The Role of Knowledge in Reflection

DWP and DLC at Drew University
8 min readNov 4, 2020


by Kara B. Douma, Ed.D.

John Dewey once said “we do not learn from experience. . .we learn from reflecting on experience.” If this is the case, it is logical that we often see reflection built into classrooms where students identify the knowledge gained from their experience in comparison with the gap of knowledge that exists in order to move to where they want to be next. This concept is detailed in Figure 1 below. One scaffold for thinking through the gaps in knowledge is the Growth Mindset Goal: Action Planning Framework which includes an evaluation of the learner’s current state of knowledge and what knowledge they will need to learn in order to achieve the stated goal. It is one of many frameworks for learner reflection. Let’s now talk about some others.

Figure 1: Knowledge Gap

For many years the K-W-L (What I know; What I want to Know; What I Learned) graphic organizer has peppered classrooms all over the world. The organizer supports reflection. A weakness of the K-W-L is the assertive stance of “What I Know.” Knowledge, often associated with a recall of facts, appears simple. However, knowledge is tricky as it can change or be inaccurate. With a more precise focus on knowledge, Harvard’s Project Zero (2019) offers a graphic organizer that invites students to Think-Puzzle-Explore. The first question is “What do you think you know about this topic?” While this serves as a precursor to an experience, it invites one to consider what they “think” they know to acknowledge the complexities of knowing. Asserting knowledge is a type of fixed mindset, while thinking about knowledge begins with a growth mindset; one that is flexible and nimble.

Blue sky and beach at Sandy Hook, NJ
Image: Blue Sky-Sandy Hook, NJ
Cloudy sky in Westfield, NJ
Image: Cloudy Sky — Westfield, NJ

Let’s look at the first example, a K-W-L chart completed in preparation for a science lesson on the sky. The writing includes declarative statements indicating colors of the sky and recognition of the sun. When the student is asked what they want to know, the student extends the original knowledge by asking what makes the colors in the sky and how big is the sun? Look below at Figure 3 for the second example, a Think-Puzzle-Explore chart completed on the topic of the sky. Interestingly, the responses are more dynamic.

Figure 2: K-W-L: Topic- The Sky

Figure 3: Think-Puzzle-Explore: Topic- The Sky

In comparison, an observer can certainly see the differences as Figure 2 focuses on what they “know” and takes an assertive stance by making singular statements reflective of particular points that they need to be certain of, since they “know” it. In Figure 3, the focus is thinking about the sky and this knowledge as wonderings. The student begins by saying the sky is blue, then added that it can be cloudy. They seem to visualize looking up at the sky across days as they realize that the weather changes, and the sky appears to go on forever. The Figure 3 model asks more questions about this by noting that one can study the science of weather to complete the puzzles they expressed. It is clear that the difference between the two is openness to knowledge. One of the big five personality traits is openness which is associated with creativity, curiosity, and a hunger for knowledge. Think-Puzzle-Explore opens a world of possibilities.

Interestingly, in the last column the student is asked to consider what they want to explore in relation to their puzzles; while the K-W-L chart asks students what they learned which leaves us to assume the teacher will give each child something to view or read to find the answers. Think-Puzzle-Explore leaves the research and approach open to the child to make decisions for themselves as to where they might gain more knowledge. It is an exercise in building toward a greater independence and use of inquiry learning skills in gaining knowledge. Remember that Think-Puzzle-Explore can be used as a writing exercise to ask kids what they think they know about a wide range of subjects such as making friends; what they think they know about courage; or what they think they know about the ocean.

Thinking about older students or more advanced students, the Think-Puzzle-Explore organizer can be used as a scaffold for writing a reflection. In the next example, there are no sentence starters or stems; rather, the topic is written at the top of the page along with symbols to guide the writer (Think- Puzzle- Explore). Below is an example of a reflection on the act of writing.

Figure 4: Think-Puzzle-Explore- Topic- Writing

Think-Puzzle-Explore is a tool that leads to robust ways of thinking. Reflections can also be used in an interactive way for students to receive feedback from their peers to challenge their thinking. Here is a link to teaching with blogs as a strong option to further expand the act of reflection in writing. If blogs are too public for writers, consider the act of keeping a reflective journal and posting only occasionally on blogs.

While reflection can move in various directions, objectively returning to one’s experience is essential for clarity of reflection. Honesty takes root in an objective assessment of one’s own knowledge as one revisits their experience. The goal of reflection is to make a contribution; thus, learning “depends upon self-observation and a close knowledge of the difference between one’s current performance and the achievements which are required if progress is to be made” ( Boud, keogh & Walker, 1985, p. 41). For instance, when writing about neuroscience in education, a writer not expert in this topic must pause often to assess the accuracy of their knowledge.

The question of what came first, knowledge or creation, mirrors the often quoted what came first, the chicken or egg. In Retrieval Practice, Teaching Tips, they challenge the question of whether you need to build facts before higher order thinking. Bloom’s taxonomy poses an equal challenge when flipped upside down. Knowledge, or knowing, is complex.

Habermas (1971, 1974) explains that there are three ways of knowing (as cited in Boud, keogh & Walker, 1985, p. 74). The three ways of knowing include empirical observation and conventional knowledge, sharing meaning with others through language, and knowing ourselves within the context of the world (Habermas (1971, 1974, as cited in Boud, keogh & Walker, 1985, p. 74). Ways of knowing rely on the experience. While two dogs and two cats equal four animals as conventional knowledge, writing an argument draws on our interpretations and the meaning we place on it. The third way of knowing asks one to see their actions and consider other ways of acting, if they might be more appropriate. This way of knowing invites us to understand our knowledge as it relates to others in the world. The Ways of Knowing are depicted in Figure 5 below (Habermas (1971, 1974, as cited in Boud, keogh & Walker, 1987, p. 74).

Figure 5: Ways of Knowing (from Boud, keogh & Walker, 1985, p. 41)

To further complicate Ways of Knowing, Daniel Kahneman (2013) describes two systems of analytics: one is fast and intuitive while the second is deliberate and logical. The ways of knowing coincide with the ways of determining knowledge; “learning when to trust your intuition and when to question it is a big part of how you improve your competence in the world at large” (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014, p. 106). When can you count on fast knowledge because it is intuitive (i.e. the water will turn to ice in the freezer) or when do you need to slow down to be deliberate (i.e. prioritizing goals)? Becoming an expert requires an assessment of whether you accurately know what you think you know. In Retrieval Practice, this handbook discusses how students can actively and accurately monitor their progress in learning.

One way of aiding the writer in reflecting on their knowledge is to consider their way of knowing combined with their personal experience by completing this warm-up activity. By selecting key experiences and observations from the initial entry (Figure 4) assessing what the student thinks they know about the topic of writing, the learner then considers each type of knowing and asks about their way of knowing (Figure 5). Once the learner identifies their way of knowing and their feelings, they may use this guide to write a deeper, more accurate reflection. Here is a blank template to set up to reflect on your way of knowing.

Figure 6: Set Up to Reflect: Topic- Writing

What follows when learners extract self-selected phrases or sentences from their work and then evaluate their way of knowing along with their feelings is a reflection on this identification. Here are sentence stems that guide reflection which are also found in the poster below. Remember connecting with how you feel about your way of knowing is another step to ensure an honest reflection. Here is a reading on why it is important to label your emotions and write it out for emotional processing.

Figure 7: Reflect: Use Sentence Stems as a Guide

Experience is our knowledge and reflection offers a way to internalize learning. There are different ways of knowing; how we know is important information for deciding on what knowledge is missing or might not be accurate. Minding this knowledge gap creates an opportunity to make significant gains toward our goals. The only way to do this is to make a deliberate effort to challenge what you think you know and then use this as evidence to deepen your reflections.

Boud, D., keogh, R., & Walker, D. (Eds.). (1987). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. Routledge.

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking: Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

President and Fellows of Harvard College and Project Zero. (2019). Think, Puzzle, Explore: A Routine that Sets the Stage for Deeper Inquiry. Project Zero: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Son, L.K., Furlonge, N.B. & Agarwal, P.K.. (2020). Metacognition: How To Improve Students’ Reflections on Learning. Klingenstein Center: Teachers College Columbia University.

Wagner, T. (2008). Rigor Redefined. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 20–25.

Biography: Dr. Douma is currently a PK-12 Supervisor of English Language Arts in New Jersey. She has a total of 18 years teaching and administrative experience as a Teacher of English, Teacher of Students with Disabilities, a Learning Disabilities Teacher-Consultant, a middle and high school Vice Principal, and now as a Supervisor of ELA. Follow on Twitter @karaalyson



DWP and DLC at Drew University

The Drew Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, is located at Drew University in Madison, NJ. DWP brings together teachers as writers.