Teaching How to Reflect and Reflecting on Teaching
Trust lies at the root of any learning environment. If students are not able to trust - their instructor or the environment where learning occurs - the learning and learning context suffer as a result. For example, in a clinical environment, imagine a student who feels fearful of an instructor due to an abuse of power or past experiences of discouraging responses to student performance. This scenario may begin a cycle of insecurity leading to disengagement and a fear of failure. Through the process of learning, we often learn best from making errors and learning from those mistakes. Similarly, in a classroom environment, if a student is unable to trust that an instructor will respond in kindness to an incorrect answer, that student is less likely to participate. Scarbrough (2013) found a correlation between trust as it relates to mood and cognitive function; the author concluded that changes in levels of trust may have an impact on critical thinking.
As an occupational therapist with a disability, I would be remiss not to address the importance of a fair and inclusive environment for learning as it relates to individuals with disabilities. Although Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects children and adolescents in grade-school with a “free appropriate public education,” higher education often comes with additional challenges (US Department of Education, 2007). In the case of differences in ability levels, fair does not always mean equal and in most cases, instructors have the potential to make fair accommodations that will enhance learning and contribute to a more diverse student body. The American Occupational Therapy Association Centennial Vision included an image of a “diverse workforce,” and subsequently the 2025 vision begins with “as an inclusive profession” (2007; 2017). In teaching occupational therapy students, in particular, I place a high value on recognizing the unique needs of individual learners and working to identify fair teaching practices, and providing opportunities for learning in a student-partnered fashion.
Ultimately, my aim is to develop comprehensive thinkers, who can problem-solve and seek to acquire new knowledge through experiential learning across the lifetime. Not only is this true for students, but in treating clients with chronic conditions, due to the need for empowerment and self-management rather than depending on a medical professional to “fix” them. Through my work as an occupational therapist, I aim to offer experiences in the clinical environment, which simulate daily life activities, partnering alongside my clients as they engage in problem-solving and strategy use.
Just as clients benefit from gaining tools for self-management of their medical condition, students benefit from feelings of empowerment (Hudson-Ross, Cleary, & Casey, 1983 as cited in Cook-Sather, 2002) which may or may not be impacted by various forms of assessment. Summative assessments, or pre-determined standards of measurement which allow for comparison across organizations and classes, for example, are often necessary. For example, the National Board Certification in Occupational Therapy requires students to measure up to an expected level, as compared to peers, in order to ensure clinicians from various academic programs around the country are being held to the same standards. However, these types of quantitative instrumentation methods may result in student feelings of inadequacy and at times, failure.
As a field, occupational therapy continues to push toward occupation-based practice, rather than providing techniques or teaching strategies in a contrived context or solely in conversation, without the opportunity to apply learning. Similarly, the education of occupational therapy students and consumers should reflect these values. As mentioned previously, the CO-OP approach reflects similar benefits of experiential combined with transformational learning, with goal-directed, reflective learning rather than targeting impairments (Wolf, 2012). Application-based teaching, using specific experiences with opportunities for reflection, creates an environment that allows for a range of learners to acquire knowledge, consciously recognize new learning, and subsequently generalize and transfer knowledge to new situations, given the ability to problem-solve with increased independence (Luckner & Nadler, 1997).
Learning is a life-long process. As a result, it is imperative that learners (whether, clinicians, students, or clients) are equipped with the tools to continue in their learning and growth even beyond the concrete space of time they are in the more formalized learning space. In order to build upon a diverse and inclusive learning environment (and workforce), teachers must provide opportunities for a variety of learners with a sense of empowerment and ability-mindset. Given the experiential nature of the profession of occupational therapy and the evidence of adaptive response mechanism in the occupational adaptation theory, hands-on training coupled with reflection on experiences leads to optimal, longitudinal learning.