“Please, don’t make me reflect again!” Why reflection has become a dirty word and what we could do about it.

The sentiment in the title of this post sums up several utterances that I have heard from students in my time as an IB CAS Coordinator and MYP Service Learning Coordinator, and as a teacher within an international school. Particularly in relation to the Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) programme, students are tired of being asked to ‘reflect’, and teachers are tired of chasing students to do so. This is not the first time therefore that I have come to the conclusion that we are getting it all wrong. ‘Reflection’ has become a dirty word and I am not sure how and when it happened.

What I do know however, is that if someone tells me to ‘do a reflection’ at a specified given time, every part of me resists doing it. This is because my brain is not wired up to ‘reflect’ when someone asks it of me, but rather it prefers to select the moments when something is worthy of being noted. Does this mean therefore that reflection is tied in with emotion? I would argue that there is not enough recognition of this in the literature and research on reflection, certainly not within international schools and the International Baccalaureate Organisation’s programmes. The process of reflection itself is that it is related to highly individualised experiences, yet if I am not sure of what questions I should be considering, my thoughts wander off and become vague, shallow and descriptive. So what I do know is that if the questions are good, the answers are good. Whether I pose the questions myself, or someone else probes my thinking by asking me, there is certainly always the need to be guided and pushed beyond the comfortable limits of what I think I am capable of thinking. What students do not need is a sterile online environment where they are forced to reflect when told to do so; this only makes the dirty word even worse.

On the basis of these thoughts, and the fact that reflection should be a valuable learning process within CAS, I propose here some questions for IB CAS learners and teacher mentors that will hopefully help to spark a process of reflection that feels less stale, monotonous and forced. The questions are based on the seven CAS learner outcomes that currently exist in the CAS Guide (IBO, 2013) and can be used at any stage of a student’s CAS journey across the two years of their Diploma Programme. I would argue that predetermined outcomes do actually stifle the potential of CAS to be a personalised journey of inquiry, but that is another article in the making! What we need now however is to be able to help students to see reflection as a stimulating and enjoyable process, and to make CAS something tangible and meaningful for them. At the same time, we also need to support each other as teachers involved with IB students by sharing ideas and resources; if we all remain within our bubbles, we will suffocate and despair! My suggested questions to guide reflection are to be found below; they are written from the perspective of the student, but could easily be posed by someone else.

Reflection on Learner Outcomes: Suggested Questions for Individual and Group Reflection

The following questions related to the CAS learner outcomes act as a guide for meaningful individual and group reflection on CAS engagement.

Identify own strengths and develop areas for growth

  • What have I found easy and / or difficult so far?
  • What skills and abilities have I been able to offer that have been helpful and / or useful to others?
  • How have I managed to apply and/or learn new skills?

Demonstrate that challenges have been undertaken, developing new skills in the process 

  • Where and when were there moments that challenged my previous convictions / beliefs / understandings?
  • Have I been taken out of my comfort zone in any way? How?
  • What was a particular personal challenge for me and how did I approach it and / or overcome it?

Demonstrate how to initiate and plan a CAS experience

  • Did I take initiative at any point? How did that work out?
  • Did I spend time planning for something and then carrying it out? Did this plan turn out according to my expectations?
  • Have I shown leadership in any way? How?

Show commitment and perseverance in CAS experiences

  • How have I shown that I am able to persist with something and not give up at the first hurdle?
  • How have I shown that I can be resilient?
  • How have I personally committed to something beyond the minimum that would be required of me?

Demonstrate the skills and recognise the benefits of working collaboratively

  • Can I give an example of how I worked with others in a team? (What was my goal? What were my roles? How did I work out who did what within that team?)
  • What did I learn from working with others?

Demonstrate engagement with issues of global significance

  • What global issues are connected to my CAS experiences? (suggested use of the UN goals as a guide)
  • How do my experiences link to the themes explored in my different subject areas?
  • How do any of my experiences relate to the concept of sustainability?
  • How can I continue to take responsible action as a result of what I have learnt about certain global issues

Recognise and consider the ethics of choices and actions 

  • Have there been any situations that have made me feel uncomfortable? How did I act and why?
  • Did I have to make any choices about how to behave? What did I decide to do and why?
  • To what extent do I consider the nature of my service learning experiences to be ethical? Why / why not?
  • Were there any times that I tried to act in a responsible way?
  • Did I make any effort to act in accordance with what I believe is right?

Whilst these questions may help somewhat to eradicate the sense of reflection as a meaningless, monotonous process, what really counts is that there is someone there to listen; learning without a listener is like cooking a meal without someone to eat it! Our role as teachers, mentors or advisors therefore is to listen, acknowledge, provoke and engage; without that human exchange, reflection may well just die a lonely death.

IBO. (2015). Creativity, activity, service guide. Cardiff: International Baccalauerate Organisation.





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