As a teacher at a medical school, Anne de la Croix dreaded the pile of reflection reports of her students. “It was a mind-numbing task going through their epistles.
As a teacher at a medical school, Anne de la Croix dreaded the pile of reflection reports of her students. “It was a mind-numbing task going through their epistles.”

Picture: Nanne Meulendijks

Culture of reflection gone too far: teachers also want it different

If it is up to pupils and students, there will be an end to the endless stream of reflection reports, portfolios and development plans. Teachers do not have time to provide feedback to the epistles. And in the end, young people just come up with something.

It must have been about five years ago that my brother, then a HBO product design student, e-mailed me his 'portKUTio'. Stabbed by the umpteenth reflection assignment, he had chosen navel-gazing as his own subject. I read angry sentences like: 'it seems like it doesn't matter what kind of product I design, as long as I justify it according to the sacred study manual'. And: 'Do me a favor, and let my products be important, instead of the excuses and obligatory numbers that make up the portfolio.'

'You know which teacher really doesn't have time to read your reports'

His argument doesn't change anything. He gets a pass for his portfolio, because he has neatly processed all mandatory parts, but zero feedback on the content. Bram van Fraeijenhove – he is at the tail end of the geography and history teacher training courses – also resisted. He created an online document with a password for certain teachers. “You know who really doesn't have time to read your reports.” He then emailed the teacher that the reflection assignment is ready, but that he or she must request an access password. “Nobody ever requested that password.”


Van Fraeijenhove is not proud of his working method. But, he says: “Sometimes it just wasn't possible. So much evidence and logs, reflections on the content, on the collaboration, on the learning process.” He is supported by secondary education teachers who this spring AOb/Filled out a survey about their teacher education. Reflection was not a subject in this questionnaire, but frustrations flooded in on an open question: 'The only thing I learned is to write reflection reports'. 'Too much focus on reflection.' And: 'We had to write a lot of reports, while I would rather have seen specific courses.'

Picture: Nanne Meulendijks


Fighting against the beer quay, is what industrial and organizational psychologist and former lecturer at Fontys Hogescholen Tom Luken calls it. Ten years ago he hoped with an incendiary scientific article reflecting in education.

'Reflection at a young age is difficult, because the brain is usually not yet able to do that'

Based on international research, Luken states that the positive effects of reflection have hardly been demonstrated. That reflection at a young age is difficult, because the brain is usually not yet able to do it. And that there are also risks involved. Luken: “The resistance that young people feel is healthy. Truly critical and independent thinking often only becomes a realistic option later in life.” Especially with perfectionist girls, reflecting can turn into rumination, or worrying. “You just circle around in questions that you can't answer anyway.”

Van Fraeijenhove recognizes this. “When I was just standing in front of the class, I found it difficult to raise my voice when a student yelled at me. The training allowed me to endlessly reflect on norms and values. But it was much more helpful to an experienced colleague who once said: It's not that scary, just do it once."


Many publications later, Luken is retired. He failed to shake the phenomenon of reflection in education. He finds it difficult to attribute this to one aspect. “You can go all the way back to Plato and Descartes. To the importance of thinking in our culture, as opposed to feeling or doing.”

'Career competences have definitely been transferred to education'

Luken points to the emergence of career competences some twenty years ago. Reflection was an important part of that. Subsequently, influential scientists were also able to captivate people at the Ministry of Education with this theory, according to Luken. “In fact, a number of career competencies have simply been transferred to education, to the world of children and young people.”

The words 'reflection' and 'reflect' are currently mentioned more than one hundred and twenty times in the legally established final examination programs for secondary education. In HAVO and VWO the aim for most subjects is: 'The candidate can (…) reflect on his/her own interests, motivation and learning process.' At VMBO, final years can 'reflect on their own working method and on the quality of their own work.' For career orientation and development, pre-vocational secondary education students, usually 15-year-olds, have to reflect on their actions, their experiences, their qualities and their motives.


Luken is not alone in his criticism. Anne de la Croix came up against what she calls the reflective zombie in 2020. She wrote an article in English with colleague Mario Veen and summarized the message in Dutch trade magazine Didactief: 'Reflection is often a fill-in exercise. And that's because of the shape. Students and pupils complete the checklist and rubrics in like zombies. It's not their fault, it's the system.'

As a medical teacher, De la Croix dreaded the pile of reports. During internships, her students received feedback on the work floor. And they had to reflect on that feedback. “It was a mind-numbing task going through their epistles. What was I to do with a student I knew: he always thinks deeply about things, but isn't much of a writing talent? How did I know if the student had not taken it easy by just writing down what I wanted to hear?”

According to De la Croix, you cannot judge whether someone has actually reflected. She decided to give everyone a pass as standard. “I understand the importance of those reports. A degree in medicine provides a very important diploma. They want proof that the student has learned.”

'The way we reflect is counterproductive'

Mind you, De la Croix is ​​not against reflection. “I really like reflecting, but the way we do it is counterproductive.” She sees more use in group conversations. Take empathizing with patients and their environment, a learning goal for medical students. De la Croix: “A student told the parents of sick children that he was irritated. Another found those parents interesting. By properly guiding such a conversation and examining differences, reflection can arise.”


Because what exactly is reflection? Luken defines it in 2011 as 'thinking about one's own performance in order to improve it'. Whereupon he gets into a scientific fight with Fred Korthagen, the founder of the most widely used reflection model in education, which is now almost forty years old. Luken would define reflection too narrowly. And thereby also ignoring positive effects, such as promoting an analytical attitude, taking responsibility and raising awareness of external factors in one's own work, says Korthagen.

Korthagen himself is also disappointed that his model is 'sometimes quite coercive, one-sided cognitive and problem-oriented' used. Which leads to 'complaints from students about reflecting and little motivation to do so', he writes in 2018. In a response to Luken's criticism, Korthagen mentions deeper reflection as a solution. A reflection assignment then not only describes the environment, one's own behavior and one's skills, but comes to the core of 'whole being', according to Korthagen. Think of one's beliefs, ideals and values. Korthagen does not discuss whether the brain of a teenager or early twenties is capable of this even more far-reaching form of reflection.


Ken Besuijen, a starting English teacher, attributes the resistance he himself felt to reflection to laziness. “Students would rather do nothing, let alone repetitive things. Of course I had that too.” Nevertheless, Besuijen filled in the countless circles of Korthagen. Now he calls reflection 'the basis of my teaching position'. Besuijen: “It is so valuable because as a teacher you have to constantly reinvent yourself. Every class is different, but also every day. Something that works before the Christmas holidays may not work at all after the holidays.”

'We need brave teachers for good reflection'

Besuijen has recently started working with MAVO students. Before this, he taught English at havo and vwo. “Recently I had a very annoying lesson: two students were expelled, one was given criminal work. Of course I can stay angry: you don't listen, you talk through me. But for MAVO students, the relationship is very important. So I'm going to reflect. Which factors were involved? What else could I want?” At home, Besuijen dives into his cupboard with educational books. “That's how I got the idea to start the next lesson with a game. A little cheerfulness, the books aside: that the students also experience that side of me. It turned out pretty well.”


It must be said: Besuijen chooses his own form. He no longer fills out forms. It would also be better for most pupils and students if they had to write down much less, De la Croix thinks: “For good reflection, we need brave teachers who dare to interpret it differently.” She mentions a teacher who lets his students choose the form themselves. “He has one make a vlog, the other a podcast or a drawing. Some say: give me such a reflection model. And then he shows you two that can help.” She also knows a medical teacher who has her students meet ten times for two hours to talk about professional development. If the students are present all ten times, they pass the course. De la Croix: “That requires different skills from a teacher. Namely creating an instructive group discussion. But it is possible.”

This article is from the November Education Magazine. AObMembers receive the magazine in their mailbox every month. Do you want that too? Become a member!

Read through

Tips: at the bottom of the article 'Resurrect the reflective zombie' Anne de la Croix and Mario Veen give three tips for DidActive for better reflection.

Humor: the online satirical youth platform The Gladiolus wrote about reflection this spring.

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