change evolution I have gone through from the start of my career as a teacher up to now is with the use of student self-reflection. Giving time for it, and giving weight to it.
In “Teacher School” (as I like to refer to my certification program) we were told on many occasions about the value of reflection. I don’t really remember what people said, in what context they said it, or with what strategies they suggested using reflective tasks. Because I didn’t buy into the whole idea. Or rather, I agreed that it was good, but I didn’t see how to make it effective or useful to my teaching. After all, I needed to cover x amount of material in y amount of time (where x>y for all x and y). Who had the time? And, having students write about their work and their thinking meant that I then had to read it all. Who had the energy? I was resistant.
But I did it a bit. And sometimes it was really hard. When I asked students for feedback on my teaching, sometimes they wrote things that hurt. That made me confront weaknesses in my teaching that I didn’t want to acknowledge. But it was worth it. I got better. Both at teaching and in confronting my own challenges.
When people suggested that I ask students to comment on their own work and thinking, I was also resistant. I assumed that students would be dishonest, that they would see themselves through distorted lenses and only notice and comment on the good things, ignoring all the rest. But I was wrong. Students are sometimes incorrect in their self-assessments; sometimes they think things are fine when they aren’t, but more often they think things are going poorly when they are fine–or better than fine. The vast majority of the time, however, students know themselves really well–and they are willing to share to people who are willing to listen. They will tell you so much about themselves, with depth and complexity.
For the past four years I have written narrative comments for students three times a year. This is a major task, which requires me to know and speak to each of my students on an individual level. I comment on their work, their participation in class, their strengths and their challenges. I give each of them feedback on how they can grow as mathematical thinkers and as students in the classroom community. I have become more and more reliant on student reflections to help me with this task. Not because I want to get out of doing the work–but because the students’ reflections about what they need to work on are so insightful that without them, I would be groping in the dark, trying to make out the shapes of the objects around me. Student reflections are like flipping on the light switch.