The power of reflection – a story from Greece
Adrienne Dooley NU’12 and Jim Stellar
Our last blog (8/21/12) focused on the bonding that occurred in a study abroad trip to Greece in the fall of 2011. This blog picks up where that other blog post stopped and focuses now on reflection as a critical benefit from that bonding and one that we think works particularly well in social situations. The chief benefit of reflection is that it joins the more cognitive/cerebral aspects of the learning (e.g. content about the choice of a college major) with the more limbic/decision value associated with the learning (e.g. am I comfortable in that field?). To get there, first we need to tell you a story of AD’s experienced in Greece.
It was the last day of the semester for my students and I at the American College of Thessaloniki and the final project was due. I was the teacher’s assistant in the Global Experiences class attended by the Northeastern University freshmen studying abroad. I also lived in the same hotel as these students and supervised most aspects of their experience abroad. As a part of the Global Experiences class every student was assigned to volunteer at a site in need of assistance in Greece. With the amount of need in the country we were not short on options. Some students led an after school soccer program for elementary school boys, others worked at places like the local soup kitchen or animal shelter.
Students came in with presentations of all kinds so that they could share their experiences and what they had learned with their peers. I could tell most students were eager and proud to share their personal experiences with the class. We set up the presentations in the large classroom and teachers were invited to roam through the projects. I was greatly impressed with the amount of effort and sincerity that truly made the projects shine.
With the immense amount of projects and the limited timeframe I did not have time to get to see each one. Yet, with about 15 minutes remaining my supervisor pulled me aside and asked me to go observe K’s project. My supervisor mentioned that she was particularly upset that because her project was set in the corner of the room, therefore no one was coming to see it. I walked over to K’s project and she immediately burst into tears. After she settled down she confided in me her story.
K was assigned to work with local gypsy women. In Greece, gypsy people are usually classified as non-Greek immigrants and they are severely discriminated against. The fact that they were female increased the discrimination. This made it difficult for the women to support their children because they could not speak Greek efficiently or were not able to find work. K explained how much she came to love these girls who had such spirit despite their dire situation. K talked about how it was difficult to communicate but she felt they had a bond as she tried to teach them skills that could be marketable for future employers. She was so moved that she felt helpless. K felt the need to share their story and save the girls. She was desperately looking for someone else who understood.
In my (AD) opinion, this is the highest level of learning. K may not go on to be an advocate for Grecian gypsies but I know for a fact that she will continue use her time constructively and not take her luxuries, like education or employment, for granted. I believe that K, for the first time, truly understood what it meant to have the life she was afforded. Throughout the journey I saw K mature but I think that she wasn’t truly aware that she was growing until she sat in that classroom and watched her peers observe one another’s presentations with such mild interest. The fact that K had such a strong desire to share this new knowledge with her peers came from the realization of what she had learned through reflecting on her experiences while abroad in Greece.
The most important part of this story to JS is the observation AD made that K was growing but “for the first time, truly understood what it meant to have the life she was afforded.” Of course, K knew her life as it unfolded and could talk about it as much as anyone else could. But what is happening here is that her life was reframed by the experience of her project upon reflection with the group and particularly in that moment with AD. Perhaps this was manifested in the tears and the sudden realization that a lot of learning had been occurring as what was realized at the limbic level of the brain burst into the conscious level. Noting this unconscious level of functioning is what JS pushes when he talks about the Daniel Khaneman book “Thinking Fast and Slow” or the David Eagleman book “Incognito.” Much of our limbic thinking is incognito to us until it comes out in a fast burst, perhaps accompanied by an emotion and, in this case, tears.
We like the analogy that Jonathan Haidt made in his recent book to the mind as being like an elephant where consciousness is the rider and where the rider serves the elephant’s actions by functioning much like a press secretary. We think that Khaneman and Eagleman would agree that much of what we see in the learning of our students, like K, is coming out of a part of their minds of which they may not be consciously aware.
Haidt also argues that experiences with others people exert a powerful effect that is often missed on how we think and grow. He refers to the “elephant” as leaning (reaching a conclusion) and other “elephants” (other minds) having an influence on that leaning by leaning the same or different ways. Think here about neuroeconomics decisions we make based on emotion. Think about that neuroeconomics decision as applying to a student’s selection of a major in college and resulting commitment to that major (or lack of commitment). Think about the influence that the student’s peers and family and even the whole curricular system have on that choice.
So how do we surface this instinctive or limbic knowledge in a college environment? Notice in the story that K’s emotion surprised (and informed) both K and AD. The bonding that occurs in a cohort like AD witnessed may be necessary for such an interaction by establishing an environment of emotional trust and sharing that enables this form of communication between people and within the conscious and the instinctive/emotional parts of the brain. Reflection is a challenge to college programs. Student’s often just do not want to do it in the form of on-going journals or post-experience presentations. Of course reflection can be done in isolation. That is how Wordsworth said one should create poetry with “emotions reflected in tranquility.” But in higher education, we think the crowd influence is particularly strong on “the elephant,” and thus particularly good at tying our conscious processing/learning to our unconscious processing/learning. Maybe it requires a group to surface the “inner elephant” and make it integrated with what the student knows. The flash of insight that drove K to tears in AD’s story may never have occurred if it had not been for that group of bonded individuals. The resulting growth would then also not have occurred. Maybe we really are better together and colleges/universities should encourage cohort bonding, shared experience, and interaction between the bonded participants in the important action of reflection