all three moments of time. The teenager who has mastered the skill of reflection employs the skill before the moment of the decision or event to lead him to a healthy and safe choice. When life presents one of its unpredictable challenges in an unavoidable present moment, the individual skilled in reflection will be the person most likely to have anticipated the circumstances and possible adjustments, or she will be the person with the resolve to say we simply need a little time to figure this one out. The person who has made reflection a habit will continue throughout life to re-charge and re-engage in “the quiet room” at the end of the day with the goal of renewing heart and mind to commit to deeper relationships and greater purpose in the days that follow.



Head of School