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Infusing the Japanese Art of Reflection Into U.S. Education

Editor's Note: Recently, Christine Powell, a special education teacher from Southern California, traveled to Japan to attend a three-day conference on Asian Education and International Development. While there, she learned about hansei (pronounced hahn-say), the Japanese practice of self-reflection. Here she shares how it can be used in U.S. education.

By Guest Blogger Christine Powell

Education is a dynamic process; changes often occur in policy and practice with a new administration, fluctuating school leadership, and promising educational trends. The tides change, and new mandates are made, objectives set, benchmarks laid out, data collected, and achievements measured, but often we miss the vital opportunity to reflect on why new procedures are made and newfangled practices are warranted in the first place. It is during this reflection that purpose-driven decisionmaking can become clear. I recently learned an important strategy centered on reflection from a Japanese academic.   

Introducing Hansei

Hansei is the practice of self-reflection and loosely translates into English as "self-awareness is the first step to improvement." Rooted in Eastern philosophy, with a religious nuance, the art of hansei is taught in some Japanese schools so children begin to learn from an early age to reflect on performance, irrespective of outcomes. It is not exclusively used in education; it is also part of the Japanese corporate business world. Part reflection, part meditation, the process becomes second nature with continued practice, I was informed.

christina_powell.pngMy new Japanese colleague and hansei expert wanted feedback on his presentation, and like most of the participants in our group, I gave broad comments based on execution. Yet we were pushed by our hansei guide to dig deeper and provide pointed feedback that would inform the presentation focused on areas that might need to be bolstered more or framed differently. I have never participated in such a process at a conference and will admit that it required me to think deeply about content, delivery, and overall impact. The process differed from the type of pointers I have provided colleagues in the past, as this process was meant to be critical, with an awareness that we were helping to inform broader actions. Gone were the superfluous comments of "well done" or "good job." This feedback serves as the starting point of hansei: listening to others with the objective of revisiting the feedback to gain clarity and understanding about the underpinnings that frame and support our decisionmaking with a personal accountability exercise. The multistep process, listed below, is a combination of deliberate reflection and contemplation. For maximum benefit, all group members would be trained in the process of hansei, although a single participant hearing feedback and applying the hansei process is beneficial.    

Often in Western culture, we are not receptive to feedback for two poignant reasons: time and perception. Receiving feedback usually is not done in an efficient time frame. Hansei is conducted following the execution of an action. This process does take time, and it must be seen as a worthy use of time to be valuable to all participants. Additionally, feedback for many in Western culture is synonymous with criticism and taken as a personal assault on performance. Whether one is running a program, guiding policies, or directing leadership activities, the opportunity to be given feedback that could have a meaningful impact is lost when one's mindset is not open and receptive. 

Four Steps for Using Hansei

As an educator and teacher trainer, I would like to infuse more hansei into my practice. This can be done using a multistep reflection process:

  1. Reflect on Actions and Behaviors
    The first step to embracing hansei is to challenge the facts of your actions, as well as the behaviors that resulted in success or failure. After a meeting, implementing a new policy, or refining an old practice, determine if the meeting, policy, or procedure met the objectives, and, more importantly, reflect on why or why not. 

  2. Ask Why
    The second step requires asking the question, 'Why?' several times to understand the reasoning and assumptions behind the group's or individual's actions. After asking why several times, the impact of one's rationale becomes clear. Take for example a school or district policy on teacher professional development. When a need arises to change such a policy, and before implementing a new version of an old mandate, ask why it needs to be changed. If the answer is that it is not working the way it was intended, then ask why again. Continue this reflective process to get to the root of the issue. 
  1. Question Assumptions
    The third step is to question the validity of your assumptions and ask those in your hansei group to assist in the process. This is important to dispel preconceived suppositions or unchecked assumptions. A hansei group can assist in asking poignant questions and providing feedback so clarity is achieved. 

  2. Define Alternatives
    And finally, the process calls on participants to define alternative assumptions, reasoning, and/or actions in the context of the situation being reflected upon.  

This powerful four-step process can ensure that decisionmaking is purposeful, as it requires those participating to reflect on the reasons change is warranted or current educational trends embraced. The hansei practice is by design iterative; through self- questioning and analysis tied to decisionmaking, each iteration is intended to bring clarity to the reasons why or why not change might be needed, as well as what is currently framing our assumptions.     

Applications in an Educational Context  

As a special educator, I regularly hold meetings with school staff, students, parents, and stakeholders to elicit input on individualized education programs (IEPs). The meetings have great impact on the educational trajectory for a student, yet once the paperwork is signed and the parents and students depart, there is little discussion or reflection on the part of the school team. An opportunity to participate in hansei would allow a conversation about what information could have been explained better, what assumptions were made, or if a different approach might have worked more effectively. 

In addition to special education, the process can be used in other educational contexts, such as staff development, feedback for teachers going through induction, and student-discipline matters. Reflection is a practice that needs to be explicitly taught and deliberately practiced, and the benefits include a perspective check and growth on both a professional and a personal level. 

Hansei provides a unique exemplar of personal accountability in decisionmaking and illustrates the point that learning from international educators provides opportunities for organizational and personal growth. Educational practice is not static, and through the art of reflection, we can perhaps consider different ways to enhance, and ultimately improve education in our schools, districts, and states.  

Connect with ChristinaHeather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Image created on Pablo.

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