Reflecting on Reflection in Costa Rica (Alternative Spring Break 2011), Spring 2011

Accessible Version

By Elan Paulson, PhD English, Western

This February, I was one of over 200 participants in Western’s international community service learning program, Alternative Spring Break (ASB). The National Service Learning Clearing House (2008) describes service learning as a teaching approach that “integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities” (para. 1). ASB co-organizers Leah Getchell (Student Success Centre) and Pam Core (Residence Life) prepared team leaders to facilitate reflective journaling, personal goal-setting, guided discussion, and other group reflection activities. Then, for seven days (and without giving a single PowerPoint presentation) I co-led a series of reflection activities with 15 students following the medical clinics participants held in communities across Costa Rica.

The ASB program views reflection as the keystone to service learning. Christopher Johns (2010) describes reflection as “a window through which [one] can view and focus self within the context of her own lived experiences in ways that enable her to confront, understand and work towards resolving the contradictions within her practice” (p. 35). Using the “What? So What? Now What?” reflection model (Reflection in Service 2010, para. 4), participants were to observe their experiences, recognize the significance of those experiences in the context of their own lives and education, and commit to ongoing personal and social change through local and global civic engagement. In its most worthwhile moments, service learning reflection not only bridges participants’ experience and understanding but also reveals the intrinsic value of reflection itself. Reflection may sometimes be taken as a given in formal learning settings because it is not directly observable and is unique for each learner (Boud, Keogh, and Walker, 1985, p. 8). Educators may even neglect to make time and space for reflection when they assume it is always already taking place in the familiar space of the classroom (p. 8). With limited out-of-classroom teaching experience, I had initially thought that, if the classroom was too predictable, then a non-classroom environment might not be predictable enough. Because our group would be bombarded with new sights and sounds, first-time experiences, and vast cultural differences, it was possible that our group wouldn’t be able to reflect critically on all the new information that we would receive during our home visits and medical clinic services for low-income families.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. During the week, I heard students say that reflection was one of their favourite activities (and not only because we could reflect outside in the warm Central American weather). On our trip, participants reflected mindfully on speaking with Costa Ricans (when they knew little Spanish), giving medical examinations (when they had limited training), and recognizing how their experiences were changing their attitudes and even their career choices. To borrow from Johns, our evening reflections consistently deepened and enriched our “version” of the world, particularly our group confronted our expectations and prior knowledge together.

In the “Privilege Walk” (Noon, 2006), which was our most intense and productive group reflection that week, participants initially wrestled with the meaning of privilege. I had a clear idea of what I thought “privilege” was supposed to mean for this activity, and in my privileged position as co-leader it was difficult not to jump in and provide correction. However, as the conversation continued among those who sat in different “spaces of privilege” at the conclusion of the Privilege Walk, I realized that I was contributing more to the conversation by staying silent than by speaking; with time, and on their own, students steered their discussion to viewing “privilege” not only as a reward for effort and good behavior but also as systematic restrictions on opportunities and choices for people based on their lived differences. Together, they intuitively guided conversation through the “What? So What? Now What?” reflection model, and finally agreeing that understanding one’s privilege (relative to others) is an important foundation for making the choice to work towards the social good in the future.

Johns (2008) explains that reflection is “often perceived as looking back at events rather than looking forward and anticipating future situations” (p. 41). Initially, my vision of practice was to “look back” to my classroom teaching to inform my out-of-class teaching. However, I now realize that this teaching experience in Costa Rica has given me a better way to understand the role of reflection in my future classes at home. Watching this intimate yet open conversation on privilege and power unfold, and reflecting on my own class habits, I was reminded of how unpredictability can be precisely what is valuable for learning—for both students and for teachers. In reflecting on reflecting, I am also reminded that reflection not only enables learning but also builds a sense of community that makes learning better. Reflection after service learning aims to move students towards a greater awareness of their ties to their larger community (Jeavons ,1995, p. 135). Before those larger community ties were established through reflection, however, it was the reflection activity itself that enabled our team to form close ties with each other.

See the ASB 2011 blogs for more on this year’s service learning trips in London, Winnipeg, New Orleans, Peru, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Thanks to Leah Getchell, Pam Core, Shannon Aitchison, Saumya Krishna, and the ASB Costa Rica 2011 Service Learning group. Thanks also to Dr. Ken Meadows. For more information on ASB, visit:


“Alternative Spring Break” (2011). The University of Western Ontario. Retrieved from

Boud, D., R. Keogh, and D. Walker (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge. 1985.

Jeavons, Thomas H. “Service learning and liberal learning: A marriage of convenience” (1995). Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2, 134-40.

Johns, Christopher (2010). Guided reflection: A narrative approach to advancing professional practice. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Noon, Doug (2006, April 4). The Privilege Walk. Border Lands. Retrieved from

Reflection in Service Learning Classes (2010). Community Service-Learning Centre, University of Minnesota. Retrieved from

Service learning ideas and curricular examples (July 2008). National Service Learning Clearinghouse. Retrieved from