Making Room For Reflection
Learning isn’t just about taking in information. It’s about making time to integrate it too
Stillness is the sort of thing we don’t really appreciate until we have felt its absence for a while. The chance to sit and reflect upon our experiences is essential to integrating the learning we squeeze from them into our lives. That means occasionally putting our life on pause for a while, which is hardly a fashionable thing to do these days.
A few days ago, I completed the first of three residencies required by my master's program. Each residency is three weeks in duration and, if the first one is any indication, they will all involve long days in the classroom followed by more hours of work on various projects stretching well into the evening.
This recent pedagogical sprint still leaves me rather dazed. Hundreds of PowerPoint slides, numerous spur of the moment classroom readings, and one major high-pressure group assignment left little room for anything like reflection. To figure out how, why and when to incorporate the learning of the past 21 days will likely require much more time than the residency itself took from my life. Even then, much of the program’s content will at best be only dimly remembered.
Education, at least in the form typically proceeded by the qualifier “public”, usually strives for efficiency. Getting the most information possible to the greatest number in the shortest time supposedly maximizes social benefit at minimum cost. The slow contemplative pace the academy was once known for is now seen as an indicator of waste.
But personal downtime is as valuable as time spent behind a desk listening while the professor clicks through her slides. So is time spent discussing the concepts being presented and debating their merits with others. Learning is not a passive process; nor can it be rushed liked a download via a highspeed Internet connection.
The word contemplation derives from the Latin templum, which translates as “a place for observation.” Temple likewise traces its roots to this Latin noun. By adding the prefix con to templum we literally have the phrase “with(in) a place for observation.” That’s a door no program, no matter how well designed, can force us to walk through. However, how our educational and corporate institutions operate can disincentivize making the effort.
Contemplation is not synonymous with the kind of instantaneous and frequently faulty observations we associate with witnessing a car accident or the rushed decisionmaking forced upon us by often arbitrary deadlines. A certain degree of intentionality is built into it.
I don’t blame the university, my professors, or the students I was studying with for the pace of my recent experience and the stress that it imposed. My program is designed for working adults, most of whom are either already working in the field they are studying or have some background in it. Few if any of my instructors or my classmates enjoy an abundance of spare time. However, that our lives have become so busy is all the more reason to put contemplation on the calendar.
We live in a culture that insists upon interrupting us at regular intervals. Making time for reflection and to play with the ideas we encounter is essential to getting the most from our experiences. That making room for contemplation requires more effort than it used to is no excuse for failing to do so.
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