Blogging for Learning--How To's

This week we're exploring various strategies for using a blog to support personal and formal learning as part of the Work Literacy course's focus on blogging. Today we're going to talk about "how to's" or instructional blogging.

"How to" posts can serve a few purposes in terms of learning.

  • They're a great tool for assessing skill development. If you can write an effective instructional post, then you're demonstrating you have an essential understanding of the skills and tools involved in accomplishing the task or activity you're describing. On an individual level, this can be a check for your own personal learning. If you use "how to" blogging as part of instruction in a course, this allows you as a learning professional to determine if people actually understand and can apply the learning.
  • The process of developing the instructional post actually solidifies learning--it helps learners consolidate different skills and through the process of application, cement the ideas in their brains.
  • Posting a "how to" on a blog invites peer discussion and commentary. You might describe one way to handle a task, but then someone else might offer a tip on how to make some aspect more efficient or effective. The two-way conversational nature of the blog allows you to futher build upon the learning that begin with developing the "how to."
  • "How to" posts can also serve as a collective resource not only for the learners who post them, but also for others in an organization.

In developing "how to's," blogs are really a platform for publishing the information. You can develop written instructions with pictures if that makes sense. But you can also use a tool like Jing to record and post a screencast. You can also record a video demonstration or audio or a VoiceThread presentation. This is one of those areas where choice of presentation method can be a further aide to motivation and learning and blogs lend themselves to using and sharing a variety of engaging media.

Do you use "how to" posts as a tool for personal learning or to support skill development with other learners? How do you use them? What benefits and drawbacks do you see?


More on Learning Through Blogging: What Readers Think

Blogthis My post a few days ago arguing that the real value of blogging lies not just in reading blogs, but in commenting on blog posts and writing your own, generated a lot of comments and some great references to what others are thinking.

Most people seemed to agree with my premise that while reading blog posts can be helpful to learning, commenting and being a blogger yourself adds even more value. Barry Wooderson commented, for example:

I agree that changing to contributing from just passive reading makes a huge difference.

I have recently made the change and find that the process of producing a post or comment makes you properly think about the issue, whereas just reading tends to mean skimming an article and moving on.

If you participate then you have to read properly and the value you gain from it is many times greater than just reading.

Andy agrees:

Absolutely right. What makes the internet valuable is not that it's an alternative passive media source, like the radio or the TV. What makes it valuable is that passive readers and listeners become active writers and talkers!

Learning is an active process.

And Brandon shared a great story of how Twittering at a conference (a form of live microblogging) improved his own learning experience.

I attended Penn State's 2008 TLT (Teaching & Learning with Technology) Symposium in March 2008 as a requirement for a graduate class I was taking, entitled "Disruptive Technology in the Teaching & Learning Process." For this class, we students were divided into 5 different groups, with each group assigned to one disruptive/emergent technology: Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, Wikis, and Twitter. I was cursed to be on Team Twitter. Cursed at first, but later this turned out to be a blessing. In fact, the symposium itself turned out to be the catalyst for change from curse to blessing.

Our team asked the class to create Twitter accounts before the symposium and to experiment with tweeting their experiences, thoughts, and ideas at the conference. What happened was that we all entered a new community of tweeters and further engaged in the different sessions we were simultaneously attending! At one point, I was having a conversation with an individual about our sessions' topic; it wasn't until 10 minutes later that we found out we were in separate-yet similar sessions, and that we each brought a unique perspective to the conversation. Another instance of how we all benefited from attending the conference armed with Twitter was that interesting and useful websites were instantly disseminated to the rest of us via Twitter, no matter where in the conference center we were at!

Micro-blogging at the conference enhanced our engagement with the sessions we attended, as you found during your experience. But it also allowed us to experience and benefit from the other sessions we could not attend...and it happened in real time

As is so often the case, though, Ken Allen jumped in to challenge my thinking, both in comments and in this post on Blogging, Learning and the Desire to Learn:

Learning through questions, and discussing in a classroom or social community, has gone on for hundreds of years. People have also learnt a great deal from books during that same time.

So what’s wrong with just reading a post and learning from it? What is so special to learning about writing a comment on a blog post?

If learners want to learn, they will learn. The same desire may well tempt learners to put comments on blog posts. They may even ask questions there.

So the difference between those who lurk and want to learn, and those who comment, may not be so great. Learning takes place when the learner wants to learn.

Learning can happen if the learner sits quietly during class, for instance. Certainly, asking questions will help. But if learners do not ask questions in class, they may still go home and read about what they’ve learnt in a book. Many do. They may also lurk on a few blog posts on the Net.

I don't disagree that learners can get a lot from reading and "lurking" online. Certainly I learn a ton from reading and I know that many others do, too.

250px-BloomsCognitiveDomain.svg As I told Ken in a comment on his post, though, what I take issue with is the level of learning that takes place when you are only reading and not actively engaging with the content.

Looking at Bloom's Taxonomy, for example, we can see that passive reading might be effective for lower-order cognitive skill development, but when we start to move into higher order thinking, we really need to start actively engaging with information. How can I apply, analyze, evaluate and create without in some way interacting with this information? And even if I can, is my learning going to be as deep?

Catherine Lombardozzi supports my thought process here in her own post on blogging and learning where she reflects on how the process of blogging has deepened the learning for her:
The act of writing has a way of crystallizing your thinking on a topic.  As I have worked on this blog - and other journals more private than this one - over the last year or so, I have come to appreciate how much clearer my thinking becomes as I try to put my musings into sentences and paragraphs.  (Although at times I wonder if my writing is actually all that clear.)  I have found that writing forces me to coral nebulous thoughts into something coherent, to name and own what I really think on a subject, to bring together ideas from several sources, and to consider how a potential audience might react.

Having made a commitment to posting here on the Learning Journal blog at least once a week, I also notice that when something piques my interest, I store it away as a potential topic for an entry.  Knowing I may want to write about an idea causes me to mull things over that may - in the past - have come and gone in my head without ever finding a place to settle.  Even if I don’t actually write about something in the end, I find myself thinking about these interesting ideas more thoroughly.  Lately, I’ve had to physically stop myself from proceeding some contribution to a work discussion with…”As I said on my blog…” - but I’m awed by the fact that this little experiment has had that kind of an impact on me.  (I also keep a blog on my vacations which has been a huge hit with family and friends; from my perspective it compelled me to really notice where I went and what I did so that I could capture that essence on the daily posting of my travels.)


Catherine also points out how people commenting on her blog helps her thinking:

If I am really lucky, people react to my postings - with either positive comments or constructive discussion (usually in person) - that helps me to think more deeply.  For example, my concpetualization of the learning environment design model has morphed and solidified over time as people have reacted to my writings and presentations on that topic and related ones.  I benefit the most from people who don’t agree with a point or an approach; regardless of whether we come to agreement, I am forced to articulate my ideas further.

I would add that the process of commenting on others blogs helps clarify thinking--my comment response to Ken's post actually is part of what led me to a better understanding of what I was trying to say in my first post on this issue. It's also a demonstration of Catherine's point. You learn the most from people who disagree with you.

Ken wasn't the only one who had a different perspective to share. Fresh Start indicated that some people may be reluctant to comment because of online privacy concerns. I can respect and understand this, although the fact that you can use a pseudonym to comment and blog anonymously is a pretty quick fix for that in my opinion.

Ultimately, this posting and processing back and forth only bolsters my point. I've learned far more from writing and interacting with commenters on this topic than I would have had I only read a blog post. As Andy said, "Learning is active."

Debriefing Yourself

Thinking Last week I did a training on facilitation for a group of 10 trainers. One of the strategies we discussed was how to debrief on experiential activities using Thiagi's Six Phases of Debriefing. It occurred to me later, that these are great questions to ask ourselves as part of developing our personal reflective practice and that they can be applied to virtually any experience, not just to formal or structured learning activities.

Thiagi's Six Phases of Debriefing

  • How Do You Feel?--Through my continuing work with The Artist's Way, I'm learning that one of the most powerful questions we can ask ourselves in any learning situation is "how do you feel?" Our feelings give us clues about a lot of deeper issues that surface when we're learning new information. For example, I'm finding that in circumstances where I've had a less than positive experience that I want to learn from, I often have deep feelings of shame. This shame springs from a need to be perfect, but then it also gets in the way of me really learning. That's when I have to deal with the shame first, before I can go any further. Thinking first about my feelings is a way to get clear and be able to separate out my emotions from the actual learning experience.
  • What Happened?--This is more of a data-gathering phase of reflection. For this question, we describe what happened as clearly and in as much detail as we can. One challenge can be objectivity, though. If we haven't separated out our feelings about the event from the actual facts, we can find that our perceptions of what happened are less than accurate.
  • What Did You Learn?--This is where we draw out some of the larger lessons or principles from the experience. I find that I learn both from the actual experience, as well as my emotional responses to it. For example, during the training on facilitation, I inadvertently switched from facilitation to "lecture mode." I felt an immediate drop in energy in the room, both from the participants and within myself. This turned out to be a sort of mini learning moment for us, as I pointed out what happens when we move from facilitating learning, to directing it. This gave all of us an immediate sense of how facilitation really differs from instruction, and how it can feel different to both the facilitator and the participants.
  • How Does This Relate to the Real World?--This question is about relevance. How does what we've learned tie back into our daily lives?
  • What If?--This is a sort of speculation phase. We consider how we might apply what we've learned in different contexts. How might the principles change if we're dealing with different people, situations or environments? If I'm honest, this is one area of learning that I don't always explore. While I may reflect on an experience and try to tie it back to my practice, I don't always spend time thinking about the "what ifs." I think I'm probably missing something here as a result and want to include that more often in my debriefing of myself.
  • What Next?--Finally, we consider what actions we'll take next as a result of our reflection. How do we want to apply this learning going forward? What other learning activities might we want to devise to further explore some of our ideas and reflections? Of course the real challenge in this is actually applying the learning once we've developed the action plan. I find that it's a constant process of noticing and reminding myself that I wanted to do things differently. Half the time, it's the noticing of me engaging in old behaviors that's really the most difficult though!

Thinking_2 What I like about applying these questions to personal and professional practice is that they provide a nice structure to the reflection process. I find that we have a general bias toward action in the world, but without the corresponding reflection, we often miss key lessons and ideas. It's easy to get caught up in a cycle of constant action and engaging in the same activities repeatedly, long past their real usefulness. Scheduling a sort of structured debriefing with ourselves can be a way to combat this tendency.

What do you think?  Do you have regular learning debriefs with yourself? What does that look like? What do you think of Thiagi's questions? How else could we use them outside of a formal classroom or learning event?

Photos via stenbough and gutter.


If You Do Not Work On Important Problems, You Will Not Do Important Work

Big_question Why do you go to work in the morning? More importantly, what makes you WANT to go to work in the morning?

Yes, it might be that pesky thing called a paycheck, but I'm guessing that those of us who bound out of bed, ready to hit the day, do so because we believe that the work we're doing has meaning, that we're contributing to something important. A lot of us, though, have lost that meaning and that sense of doing something important and I wonder if it isn't because we've lost track of working on important problems.

I thought about this while reading Brad Neuberg's little gem of a blog post on Creating a Personal Research Agenda. In it, he quotes a speech by Richard Hamming in which Hamming observes:

"If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely that you'll do important work."

That bears repeating:

"If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely that you'll do important work."

For many of us, feeling like our work has lost its meaning is a result of working on unimportant problems. We've become lost in the minutia of life and have lost sight of the big picture.  We can wait for our companies or organizations to do something for us (enjoy that) or we can do something about it for ourselves. That's where constructing a personal research agenda--a series of important questions, problems and issues we want to explore--can re-ignite our passion for work and our desire to continue learning.

Asking Important Questions
Brad comes from a coding/scientific background, so he uses the term "personal research agenda." In a broader sense,though, a personal research agenda is really just a list of the "big issues" that you think deserve your attention and towards which you want to direct your learning and experimentation. But how do you identify these questions? A few things to think about:

  • What makes you passionate? Not long ago, I went on a tangent about homophily, born of my ongoing interest in the digital divide and my observations of parallel activities going on in online communities with similar interests who are largely disconnected from each other. As a theme in my life, issues of inclusion/exclusion and creating community have loomed large, so it's no surprise that some of the big questions I tend to explore always come back to those themes.

To find your "big questions," think about the themes that make you passionate on a regular basis. What issues seem to always draw your attention and how do they signify a larger theme or problem?

  • What are the anomalies in your world? What things don't make sense?    Last night I watched the HBO documentary, Resolved (HIGHLY recommended!) It's about the world of high school debate, which has evolved from our traditional notion of a discussion of two sides of an issue, to a complicated and bizarre place where the winners of a debate are those who can marshal the largest set of facts presented at a level of speed auctioneers would envy.

Two young African-American men, disciples of Paulo Freire, see a major problem with this, noting that the new framework for debate excludes large swaths of the community from discussing real-life issues. How does this relate to you finding your "big question?" These kids are a tremendous example of looking at the assumptions and issues within an existing system and beginning to ask important questions about why things are the way the are. They saw things that didn't make sense and then tried to explore why and how they could be changed.

  • What things bother you about your profession or your sector? Think big here--what seem to be systemic issues with no easy answers? What have you observed in your personal experiences or through reading, research, etc.? What do you see as being the "big issues" your profession or sector needs to grapple with in order to be successful? Defining and addressing work literacy is one of the things I'm seeing. What about you?

Working with Your Important Questions
Once you have your important questions identified, this opens up a variety of learning opportunities for you:

  • What research can you conduct to get a handle on the question?

Use these important questions to drive a learning agenda for yourself. They can keep you fresh and excited about your work. They can remind you of why you do what you do and give purpose to your on and off-line learning activities.

Remember: "If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely that you'll do important work." So how can you find your "Big Questions"? What can you do to work on them?

Flickr photo via wok.


Professional Development Practice: The One Sentence Journal

One Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of reflective practice--one of the greatest values of blogging for me has been that it's created a forum for me to regularly think about what I do and how I do it. But most people aren't ready to make that kind of time commitment so here's something that I think might be a perfect way to encourage reflection in the shortest time possible: the one sentence journal, a great idea from blogger Gretchen Rubin.

Says Gretchen:

Two years ago, I started keeping a one-sentence journal because I knew I would never be able to keep a proper journal with lengthy entries. I just don't have the time or energy to write a long entry - even two or three times a week. . .

I like keeping a one-sentence journal because it's a manageable task, so it doesn't make me feel burdened; it gives me a feeling of accomplishment and progress, the atmosphere of growth so important to happiness; it helps keep happy memories vivid (because I'm much more inclined to write about happy events than unhappy events), which boosts my happiness; and it gives me a reason to pause thinking lovingly about the members of my family.

One thing is true: we tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term, and underestimate what we can do in the long term, if we do a little bit at a time. Writing one sentence a day sounds fairly easy, and it is; at the end of the year, it adds up to a marvelous record.

Gretchen's journal is more personal, part of her larger Happiness Project, but picture one sentence journals reflecting on:

  • Your career and professional growth
  • What you learned today
  • The progress of a particular project
  • Your progress in achieving a specific goal
  • Advice you've received from other people
  • Questions you have about . . . anything!

Each of these topics lends itself to this one-sentence concept and building the daily habit of thinking about what you do and what is happening in various aspects of your life.

Technology is a perfect tool for supporting this process, too. You could:

  • Post your one sentence journal reflection on your blog if you already have one. Be sure to create a tag for "one sentence journal" reflections so that you can easily look at them later.
  • Set up a Tumblr microblog specifically for your one sentence entries. Tumblr's group capabilities mean that you could also set this up as a team blog where each member of a team was posting his/her one-sentence reflection or idea for others to see. If you go the team route, you could also set up a wiki to gather everyone's reflections.
  • Twitter your one sentence. It's another way to share with a group and also ensure that you keep your entries short--no more than 140 characters.
  • Email your daily entries to yourself and store them in a special folder where you can review them regularly--weekly, monthly, quarterly.
  • Use it as your Facebook status update.

If these ideas are too boring for you, try getting all multimedia with it by recording a 1-sentence video that you upload to Youtube. You could even go crazy and make it a 1-minute journal entry! Or write your one sentence, take a picture and upload to Flickr where you could use the tagging feature to create a 1-sentence library. Or take a picture of something that summarizes your one-sentence and use Flickr's captions to write your sentence. The possibilities with something like this are pretty endless and within there must be something that appeals.

This is one of those relatively quick and easy things that anyone can do to start 1) playing with technology and 2) getting in the reflection habit. Who knows where it could take you?


Reflective Practice: Most Significant Change Stories

Thinking_2 I'm currently leading a project where we are bringing together four nonprofits and 11 young people who have dropped out of high school and/or who are aging out of foster care. There's a lot of data about the bad outcomes for HS dropouts, but not a lot of political will in some areas to do something about it. Through our project we are working with our student teams to help them videotape interviews with their peers and pull together digital stories that make the numbers come alive for people. Our ultimate goal is to put faces with the numbers so that we can engage the entire community in addressing the needs and issues of these youth.

As this is a grant-funded project, one of the requirements, of course is evaluation. This is being conducted by an outside organization using a technique I haven't previously experienced in these kinds of projects--"most significant change stories." Each month our team is required to submit 1-3 stories about what we are learning and how this is impacting the structure and approach of our projects, as well as our outcomes. It's been an interesting experience that has forced us to reflect more carefully on what is happening with our work.

I've written previously about incorporating reflective practice into individual work and organizational culture. This "most significant change story" strategy would be an excellent addition to the process. It could be used to:

  • Regularly reflect on your individual growth or the growth of a department or organization.
  • Measure the progress of various projects, similar to how it's being used with my project.
  • Help you or your organization reflect on crucible experiences, those "trial by fire" times in our life when everything about us is tested.
  • As part of a leadership development or certification training program.

The structure of the process is that we respond to several questions:

  • At what level is the change--individual, organizational, system-wide or community-wide?
  • How was the story obtained? (did it come from personal experiences? Overheard in meetings? Told to you by someone else?)
  • What's the story?
  • Why is it significant?
  • Which project outcome is it impacting and how?

Obviously the specific reflection questions might change depending on the context in which the stories are being gathered.

In our case, we are submitting the stories to evaluators who are compiling them for a final report. If you used this process for reflective practice, however, I would see using social media tools. For example, individual reflections might be maintained in a blog or microblog, like Tumblr. If you were using this as a tool for organizational development, I would create a wiki where there would be a more collaborative opportunity to build upon and comment on the stories, maintaining them in a single repository. If your organization was particularly brave, I'd even open up these significant change stories to your customers, at a minimum so they could see how you reflect on your experiences as an organization. Ideally you'd allow customers to submit their own and/or comment on what you've shared.

To encourage reflective practices, you have to create the right kinds of structures for them to flourish. The most significant change story technique combined with social media might be a good place to start.

Photo via galo/*


Creating an Organizational Culture of Reflective Practice

Thinking3 For the past few days I've been writing about reflective practice, the process of reflecting on our professional experiences in order to glean lessons for improvement and ongoing professional development.

Yesterday I blogged about how to incorporate reflective practices into our lives as individuals. Today I want to talk about how organizations can support a culture of reflective practice. If you didn't check it out yesterday, I highly recommend reading Joy Amulya's What is Reflective Practice? (PDF) as a great starting point.

Creating an Organizational Culture of Reflective Practice
Before I launch into some of the strategies that organizations can adopt to support a reflective culture, it's probably a good idea to talk a little about the benefits.

Organizational Benefits of Reflective Practice
If most organizations are in the business of knowledge management and supporting knowledge workers (something I'd argue is increasingly the case), then reflective practice becomes a key business strategy. It encourages workers to reflect in meaningful ways on what is and isn't working in the organization. It also provides a natural structure for mentoring and peer feedback as employees work together to solve individual and collective problems and find solutions to nagging questions.

At the heart of reflective practice is a spirit of inquiry, of asking "Why is this happening" and "what can we do about it?" This art of questioning is critical to both individual and organizational improvement . Without it, we stagnate and fail to adapt to change.

Reflective practice is also a key talent management tool. It helps individuals identify opportunities for growth and skill-building. It also helps the organization determine gaps in knowledge and skill, as well as where there are pockets of innovation, creativity and high performance.

Strategies for Building the Culture of Reflective Practice
There are a variety of strategies organizations can employ to build a culture of reflective practice, starting with identifying and supporting those individuals within the organization who are already reflective practitioners and learning from them about what does and doesn't work. Look for the bloggers and those who are contributing to your organizational wiki. Find the people who routinely ask questions about work practices and those whom everyone seems to go to when they have questions. Talk to these people and find out what your organization could do to support them in doing more of these things. Ask them, too, about the barriers to reflective practice--what is your organization doing that it should STOP doing, that might be getting in the way of people truly learning from their experiences.

Create and Support the Structures of Reflective Practice
As I mentioned yesterday, I would argue that a fundamental tool of reflective practice is a blog. Consider creating an internal blog or connecting individual employee blogs so that workers can begin connecting and supporting each other's reflective processes. This is also a great strategy for creating mentoring relationships and nurturing peer connections as individual employees begin to learn from each other and gain new knowledge and insight. If you start to feel brave enough as an organization, consider opening your blogs to the world, where you can get even more meaningful feedback from other practitioners and from customers, as well. Transparency can have real payoffs for organizational learning--just ask Redfin.

An organizational wiki is another potential reflective tool. Use it to keep track of projects and initiatives or to document internal policies and procedures. Create a "Frequently Asked Questions" wiki or one that supports particular job categories.  Encourage employees to use the discussion tabs in the wiki to interact with one another, to ask questions or comment on the topics in the wiki.

Create and Support the Habits of Reflection
Just as critical as reflective structures is the need to build in the habits of reflecting, something that is often missing in the action-oriented culture of most organizations:

  • Michelle Murrain suggests  that organizations should build into the close of a project a discussion of how the project went. What did and didn't work. What can you learn from the process for the next time? This could be posted in a blog or wiki, inviting additional commentary from staff and even from the customers involved in the project. Have people consider their roles and perspectives in the process, writing from their individual vantage point, and then see what trends and issues you can identify.
  • LaDonna Coy commented on last week's post regarding how we set priorities that it might be a good idea for staff to keep track of how they spend their time in a week to see if there's a way to make more time for learning. I think that the activity of keeping track of your time and then reflecting in a larger way on what that means about how the organization is setting priorities, etc. could be really valuable. Doing this on a regular basis to see if activities are aligning with mission and strategic goals could be even better.
  • In yesterday's post I mentioned that there are some events or issues that particularly lend themselves to reflective learning. These include dilemmas, struggles, uncertainties, and breakthroughs. I'd also add mistakes or problems to the list. As an organization, on a monthly basis try laying out an issue you're facing in one of these areas and then inviting reflection and feedback. For example, you may be facing the dilemma of what markets to go into or how to resolve a particular problem. Lay out the question and then invite people to blog individually about it from their perspectives.

Of course, this kind of reflection can also be built into meetings, conference calls, etc. too. The goal is to be making reflective practice a natural part of the organizational culture.

Big_question Welcome Inquiry, Dialogue and Stories
The "What is Reflective Practice" brief I mentioned suggests that reflective practice is a product of questioning, discussions and stories (all of which are well-suited to blogging, I might add).:

Reflective practice is fundamentally structured around inquiry. We tend to recognize the importance of allocating time for reflection when we see is as a means for gaining visibility on a problem or question we need to answer. To gain visibility, we examine experiences that are relevant to this problem or question. The most powerful "technologies" for examining experience are "stories" (narrative accounts of experience) and "dialogue" (building thinking about experience out loud).

Think of how you can create structures and rituals that invite questions, conversation and stories. Maybe you can:

  • Invite staff to share stories of personal experiences with customers, projects and so forth. Have them posted on individual blogs where others can provide insight, feedback and commentary. Treat these as a sort of "learning clinic" where the focus is on learning from the experience, not beating people up for making a mistake or having a question.
  • Put an audio recorder in front of staff and create a podcast of them discussing how a project went or a dilemma they confronted. Post this on your organizational blog or wiki to get feedback.

The goal is to create a culture of conversation and questioning--what practices can you incorporate to do this?


These are just a few of my thoughts on how we could create cultures of reflection within organizations. What ideas do you have? What have you seen done successfully?

Photos via jmsmytaste  and Learning Circuits

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Becoming a More Reflective Individual Practitioner

Thinking2 Yesterday I blogged about how I believe that technology--most notably blogging--has taken the concept of being a reflective practitioner to another level. Today I want to talk in more detail about that and about how we as learners can better incorporate reflection into our practices as professionals.

Building Reflection Into Your Individual Learning Practices
In my research on this idea, I ran across a very nice 4-page summary on reflective practice, written by Joy Amulya of the Center for Reflective Community Practice at MIT entitled What Is Reflective Practice? (PDF). It's a quick read that I highly recommend. Giving credit where it's due, many of my thoughts on building reflection into your professional practices come from it.

Begin by becoming open to your experiences
Reflective practice is about examining your experiences and gleaning from them additional questions, key learnings, etc. For this to happen, though, you must first become aware of your experiences, rather than letting them pass you by in a blur of activity as we so often do. Start thinking daily about what has happened to you--what meetings have you attended and what happened there? What's going on with particular projects? Do you notice a pattern lately in your interactions with certain people? What are you struggling with or what successes have you had? All of this is fodder for reflection, but you must first be open to the fact that you're having these experiences and begin identifying these experiences as opportunities to learn.

Keep an eye out for the experiences that lead to the most powerful learning
While what happened in today's meeting may give you something to reflect upon, there are certain experiences that tend to really stand out as fruitful opportunities to learn. From "What Is Reflective Practice?":

Certain kinds of experiences create particularly powerful opportunities for learning through reflection. Struggles provide a window into what is working and not working, and may often serve as effective tools for analyzing the true nature of a challenge we are facing. Some struggles embody a dilemma, which can provide a rich source of information about a clash between our values and our approach to getting something done. Reflecting on experiences of uncertainty helps shed light on areas where an approach to our work is not fully specified. Positive experiences can also offer powerful sources of learning. For example, breakthroughs in action or thinking are helpful in revealing what was learned and what our theory of success looks like. Breakthroughs can also instruct on an emotional level. By locating when and why we have felt excited or fulfilled by an experience, we gain insight into the conditions that allow our creativity to flourish. Now we can become more purposeful--not just about our learning, but about how to work in more creative and sustaining ways.

Use a few minutes each day to consider what struggles, dilemmas, uncertainties and breakthroughs you've had. Write these down as a first step toward reflecting on them.

Create the structure for reflection.
To reflect on your practices, you will need a vehicle or structure for reflection. Not surprisingly, I'm going to suggest using a blog. This allows you to link to others and to expand your thinking in ways that simply do not happen in an off-line environment. With a blog you can:

  • Find and link to resources and ideas that help you reflect on your personal experiences.
  • Engage in conversations with other practitioners through comments and back and forth blog postings that will feed your own reflections on a topic.
  • Get new perspectives on a problem or situation that you may not have considered or that are impossible to obtain from colleagues within your organization because of "group think" and a tendency to seek consensus that doesn't always lend itself to reflective learning.
  • More easily monitor the progress of your thinking over time. With a blog, you can use tags or a Google customized search to look at trends in your reflections and growth in your thinking. You can also generate a "tag cloud" to visualize what your blogging, giving you insights not available to you through non-digital forms of reflection.

At a minimum, consider creating a private blog. You can reap some of the benefits of the digital format and, later, when you finally realize that you gain more from reflection in a public forum, you can take everything "public" with the click of a button.

Create the habits of reflection
With your structure in place, you must then build in the habit of reflection. It does no good to have a blog if you never post. And any blogger will tell you that it is the habit of blogging on a regular basis that contributes the most to reflective practice. Some resources that might help:Habit

Not all of these tips will apply to the practice of reflective blogging but many of them do. At a minimum, find your best time of day for reflective thinking and writing and then commit to using that time to blog. I work best early in the morning, so I try to use those early quiet times for my own blogging habit.

Learn from the Masters
Some bloggers are masters of the reflective blogging habit. I suggest reading them regularly and learning from their practices:

  • Tom Haskins--Always thought-provoking and deeply reflective.
  • Cammy Bean--What I love about Cammy is that she's always asking questions, usually as part of her own experiences, but also as a result of noticing trends and patterns in what others are saying.
  • Sue Waters--Sue is always trying to make her personal processes visible to others, another reflective practice that's critical.
  • Sarah Stewart--Sarah works in an area that's completely foreign to me--midwifery. Watching her reflective practices is even more interesting because it's so outside of my personal realm of knowledge.

There are tons of others--I find in reviewing my feed reader that I tend to subscribe to those who are more reflective in their blogging. I'm sure you have some other great ones in your own feeds, as well. Please share in comments as I'd love to add to the list.

Just Do It
A cliche, no doubt, but in the end, reflective practice is about just doing it. It's about not making excuses. Don't tell me you don't have time or that other things are more important. Is anything in your work life more important than continuing to be better at what you do? Because that's what reflection is about--considering what you can learn from your experiences and then doing more of what works and less of what doesn't. Personal learning experiments (a form of action research) and ongoing collaborative research are also important components  Can you really afford to NOT do these things?

I'd love to hear more about what you do to support reflective practices as an individual. Please feel free to share in comments. Tomorrow I'm going to take a look at what organizations can do to support reflective practice.

Photos via jgrantmac and pupski

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On Being a Reflective Practitioner

Thinking_2 Last week, I blogged some reflections on a learning project I started that has stalled, at least for now. Then I blogged about Nancy White's recent experiences in facilitating a class, which led to a great exchange in comments that forced me to reflect further on my own assumptions about facilitation.  This led me down a path of thinking more about the practice of reflection and how one of the benefits in my mind of blogging is that it can make us more reflective as practitioners in our occupations, regardless of what  line of work we may be in.

The idea of reflective practice is not a new revelation. It's been around for quite awhile, originally articulated by David Schon in his book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action published in 1983. It is essentially the practice of thinking critically about your professional experiences and identifying the lessons to be learned from those experiences. It's a strategy that has become embedded in many professions (at least in the preparation stages), most notably education and healthcare.  With the growth of blogging as a professional development practice, however, I think it has become more visible in other occupations and industries as well. 

Reflective practices can include:

  • Personal journaling to examine experiences and identify themes, patterns, new questions, etc.
  • Peer learning groups where small teams continually work together to examine their assumptions and approaches to their profession.
  • Coaching and feedback from more experienced practitioners
  • Action research projects--learning that takes place in the context of researching how to improve the quality of an organization. Essentially it's reflective problem-solving.

As has happened with so many things, the advent of social media tools like blogs, wikis, etc. have turbo-charged the reflective process, not only providing a format with a built-in reflective and collaborative component, but also removing reflective practice from the constraints of time and place. Now, instead of only engaging in reflective practice with colleagues in my own organization, technology enables me to work with colleagues from around the world. Virtual mentoring becomes a real possibility and  I can get perspectives that reflect a much wider range of experiences and contexts.

To my mind, technology takes reflective practice to an entirely new level. One of the challenges of sustaining reflection is  having access to a group of like-minded colleagues who are interested in the same questions and want to pursue a path of learning. While such groups may exist when we're enrolled in college or grad school or participating in some professional development event, they often aren't as readily accessible in the "real world." But as a blogger, I connect to a world-wide network of peers who are willing to provide the support, resources, and culture of ongoing reflection on experience that support me as a reflective learner. This is exciting when you think about it--the heart of why social media is so important as a tool for learning.

Tomorrow I plan to explore this concept further, discussing some specific ideas for incorporating more reflective strategies into our organizational cultures and into our individual practices. For now, I'd love to hear your thoughts on reflective practice. Do you find that blogging has made you a more reflective practitioner in your work? What do you do to sustain yourself as a reflective learner?

Photo via envio
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REGISTER HERE FOR MY UPCOMING WEBINAR ON USING FREE TOOLS TO CREATE AN ONLINE PORTFOLIO FOR SCHOOL OR WORK ON MARCH 27, 2008, 2-3 p.m. (EST)


Why You Need to Blog Publicly About Your Mistakes

Big_mistake When most of us make a big mistake, the last thing on our minds is "Oh, I should blog about this and make my embarrassment public." No, I think the normal human reaction is to move far, far away from our screw-ups.

Some of us, the more reflective types, may have private discussions with our most trusted confidantes about what happened. Or we may write in our journals and then hide those journals in a drawer somewhere. But few of us would have the courage to write about what we've done on our blogs, and even fewer would be willing to do it if the mistake involved someone famous. But Nancy White is no ordinary person. Dave Pollard explains:

I was really surprised, then, when one of those people, Nancy White, confided that she was really distressed because she'd unintentionally hurt someone -- a participant at her presentation at Northern Voice. I would normally not blog about such a personal and painful occurrence, but since it's all been put in the public record by the participants, I figure it's OK to talk further about it. It's actually causing me as much distress as it's causing Nancy.

Here's what happened:

  • Nancy encouraged everyone at her session to "be fearless" and draw on craft paper and post on the walls of the meeting room something about a subject (the subject happened to be Ice Cream) that meant something to them, and to post on their blog their drawing, instead of just writing about it. The purpose of the exercise was to understand how visualizations add meaning and value to information, and to open ourselves to the additional personal understanding that comes from expressing oneself in pictures instead of just words.
  • One of the participants, the actress Meg Tilly, found the exercise personally devastating, and wrote about it on her blog. Here is a photo of her drawing, just to give you a bit of context.
  • Nancy was really distraught to have caused Meg such pain, and she wrote an apology on her blog.

What happened here is instructive on a lot of levels. First is the obvious fact that Nancy was brave enough to post on her blog what some people would consider a big professional mistake that endangers her reputation. Rather than making her look less professional, though, she comes across as even more on top of her game. Here's someone who's well-known in her field who's willing to share what she learned from a bad experience and to apologize for any pain she caused. This in itself is wonderful.

On the other side of that equation, though, is Meg Tilly--someone even more well-known than Nancy who was willing to publicly share how difficult it was for her to do the exercise in the first place. This gave Nancy the opportunity to learn that she had made a mistake and to respond in a public forum about it.

Think about how this might have played out without blogging. Meg may or may not have informed Nancy of the situation, which means that Nancy might not have known that she caused pain in the first place. And certainly there would have been no opportunity for the rest of us to learn from this experience because it would have all happened behind "closed doors."

There are a lot of people who worry about the level of transparency and self-revelation that blogging seems to open up. It's seen sometimes as "self-indulgent" or dangerous to your professional reputation. But what I really see is that it allows us to be more reflective practitioners. In fact, I'd argue that the very structure of blogging with the ability to link to others and to comment on blog posts, creates a culture of reflective practice. It provides a forum for us to "think out loud" and to receive feedback and coaching from others, the very essence of being a reflective practitioner.

For me, what happened with Nancy and Meg is a model for what all of us should do. It's this kind of experience that really helps us grow as professionals, no matter what our occupation or field of interest. It's what I'm going to aspire to.

UPDATE--Please be sure to read Nancy White's response in the comments section. In it she provides additional context and models how new insights develop from blogging and the process of reflecting on our practices as professionals.

Photo via William Hartz