Becoming a Reflective Learner, Part 2

Editors’ Note: The Importance of Journaling

I (Gary) received the following article by Thompson Rivers University some years ago from my good friend and longtime homeschooling co-laborer Manfred Smith, founder of The Learning Center here in Maryland. I wanted to share it with all of you.

Why suggest using a secular discussion on reflective learning?

Because it represents a very helpful tool that can cultivate thinking in children and young adults that wonderfully parallels Scriptural expressions of Meditation. The key to this article is that it centers around journaling as a way of life. In fact, this is the first secular discussion on journaling I have come across, except in nature journals. It is a simple fact that Scripture represents God’s thoughtful journaling to man – using men as the scribes (2Pet. 1:16-21)! Moreover, Christians are challenged to intentionally control their thoughts and bring them into conformity to our obedience to Christ (2Cor. 10:5).

The command of Paul in Philippians 4:6-9 says it best, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

The manner in which Scripture was written can be labeled Divinely Inspired Journaling. 100% of Scripture springs from very thoughtful reflections of the writer who has spent his daily life immersed in situational, spiritual reality. Look at the genre: Historical Reflections, Poetic/Proverbial Reflections, Prophetic Reflections, and Instructional Reflections; all of these writings have sprung from the deep reflections of the author and guided by the Holy Spirit. That is Christian journaling! Our lives are immersed in particular situations that require our reflection in order to ascertain spiritual reality. This is also guided by the Holy Spirit! (However, that doesn’t make our journaling scripture. But it does make it a very personal reflection that ought to result in changes in our behavior -obedience to Jesus Christ-, by the grace of God. – See 2 Cor. 2:6-16.) For beginners, this article has several approaches to get started with.

One practical tip is to recognize that self-awareness is more important than personal interpretation of the biblical text. It’s not that we are lax regarding how to rightly divide the Word, but rather, journaling is active recognition that The Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than a two-edged sword; able to divide between the joints and the marrow, and able to discern between the thoughts and intentions of our heart (Heb. 4:12-13). Proper reflection on the Scripture results in our own transformation by a conformation to its truth, helping us to, “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2 ESV).

Different Types of Reflective Journals

Process - How do I do it?

Use a binder or notebook in which you can use each of the two facing pages for a specific purpose: the left hand page to take notes from the readings and the right hand page for your reflections. On the left include the source of the reading, quotations that stand out, a summary of key points, steps or procedures, models or frameworks. Use the right hand page for your reflections about the reading. You might include your responses to the material, how you are going to apply what you have read, any questions you have, something new you have learned. You can include points you agree with, ideas you disagree with, areas which were not clear, critiques of the clarity of the writing, or the ideas presented. 6 Be thoughtful in your comments - do more than say “I liked the chapter” or “The chapter didn’t make sense for me.” Reflect on how the information fits with your current knowledge or experience. Ask yourself questions such as “Did I learn something new?”, “Do I agree or disagree with this author?”, “What questions do I have for this author?”, “What irritated me about this reading?”, “What was helpful about this reading?” If you are keeping your journal on the computer, you could set up two columns to work with.

Benefits - Why should I try this?

This process will encourage active, reflective learning instead of passive memorizing of information (or skimming over material). It will allow you to engage with the reading as a form of dialogue, almost as though you were having a conversation with the author. The process will help you clarify your thoughts and reactions help you prepare for conversations with others. This does not mean that you have to have all the answers to your questions, puzzles or concerns before you talk to others. The double-entry process will help you extend your thinking about the reading so that the discussion can take place at a deeper level than simply saying you liked or did not like an article. Most importantly, the process will help you link theory with practice. It will encourage you to consider the ways in which theory can inform your work, and the ways in which your practical experience might inform theory.

Stream of Consciousness Writing

Process - How do I do it?

Write non-stop for a specified period of time or specified number of pages. Say to yourself “I will not stop writing until I have filled three pages” or “I will write non-stop for 5-10 minutes.” Write down anything that comes into your mind at the moment of writing. Or talk non stop into your tape recorder. Speak or write without censorship. Nothing is too “silly” to write down or talk about. Don’t look at your pages or listen to your tape with a critical perspective. The point is simply to get out in a concrete form the thoughts that are running around in your brain at the moment you are doing the recording. Don’t feel you have to re-visit what you have recorded for many days.

Benefits - Why should I try this?

The exercise is very freeing. It stimulates your brain, removing the constant chatter or self-talk going on in your brain and helps to clarify your thoughts. The activity removes the control of the “logic” or “censoring” part of your brain and permits the more open “artist” or “creative” part of the brain to function. This is the part that makes connections between things that may not appear to be connected on the surface but do have relationships in your subconscious. These more “hidden” connections can sometimes point the way to things that are troubling you or come up with creative solutions. By getting all the surface “running around in circles” thoughts out of your brain and on to the page it frees your mind to function more efficiently. By getting more subconscious thoughts onto the page you may discover (over time) clues to the true essence of what you are feeling plus good suggestions and possible solutions to problems you have been trying to resolve.

Mind Mapping

Process - How do I do it?

The process can have layers of complexity but the basic rules of Mind Mapping are: to begin with a central image or picture that represents your topic; place this image in the center of the page which is lying horizontally; put keys words that relate to your central image on lines that radiate out from the central image; limit yourself to one key word per line; print or draw your key words in a way that relates to their meaning and keep the length of the line close to the length of the word; put additional key words that relate to the previous key word in declining scope off the central radiating lines; use lots of color, images, sizes, codes – whatever works for you to give the words greater association and meaning.

Benefits - Why should I try this?

Mind Mapping is a technique developed by Tony Buzan as a form of associative note-taking that follows the natural patterns of the way your brain functions, in that the brain likes to make links or associations in a radiant manner often referred to as Radiant Thinking. The mind-mapping technique also follows the pattern of interlinking neurons within the brain and the manner in which information is transmitted from neuron to neuron. The theory is that this style of recording helps the brain to work with greater clarity and to make more associations and connections, which improves learning and retention of information. The intention is to increase mental freedom and function. It is also believed that this form of note taking increases the input of information from both the left and right hemispheres of the brain thus encouraging “whole-brain” thinking.

Synthesis of Different Types of Journals

Process - How do I do it?

You are free to combine all previously described ways of keeping a reflective journal, as well as using such additional techniques as pasting in news or magazine clippings, images or quotes that form useful associations for you. It is important to feel free to doodle, sketch or draw and to combine this with written notations if you wish. You are free to expand the size of pages by pasting on extensions to suit the format that you need for a particular entry. This is a very flexible way of working, the point being inclusiveness and the ability to respond directly and immediately to your thoughts as they occur. You are also free to record the information in the style that suits the moment and to return to it or expand on it in a different format at a later date. You have the freedom to set yourself “exercises” such as doing six doodles over a week on a particular problem or writing “stream of consciousness” thoughts on one side of the page with drawings on the other…or …or …there are many variations and combinations.

Benefits - Why should I try this?

As mentioned this is a very open, responsive and flexible way of working and does not stop you from using any of the other described techniques or from discovering new ones. It is inclusive. Mind Maps, clippings, Double-entry Journaling all can be part of this style. You can move between the techniques depending on the need of the moment, the issues and the material. It encourages the use of drawing or doodling and these visual tools are very useful in stimulating “open, creative mind” or “whole-brain” thinking. It brings all your material together in one location and you are free to make notations on it or work on it in a different style at a later date. It encourages an open attitude to the material and supports the concept that the gaining of knowledge and understanding is a process, which reveals itself in the doing and which can be approached from many different directions.

Qs & As about Journaling

Who keeps a journal?

Anyone can keep a journal and many individuals have found this activity to be useful and beneficial - from students to business managers to architects to Leonardo da Vinci, who is recognized as having had one of the greatest minds of all time. These are some names that you might recognize of some historical people who have engaged in this practice - John F. Kennedy, Charles Darwin, William Blake, Mark Twain, Walter H. Brattain (Nobel prize winner for discovery of the transistor effect), Christopher Columbus, James Joyce, Isaac Newton, Vincent Van Gogh, Beethoven, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso.

How much time should I spend on my journal?

You should spend some time every day recording in your journal. You will choose the time of day, the frequency and the amount of time you spend. You may choose to carry it with you and make notes, draw, or tape record your thoughts throughout the day. You may choose to reflect each morning or each evening. Experiment until you find the rhythm that suits you best.

How do I begin?

You begin by simply beginning. Write down anything that is in your mind and then write down the next thing in your mind. If you have trouble doing this give yourself a time limit. "I will write down everything that I think or feel for the next three minutes" or, "I will fill three pages with my thoughts (any thoughts) and feelings". What you write can be as simple as "I’m really having trouble with this, I can’t keep from thinking about how nice it would be to get a coffee right now" or "the chair I am sitting on is (description) and I am writing with a (description) it makes me feel (description)." You may find that soon it is hard to stop at three minutes or pages. Eventually move to starting your recording with something like "for the next five minutes I am going to record everything I can think about the article I just read - did I like it? What was I thinking as I read it? Did I hate it? Why did it make me feel this way?" You may find it easier to get started by making lists, doodling, writing key words or drawing images. Sometimes, using nonlinear processes can free you from “writer’s block". The more you record the easier it will become, and you may find you look forward to keeping your reflective journal.

How do I know if I am doing this the right way?

As long as you actively maintain your reflective journal there is no "right" or "wrong" way. Remember your journal is your own personal tool for learning and growth. The only person who will observe what you have recorded in it will be you. You may, at times, feel it is really working for you, in the same way that athletes can speak of "performing in the groove", but the most important thing is to just keep maintaining it - experimenting and actively using it as a tool to explore your thoughts, feelings, questions and experiences.

If no one is going to see it, why is keeping a reflective journal so important?

Because, to quote a skier, "If you're not falling you're not learning". Your failures or mistakes are some of the best learning tools you have and it's important for you to feel free to explore your experiences. Your journal gives you this freedom. You can admit that you feel uncertain about something or you can record things that you do not feel comfortable expressing publicly. In the same way that falling down is part of the process of successfully learning how to ski, part of the benefit of your journal is to provide a safe place to "fall down" in a successful learning process.

So it's a place to make a lot of mistakes?

Not quite. It's a place where you should feel free to make as many mistakes or admit as many insecurities as you want, but it is also much, much more than that. It is for expressing your excitement, your successes, your feelings, what you have learned, as well as special quotes or images that have become really important to you. You may choose to record moments in which you have experienced an "aha" or unexpected awareness, concepts that puzzle you, ideas you are playing with, or notes for a major project. There are few limits on what a journal can be. It is a very flexible and expandable tool or resource that exists solely for your benefit. It also is an easily available process, which can greatly enhance your growth and learning.

Is this why you have regularly linked the word reflective to the other words for a journal or log in these answers?

Yes. An important part of learning or solving problems is to remember to give your mind enough time to "digest things" and work on information. You need to trust your mind and yourself enough to allow this reflection to occur. Maintaining a journal facilitates this process.

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