“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” -John Dewey
The above quote is widely used in the education community. After going back and rereading some of Dewey’s works, as well as searching on the internet, I haven’t been able to locate the exact source. However, in his book, Democracy and Education, he does cover a number of topics that illustrate why he makes the connection between reflection and understanding.
In Chapter 11, Experience and Thinking, of Dewey’s book, Democracy and Education, he writes:
To “learn from experience” is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction—discovery of the connection of things.
In this chapter he makes the case that students learn by doing. The instruction, and hence the understanding, come from a student making connections between ideas or experiences in the learning. Without guiding students towards making connections and experimenting with the ideas, they are less likely to deeply learn what we want them to master.
Again in Chapter 11 he writes:
In schools, those under instruction are too customarily looked upon as acquiring knowledge as theoretical spectators, minds which appropriate knowledge by direct energy of intellect.
I would imagine this quote would resonate with most educators who face the challenge of “covering the content” versus “building skills and exploring processes” involved in learning _______ (science, math, writing, art, history or a new language). The danger of being overwhelmed with covering content is that we fail to allow sufficient time for students to reflect on what we want them to learn.
In the subsection of Experience and Thinking, Reflection in Experience, Dewey eloquently explains how understanding is reached as a result of a student reflecting on their experiences. Through reflection students are able to more effectively “connect the dots,” and connect their experiences to their consequences. He makes the claim that this very event promotes a student’s understanding.
So the question is this. Do we carve out sufficient time in a student’s learning experiences to reflect on what we want them to master? This reflection time can be informal or formal. Informal activities in which they write about how they understand what they’re learning. Formal activities where they respond to guided prompts prepared by the teacher and tied directly to the learning outcomes we expect. In these formal and informal activities our goal should be to help students connect the dots between the ideas and experiences we want them to encounter.