Ellen Rose’s “On Reflection”: A Review

Review of On Reflection final

Ellen Rose, On Reflection: An Essay on Technology, Education, and the Status of Thought in the Twenty-first Century. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013 124p $29.95 (CDN)


Ellen Rose is Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. For slightly more than the last decade, she has taught graduate students and written widely on instructional design and media ecology. In 2006 she published, “Should you be a media ecologist?  Bridging the gulfs of understanding between educational technology and media ecology” (Educational Technology, 46 (5), pp. 5-13.) In this paper she discusses three “gulfs of understanding” between educational technology and media ecology and suggests thoughtful and mediating ways in which these divides might be largely reduced.

Before beginning her teaching career, Rose developed computer-based educational courseware for the instructional design industry, which she deconstructs and critically analyzes in Hyper Texts: the Language and Culture of Educational Computing (London, ON: Althouse Press, 2000.) It seems as if the epigram attributed to Bismarck, “The making of laws like the making of sausages, is not a pretty sight,” could well be enlarged to, “The making of laws and commercial computer-based learning materials, like the making of sausages, is not a pretty sight.”

In Hyper Texts, the student and the teacher are the subjects of the effects of educational technology. Three years later, Rose examined computer culture broadly (User Error: Resisting Computer Culture. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2003) and analyzed its effects on the “computer user,” meaning most of us. And again, it is not a pretty sight. As the DOS programmers in the 1980s said, “User Error: Replace user and strike any key.”


Now, in, On Reflection, Rose returns to the teacher and learner (essentially all of humanity) as she examines the construct of “reflection,” its central place in learning, how it is diminished and devalued in a culture that privileges intense, computer-driven information technology, and the deleterious effects this degradation has on thinking and learning.

Immediately, the reader notes Rose parts company with the definitions and descriptions of reflection common in contemporary educational literature and practice. What, exactly, is “reflection?” Rose understands reflection “as a form of deep sustained thought for which the necessary conditions are solitude and slowness,” (p. 3) and, “as, even more, a mindful, careful way of being in the world.” She then interrogates the notions of reflection in the thought of John Dewey and Donald Schön, seeking to reclaim the traditional idea of reflection from their distortions and that of others of a similar pragmatic and “scientific” disposition.

In subsequent chapters, Rose explores why reflection matters; discusses the rise of the reflective mind and the contribution of technology (language, the alphabet, and the printing press) to its emergence; asks the questions, “Are reading and writing prerequisites to reflection, and, if so, what are the implications for education in the twenty-first century?” Is reflection in decline? Is the absence of reflection, borrowing Nicholas Carr’s phrase, making us stupid?

Rose then makes a key statement on page 84, “Rather than enhancing our capabilities and opportunities for reflection, information technology seems to have become one of the greatest obstacles to deep thought. What happened?”

The short answer is the development of a “rapidly shifting, perpetually overstimulated form of awareness . . . called ‘hyper attention’ and ‘continuous partial attention’” brought on by the volume and speed of information. “Slow, careful thought—the kind that is needed to understand the human consequences of technological innovation—[has been] pushed to the sidelines.” After discussing the detrimental consequences of this phenomenon in teaching and learning, with some especially keen insights into its effects in online learning, Rose closes her chapter on reflection and technology with a very important observation on how to approach technology and learning and one which, in my classroom, library, and administrative experience, has been almost completely absent (p.95):

“I believe that the teacher’s role with respect to technology is best described as one of stewardship. Rather than simply accepting, with either reluctance or enthusiasm, the arrival of the latest technological tool, we must manage, with care and forethought, the movement of technological innovation into educational spaces.  And rather than simply using these technologies to make our instruction more engaging, convenient, or relevant, it is imperative that the technologies themselves become the subject of instruction . . .“ (reviewer emphasis.)

How then does one cultivate reflective thought? Rose has a number of suggestions:

  1. Be “openly attentive to the way words are used … Language … is the basic material with which the reflective mind works.”
  2. Develop “an appreciation for the indeterminate products of the reflective intellect.”
  3. Provide “learners with ample opportunities for unassessed reading and writing, moments of silent withdrawal.”
  4. Stress the “importance of interdisciplinarity, which allows teachers and learners to make connections that might be unavailable to those whose perspective is constrained by the boundaries of a single field of study.”
  5. Allow reflection to occur as “reflection-then-action, encouraging learners to engage “in activities and experiences that are informed by their reflection.”
  6. “Deliberately and actively make room for silence … to model an appreciation for moments of silence.”
  7. And, as I noted above, make “technology not the means of instruction but its subject.”

So What?

Does reflection “work?”  One father’s experience:

A few years ago, my morning responsibilities during the school year included driving our eldest son, then five and six years old, to his Montessori school. When I began driving, I assumed he would want to sit up front with me. No, he said. He would ride in the back, thank you. Well, OK. The first day, as we pulled away from our apartment, I turned on a classical music station, looking forward to sharing twenty to thirty minutes of fine music with him, from one of the oldest FM radio stations in the US, KFUO-FM. I did feel a bit guilty about this. Music should not be aural decoration. But what does a five year old know?

Please turn off the music, he said (yes, he said please.). Well, OK. In silence we rode through St. Louis to his school. We arrived. He said nothing, got out, and walked to his room, having already been introduced to his teacher and other important persons and led through arrival and departure drills. He wanted no parent hovering over him, thank you. This went on every day, and I casually mentioned it to my wife. Of course, she said. The drive to school is his thinking time and he wants silence, no distractions. That made sense to me, since I often need long, silent, distraction-free walks in solitude, so I understood. But is this really true for a five-year old?

After Montessori school, we took the decision to homeschool all our children, four, so far, through high school. An inviolable part of this effort is the hour after lunch and noon recess for silent reading and thinking. This is followed by time for listening to mother/teacher read classics and other good literature. No talking is allowed, and if the children’s minds wander off to where the reading takes them, so much the better. We hadn’t called any of this (anti)activity, reflection. With Ellen Rose’s insight, we now do, and we distinguish it (not in a dualistic way, however) from their quiet time for prayer before bed. But, of course, it is very much related.

How does one assess all this? Are there measurable outcomes? Rubrics, perhaps? The jury keeps arriving with verdicts. Our eldest, the five-year old thinker, graduated cum laude, with honors in philosophy, from a large “religious” university in the Midwest known as much for its iconic football program as its world class philosophers. During his junior year abroad, in addition to study in France, he wandered around Europe and the safer parts of the Mediterranean basin, at one point taking the old Orient Express route from Paris to what he persists in calling Constantinople. He loved the long stretches through Eastern Europe when the train is simply an undistinguished means for Turkish guest workers to return home and when, let alone, he had much time for distraction-free reflection in silence. He is now in a doctoral philosophy program in a major eastern US university.

The other children, likewise quiet reflectors, show the fruits of their reflection through diverse activities. For example, one child wrote a carefully reasoned, erudite anti-gun letter to the editor of our regional newspaper, which addressed the local culture that conflating guns, bad beer, patriotism, and God, usually in that order. Another child, thirteen, has taken upon herself to publish and edit a little magazine with a growing subscription list due to her adept handling of promotional offers for young adolescent girls and her willingness to maintain editorial correspondence with “subscribers,” longhand. I suggested we might need to charge a bit for subscriptions. The cost for computer paper, ink, postage, and pink tee shirts bearing the journal’s title keeps rising. Online publishing? Absolutely not! Neil Postman would have been proud. Another child, at 14, was appointed our church organist, places in state piano competitions, and wins regional photography contests, one year carting off first, second, and runner up prizes. Are our children unusual? We don’t think so. All children, all of them gifts from an always giving Creator-in-Chief, are voracious learners, deeply inquisitive when intimately loved and supported emotionally and intellectually, and all have talents urgently needing to be discovered and matured. And reflection, “deep sustained thought for which the necessary conditions are solitude and slowness,” is absolutely necessary for learning, discovery, and the prospering of talents while the King is away in a far country.


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About the Contributor

Joseph McDonald

Joseph McDonald
Joseph McDonald, a native of Argentina, is the College Librarian for Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, where he also teaches reading and writing to first year students. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Eastern University and his library credential from Drexel University, from whom he also received his PhD in information studies. He did post-graduate work in Miami University (OH), Claremont Graduate University, and in the University of Missouri, St. Louis. He and his wife Kathryn homeschool their four children. 


  1. Hey, you used to write excellent, but the last several posts have been kinda boring?I miss your great writings. Past several posts are just a bit out of track! come on!

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