What Have You Learned Lately? The Power of Reflection

When we asked former MA Publishing Course Leader Anna Faherty what she had been up to since leaving Kingston University, we might have known her answer would be all about learning. In this guest post Anna emphasises how reflecting on experience can transform you and your place in the world.

It’s a little over a month since I left Kingston University. During that period plenty of people have posed the question, “what have you been doing lately?” That’s an easy query to answer. I can reel off multiple freelance projects, including developing a new book for Wellcome Collection, collaborating with The National Archives, teaching at Oxford Brookes University and University College London, encouraging digital innovation at Kogan-Page’s company meeting and discussing digital storytelling at a major practitioner conference in the cultural sector.

However, I think the “what have you been doing?” question misses a trick. Like asking “what have you read lately?” or “what have you watched lately?” it rather glosses over the more interesting point. Because what I’ve been doing (or reading or watching) is altogether less important than what I’ve been learning.

Courtesy Postergen.com Chalkboard Generator

Courtesy Postergen.com Chalkboard Generator

It may only be a few weeks since I left my permanent academic role, but time away has helped me recognise the fundamental aspects of academic life that I enjoy – and want to foster in the future – and those I could happily live without. Collaborating with talented people, inspiring others and creating stuff (whether that’s entire curricula, learning activities, knowledge or digital or physical ‘things’) are all key components I’d like to carry forward in other roles. Alongside, I also want to continue to challenge myself and gain new knowledge and skills.

Though I’m not going to share the downsides of academia, recognising and understanding them is crucial to making the right decisions about my future work. And – most tellingly – reflecting on five years in higher education has also prompted me to question my professional identity. So far my stance on whether I consider myself an academic or not has surprised me.

Through spending time with other universities teaching publishing, I’ve realised what I’m most proud of about my time at Kingston: developing a coherent, business-focused and Skillset-accredited MA Publishing course that supports students as they hone their professional, collaborative and critical thinking skills. More importantly, as my own research has shown, by focusing on how people learn as much as what they learn, it’s a course that has the power to truly transform those students who embrace its approach, setting them up to thrive in a dynamic and uncertain industry.

On a more personal level, I’ve reminded myself how I work when I don’t have a regular ‘gig’ providing structure to my working hours. For the record, I’m less focused and probably waste more time. However, I also generate and develop more creative ideas.

Giving yourself time for reflection means giving yourself time to learn

The bigger picture lesson, however, is that giving yourself time for reflection means giving yourself time to learn – about what makes you tick, what you want to achieve and how to get there. Doing, reading or watching is all well and good, but you’ll only really benefit from any of those if you turn the experiences into learning, by reflecting on them.

It sounds simple and sensible but, as David Boud, Rosemary Keogh and David Walker have written*, reflecting on your experiences may involve challenging your own well-established ways of viewing the world. This means you need to take time to draw conclusions from your reflections and test out what you have learned (which may involve thinking or acting in new ways)**. That’s tough, but if you want to transform your situation (for instance by morphing from a student into a professional publisher), you also need to transform your perspective. It’s only by forcibly removing the constraints you’ve unconsciously imposed on how you view yourself and the world that you’ll learn anything.

Courtesy Postergen.com Chalkboard Generator

Courtesy Postergen.com Chalkboard Generator

With this in mind, if you’re a student who has just submitted their final dissertation or project I’d encourage you to take stock before you throw yourself into something new. Ask yourself what you have learned about publishing, but also what you’ve learned about yourself. You will have increased your understanding of whatever aspect of the industry you focused on, but what did you learn about how you think and work? What aspects of the task did you enjoy (and why)? What did you do particularly well (and why)? What surprised you? What does this mean about how you view yourself and your career? What might you need to change? What shape, in fact, should your new career take?

For those students who have recently embarked on a publishing course, I encourage you to carve out some time in your hectic schedule (perhaps during the mid-term enhancement week if you have one) to step back from the intensity of your first few weeks and reflect on your experience to date. What have you found most interesting, challenging or surprising? What areas do you want to explore further? What skills were you unaware you had? What does this mean for you, the rest of your course and your publishing career? Do you need to make any changes to your goals or plans? How could you make the most of all the learning opportunities your course, lecturers and institution offer?

No-one ever learned anything without actively challenging how they think and feel

As for me, I’ve got plenty of new experiences lined up, but I’m also planning some time away, to make sure I have sufficient time to reflect on them, make some sense of them and make decisions about what happens next. In the meantime, the next person who asks what I have done, read or watched lately, will get the response, “what have you learned lately?”. They may think me weird, or even challenging, but no-one ever learned anything without actively challenging how they think and feel.

Anna Faherty is currently Associate Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. Her book ‘States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness’ will be published by Wellcome Collection in early 2016.

*In Boud, D, Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1985) Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning, Abingdon: Routledge.
**These four stages (experience, reflection, abstraction and application) align with the learning cycle summarised by David A Kolb in Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as The Source of Learning and Development, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Read more about learning from Anna’s articles on why asking why can make change happen, the importance of validated learning when launching a new product and how a desire to learn something everyday helped Rovio develop Angry Birds. (PDF). 


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