The Conference Unit, which began in early October, 2009 was the first course that I attended as part of my EPI Masters. The ultimate aim of the course is for students to produce a paper, aided by a process of peer reviewing, to be presented at a conference organised by the EPI students. The course has included many elements worthy of reflection, beginning with the development of a proposal, peer reviewed by a colleague; the production of a paper, again peer reviewed, and the organisation of the conference itself, which involved close cooperation between class members. Whilst the course's main outputs were the conference and conference paper, learning has occurred through the many processes involved in the production of these outputs. Much of this learning has been experiential, and as Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell and Haag (1995) recognise there is a clear distinction between experiential and reflective knowledge. Kolb (1984) observed that experience alone cannot provide sufficient learning in some situations and in these instances experience must be combined with exercises that involve a creative processing of cognitions if meaningful learning is to result. Utilising reflective practice leads to critical awareness and enables us to examine our own and others behaviours as well as the social and organisational context that we operate within. This approach fosters an increase in problem-solving knowledge and enhanced learning (Kolb, 1984), and has been identified as an important aspect of professional practice (Schön, 1983) and as a metacognitive tool (Vos, 2001). Whilst Kolb's (1984) Experiential Learning Cycle details the cyclical nature of learning from concrete experience to reflection, conceptualising, testing new concepts, and on to further experiences, it fails to consider the importance of feelings, positive and negative, to the reflective process. Further, Kolb pays little heed to the different ways of knowing, emphasising, for instance, the individual's mid processes rather than considering learning as situated (Miettinen, 2000). In contrast, Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) recognise learning as a situated, social practice and acknowledge the importance of feelings in reflection. Those failing to recognise the affective dimension of an experience may weaken the value of their reflections by “restricting them to one aspect of their response to the world around them, thus placing artificial barriers on their response to experience.” (Boud et al., p.29). Gibb's (1988) reflective cycle builds upon Kolb's work but focuses on the process of reflection itself rather than on reflection as an element of general learning. Gibb's model acknowledges the importance of context and feelings in reflection and identifies six steps to aid and support reflective practice; in common with Kolb's model these elements are cyclical and open-ended and comprise of:
- Description - what happened?
- Feelings - what were you thinking and feeling?
- Evaluation - what was good and bad about the experience?
- Analysis - what sense can you make of the situation?
- Conclusion - what else could you have done?
- Action plan - what will you do next time?
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Gibbs (1988, p.9) argues that: "It is not enough just to do, and neither is it enough just to think. Nor is it enough simply to do and think. Learning from experience must involve linking the doing and the thinking". In this spirit this paper will use Gibb's Reflective Cycle as a framework to reflect upon the events within the conference unit that I feel have had the most significant impact upon my learning. These events, the peer reviewing process for the conference proposal and paper, are the ones that I feel give valid grounds for questioning my own performance and seeking to improve upon it.
The conference unit required us to develop a proposal for a paper, to be presented at the conference, and submit this for review to a classmate whose proposal we, in turn, would review. Once the proposals were agreed, the same process would be applied with mutual peer reviewing for the developed paper. Feedback on the proposal was to be used as the basis for developing the paper, and feedback on the paper was to be used for further developing it prior to submission. Whilst it has always been my practice to ask a friend to proofread my essays prior to submission, I had never before had to submit work to somebody that I didn't know well and this made me uncomfortable. Likewise, I have proofread for friends but have never reviewed a classmate's work before and so was unsure, for instance, how critical I should be. As a teacher I am used to giving feedback, and as a student I am used to receiving it, however, giving and receiving feedback in this way made me feel ill at ease. Chapman (2003), building on Ingham and Luft's work (see below), has observed that whilst we are open about some aspects of our personality, there are some elements that we prefer to keep to ourselves. Through giving and receiving feedback we may see ourselves as others view us, and likewise others may learn how we view them. Through soliciting feedback we expose ourselves by allowing others to extend into our ‘blind area' - this is the area that contains those things that our peers observe about us which we may not know about. In soliciting feedback I worried that I would hear things about my work that I would not be comfortable with, and in giving feedback I was concerned that I might be perceived as over critical. When feedback is given to us well, in a responsible and supportive way, it enables us to test the reality of who we really are, and increases our self-awareness, this reduces our ‘blind area' and increases our ‘open area' leading to greater effectiveness. The feedback that I received from my classmate (see App. 1 & 2) for both my proposal and paper was extremely constructive, and while both had critical elements my reviewer balanced these with positive encouragement. I struggled to find gain this balance finding it surprisingly difficult to criticise a colleague's work, but endeavoured to give an equitable review of both proposal and paper by writing a list of good and bad points and ensuring that any criticisms that I did make were constructive and balanced. Assistive in this process was the template provided to guide us as this focussed my thinking onto specific criteria to review. Equally as important as giving constructive feedback is the ability to receive critical feedback well, and my reviewer's feedback, while highly constructive, was not entirely positive. Whilst my initial reaction to this was one of disquiet, I came to realise after re-reading my paper and considering his comments that he was right on many points and this allowed me to redraft my paper and improve it. As Dyke (2009) has identified “understanding is not created in social isolation” (p.300) and our interactions with others can shape our perceptions and strengthen learning. By receiving constructive feedback poorly we continue to behave ineffectively - no lesson is learnt; but by allowing others to criticise us and learning from the experience we can increase our self-awareness and improve our performance.
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The process of peer reviewing facilitates cooperative learning, and is, in itself, a process of reflective learning with its roots in Kolb's (1984) theory of experiential learning. Additionally, the peer review process fosters meaningful interactions between peers (Lundstrom and Baker, 2009), and this was perhaps the most positive aspect of the experience for me. Other benefits, gained through interactions with my reviewer, included gaining new perspectives on the writing process and exposure to new ideas, and these aspects, as Topping (1998) points out, engender the development of higher-order critical thinking and cognitive skills. In conclusion, in repeating this exercise I would endeavour to be less concerned about opening myself up to criticism by a colleague, and conversely I would be less concerned about being judged harshly for criticising another's work. The mutual benefits to be reaped from this process can only be achieved in the spirit of learning with, and from, each other through willingness to provide and receive open and honest criticism. This is the most important lesson that I have learned from this exercise and reflection.